Hyundai Puts the N in Performance

Hyundai’s sub-brand of performance-focused vehicles are raising the bar in a segment many automakers have abandoned.

The Elantra N shares its 2-liter turbocharged inline-four with the rest of the N lineup. (Hyundai)

Just a decade ago, the idea of Hyundai challenging the industry’s established performance brands would have elicited snickers from many executives and engineers. Hyundai’s best effort in the sports car segment to that point, the Genesis coupe, was a competent machine. But it didn’t break new ground, nor did it have the staying power to see a second generation. Then in 2014, Hyundai announced that it would be launching a performance brand under the N moniker.

The Kona N is the latest addition to the N family. (Hyundai)

To prove N was a serious effort, Hyundai hired Albert Biermann as executive VP and head of vehicle testing and high-performance development. Biermann, who had been with BMW since 1983, was one of the leading lights for the brand’s vaunted M division. He is intimately familiar with the practice of taking ordinary production cars and turning them into track monsters with reasonable road manners. Though he retired from Hyundai R&D in 2021, his fingerprints can be seen on Hyundai’s full line of N cars today.

The N family tree

Hyundai’s current North American N lineup consists of three models: the Veloster, Elantra, and Kona. The Veloster hatchback first appeared stateside in 2019, and was billed as Hyundai’s foil to the Honda Civic Type R. The Elantra N sedan and Kona N crossover made their North American debut in 2021 with the same powertrain as the Veloster, a 2.0-L inline four with direct injection, a twin-scroll turbocharger, and variable valve timing. Output in the Veloster N stands at 275 hp (SAE Net) and 260 lb-ft (352 Nm). The Elantra and Kona N are slightly more potent, with stated outputs of 276 hp and 289 lb-ft (391 Nm).

The Veloster and Elantra N can be spec’d with either a six-speed manual transmission or an eight-speed wet-clutch DCT, while the Kona in is only offered with two pedals. Gear ratios and final drives are the same across all three vehicles, which also share the same electronically controlled LSD. DCT models are equipped with the N Grin Shift system, which can provide up to 20 seconds of overboost via a button on the steering wheel. Peak output when the system is functioning is raised to 286 hp and claimed peak torque is increased by seven percent. In lieu of the overboost function, manual N models have an automatic rev matching feature which can be disabled or enabled via the same steering wheel mounted button.

Sibling rivalry

The current N cars are essentially fraternal triplets. They share some DNA, but each has their own personality. Those differences were demonstrated when Hyundai turned a group of journalists including SAE Media loose in a fleet of N cars at Atlanta Motorsports Park in Dawsonville, Georgia. Some of the differences in character between the cars can be attributed to the chassis each model is based on. The Kona has the shortest wheelbase of the N siblings at 102.4 inches (2601 mm). The Veloster is the middle child at 104.3 inches (2649 mm) and the Elantra is the limo of the trio at 107.1 inches (2720 mm).

Even at the relatively slow speeds of the autocross course Hyundai set up at AMP, the Elantra felt the most stable of the three both in transition from one corner to the next and under throttle. That feeling was likely enhanced by the Elantra’s tires. Veloster N and Kona N are equipped with 235-mm-wide Pirelli P Zeros, while Elantra Ns are shod with stickier and wider 245-mm Michelin Pilot Sport 4s. That sense of stability was further highlighted by AMP’s series of off- camber hairpins and high-speed sweepers, where the Elantra felt planted and secure even when encouraged to misbehave.

There are also minor variations in the chassis tuning that contribute to each car’s personality. The Veloster for example, features 21-mm (0.82-inch) front and 19-mm (0.74-inch) rear stabilizer bars, while the Elantra’s measure 23 mm (0.90 inch) and 24 mm (0.94 inch), respectively. When combined with the differences in wheelbase and tires, the two cars have distinctly different character traits at the limit. The Elantra feels crisper at turn-in and more responsive to quick inputs, but also less willing to transfer weight when asked. Whereas the Veloster more readily follows where the front end is pointed and is more willing to transfer weight via steering or throttle adjustments, making it easier to rotate mid corner.

The Kona was the surprise of the event on the autocross course. Thanks to its relatively tidy wheelbase and exterior dimensions, it nearly matched the Veloster and Elantra’s lap times despite being over 6 inches (152 mm) taller than the Veloster and at a significant tire disadvantage to the Elantra. The Kona is also the heaviest of the N siblings at 3340 lb. (1515 kg) but felt just as nimble as the 234 lb. (106 kg) lighter Veloster. The higher seating H-point of the Kona also enhances the sensation of speed, but its body motions are just as disciplined as its more terrestrial siblings thanks to their shared electronically controlled dampers.

More than a name

From behind the wheel, it’s evident that there’s a real depth of engineering in these cars. The N series lineup is more than a gaggle of hot-rodded grocery getters. Each of them exhibits driving dynamics and at-limit behavior one would expect of any modern track-ready performance machine, while also being reasonably comfortable. What really impresses about the N cars is the small details Hyundai labored to get right. The Elantra N utilizes a dual-compound bushing in the front suspension and rear trailing-arms. This allowed engineers to achieve optimal performance in ride and handling on track without introducing unnecessary NVH into the cabin during more sedate driving.

The Elantra N also features a unique integrated drive axle, an innovation taken from Hyundai’s WRC rally cars. Hyundai claims that by integrating drive shaft, wheel hub and bearing into a single unit, engineers were able to achieve a weight reduction of 3.81 lb. (1.72 kg). The company also claims that this configuration provides additional performance benefits under extreme lateral g-loads. The steering rack also features a torque-feedback system, which provides a consistent steering feel even when the external environment changes, such as temperature.

There are other small details which signal Hyundai’s intent offer the N models as truly track-ready production cars. DCT models feature a front-mounted tube-and-fin-type transmission cooler. The brakes feature high-friction pads with integrated cooling ducts in the brake dust covers. The vehicles’ front fascia also features air guides to keep the front pads and rotors cool. After a full day of abuse at AMP, not one driver complained about brake fade. Another neat detail is that the brake booster is also programmed to pressurize when the vehicle detects that the throttle has been released. While some of these tweaks are not necessarily must-haves for a track car, they’re a nice tip of the cap to offering a total performance package.

What's the diff

One of the technological centerpieces of the N cars is their “N Corner Carving Differential,” an electronically controlled limited slip differential which seamlessly manages wheel slip, yaw, and cornering attitude. The system is comprised of a hydraulic pump generator which actuates a piston that activates a multi-plate clutch. There is also an e-LSD controller which receives vehicle inputs. Hyundai’s e-LSD relies on wheel speed, steering angle, and roll inputs for its functionality. By monitoring wheel slip signal, steering input and acceleration data, the system detects surface mu. The e-LSD will then continuously adjust its coupling torque to address asymmetric wheel slip, thereby maximizing longitudinal traction while maintaining yaw stability.

“The e-LSD has its own vehicle handing status calculation algorithm,” said Derek Joyce, Hyundai senior manager for product and advanced powertrain media relations. “It uses its own vehicle model and various inputs to detect understeer or oversteer and continuously adjusts coupling torque.” Joyce also stated that the N cars also use level of load transfer prediction, with the e-LSD tuned around EPS (MDPS) and ESC to provide “harmonized control.”

Hyundai is not the first company to implement an e-LSD in a performance-minded application. Volkswagen has offered a VAQ differential, their designation for an e-LSD, since the introduction of the seventh generation GTI. Honda also dabbled in this technology during the late 1990s in the final iteration of the Prelude. Their system was dubbed Active Torque Transfer System (ATTS). Honda’s ATTS system was very similar to modern e-LSDs. It employed a series of clutches activated by a control unit. The control unit used wheel speed inputs from the ABS system to measure wheel slip. The unit also received yaw and cornering G data. These inputs were used to determine the load and steering angle. Once the output was decided by the ATTS controller and the ECU, the system would engage the clutches to optimize traction.

The Veloster N launched the sub-brand in North America. (Hyundai)

Hyundai states that the torque bias ratio of their e-LSD is around 3.0, which is greater than that of typical helical type mechanical LSD which is typically around 2.0 to 2.4. The e-LSD system replaces brake-based traction assist systems which are used on other Hyundai models and its calibration is unique to each vehicle. The calibration even varies between manual and DCT models. “All N projects have different chassis settings from the vehicle modeling perspective,” Joyce explained. “All e-LSD tuning is done separately to tune around given chassis’ tire, weight, inertia, MDPS, ESC and powertrain.” The e-LSD was developed completely in-house by Hyundai as a joint project between Hyundai Motor Co., which supplied the software, and Hyundai WIA which supplied additional software and the hardware.

An entertaining performer

Their dynamic competence is what makes the N triplets so satisfying, typically an area where Korean automakers have trailed their Japanese and European counterparts. An impressive spec sheet does not an entertaining track car necessarily make, and to be truly considered among the world’s best hot hatches and sedans, Hyundai engineers knew they needed to deliver on the experiential side of the equation. It only takes a few turns of the wheel in anger to discover that Hyundai has come a long way in an impressively short time in this department. Though a full day of hot laps and autocross runs at AMP, all three of these exhibited traits that would make them feel at home on any track or autocross course.

When I was in high school, one of my best friends had an Elantra as his first car. While it was a reliable commuter for him through our teen years and into college, it was far from entertaining to drive at anything approaching the limit. The idea of spending a day lapping an Elantra or any Hyundai of the time would have been laughable. But after spending a few days piloting the company’s full lineup of N machines, it’s clear that Hyundai’s performance brand has arrived as a serious contender in the segment. Even more impressive is that Hyundai has produced a series of vehicles that not only generate impressive numbers but are as if not more entertaining to drive as any of their competitors.