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The Korean auto maker is now giving the full ‘N treatment’ to its less-expensive vehicles, and that makes sporty performance a more affordable option.Handout

Do we really need high-performance versions of Hyundai’s grocery-getters, the Kona crossover and the Elantra sedan? Of course not, but what we need and what we want are separate things. The Korean auto maker is now giving the full ‘N treatment’ to its less-expensive vehicles, and that makes sporty performance a more affordable option.

You’re not going to win any traffic-light drags against a McLaren, or track-day races against a Porsche 911, but you’re going to pay a fraction of their prices for a decent chunk of their abilities.

There are three choices of performance for each vehicle: the normal, the N Line, and now the N. The basic Kona is probably the least-costly all-wheel-drive new vehicle in Canada, with a starting MSRP of $23,999 (though you can save $2,000 by opting for FWD). There’s nothing wrong with it and your mother should buy one. She just needs to go to the store and maybe visit your kids, after all. The Elantra sedan is even less expensive at $17,999. It’s safe and sturdy and pleasant to look at, just like your fridge.

Then there are those drivers who want a little more, and who want to drive a compact vehicle that helps them feel good about themselves. The Kona and Elantra offer more comfortable and better-equipped versions for more money, and if you want to feel a bit sporty, there are ‘N Line’ editions, too.

The N Line Kona is only AWD and costs just over $28,000. It has a more powerful turbocharged engine that produces 195 hp, and a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, and it looks generally sportier, with larger wheels and a rear diffuser. The Elantra N Line is almost $10,000 above the base sedan and it has similar upgrades and appeal.

“We have our base models, which are the value products, with quality and safety,” says Ricardo Chan, Hyundai Canada’s manager of product and corporate strategy.

“Then you have ‘N Line,’ because not everyone is looking for a high-performance car, which might have uncomfortable seats, maybe tough on the suspension, it’s noisy, brakes are very aggressive, whatever. But they are looking for the looks, and for something that maybe gives them a better response.

“Then once you move to N, then you get the whole thing. You get the better engines with 276 hp and 289 lbs.-ft. of torque. And you get the DCT (double-clutch transmission) that’s better synced with the engine to extract more power.”

Both the Kona and Elantra get a red button on the steering wheel that Hyundai calls NGS, for ‘N Grin Shift.’ Press it and the DCT will drop down to its fastest gear and for 20 seconds, everything that can be adjusted will switch to maximum sportiness.Handout

You get a whole lot more, too. The looks are there with red accents everywhere, larger 19-inch alloy wheels, rear wing spoilers, bucket seats and aluminum pedals. The instrumentation is fully digital and looks like a video game. The handling is significantly improved, with electronic controlled suspension, an electronic limited-slip differential, and larger brakes. The Elantra even has a ‘rear stiff bar’ behind the back seats that boosts twisted body rigidity by almost 30 per cent.

There are plenty of other changes, not all of them to both models. Only the Elantra N, for example, gets selectable and artificial exhaust sound that’s pumped through the vehicle speakers, though I scrolled through them all and didn’t detect much audible difference.

Both, however, get a sexy red button on the steering wheel that Hyundai calls NGS, for ‘N Grin Shift.’ Press it and the DCT will drop down to its fastest gear and for 20 seconds, everything that can be adjusted will switch to maximum sportiness. After the 20 seconds is up, it can’t be activated for another 40 seconds to allow the vehicle to recover, but I suspect this is marketing, to make it seem more on the edge than it really is. Hyundai surely saw the popularity of the similar Sport Response button on Porsche’s PDK transmission.

There’s exclusive paint – Americans don’t get the cool ‘Performance Blue’ colour on their Kona Ns because they don’t think it suits an SUV, but Canadians do because we get it. The Kona N is available only with front-wheel drive because the powertrain is developed from the existing Veloster N, but that might change if enough Canadians yell loudly enough. And the Elantra N gets an optional six-speed stick shift that’s one of the best transmissions I’ve ever enjoyed. I’d buy this car with my own money just for that transmission, which will be up to $1,400 less expensive than the eight-speed DCT version.

How much will these N cars cost? Hyundai isn’t saying until closer to their release date in a month or so, but a look at the pricing of the Veloster family suggests somewhere in the low $40s, probably around $43,000 for each. The only options will be for the manual transmission in the Elantra, and for the no-extra-cost paint.

After introducing the popular Veloster N in 2018, Hyundai's given the N treatment to two other cars: the Elantra and the Kona.Handout

That’s a hefty chunk of change above the lesser editions, so I took both N cars onto the track here, and onto an autocross course, to mash the pedals to the floor and put them through the performance wringer. And, whoa!

The Elantra N was the more capable track car, with its lower centre of gravity and slightly lighter weight. The manual transmission shaves 50 kg off the total weight of the DCT-equipped car, but the electronic trickery of the DCT allows it to be faster, with lightning-quick shifts and an official zero-to-100 km/h time of 5.3 seconds, thanks to launch control. The Kona is just a couple of tenths of a second behind it, and both engines use Regular fuel, not Premium.

The track was very wet in places and the cars’ traction control saved my backside many times. Even so, on the dry portions, the Elantra held flat throughout and pulled strongly out of every corner. Maximum torque is available from as low as 2,100 rpm, making the task simpler. The DCT was exceptional at knowing exactly which gear to select, even when I punched the NGS button (which is a silly name, but what the heck). Even so, I still prefer the manual transmission, which has a rev matching button in place of the NGS that makes every shift feel like the effortless flick of a bird’s wings.

The Kona N? There was a little more roll from the taller ride height of course, but it was terrific. Just as much fun as a Volkswagen Golf GTI (which can be ordered with a stick shift), with less of the brutish nature of the full-bore Golf R. It seemed to whip around the corners like a go-kart, crackling and popping all the way.

Fortunately, on the road it was easy to forget the Ns were capable of such performance. Their suede seats were comfortable, their brakes not too grabby, and the edge could be taken off their suspension and power by setting the Drive Mode to Normal or even Eco.

But where’s the fun in that?

The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.

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