I learned something about learning on the day Hyundai Canada let us loose at the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in its latest high-performance N cars.
We were driving the race-inspired Elantra and Kona on the daunting Canadian Tire Motorsport Park’s Grand Prix track, so Hyundai didn’t really let us loose – at least, not unsupervised; we each had an instructor riding shotgun. This was a good thing. Far from curbing my enthusiasm, Daniel Bois seemed genuinely invested in fine-tuning my technique to make me faster.
But therein lies the dilemma. The expert instruction is entirely welcome, but when focusing so carefully on one’s driving, it’s a challenge to fully evaluate the car as well.
Then again, maybe that’s the measure of the success of the track-focused sedan and crossover that cost nearly double their base versions.
The simple fact is that these two cars of such humble origins (the Elantra, a garden-variety compact sedan; the Kona, a budget subcompact crossover) feel completely in their element on the track. It’s as if the cars are saying, “We got this. You focus on your driving. We’ll take care of the rest.”
It’s not hard to make modest cars go fast in a straight line, and in the N cars’ case, that’s achieved by a two-litre turbocharged engine generating – with remarkable smoothness – 276 horsepower and 289 lb-ft of torque. This delivers maximum performance when paired with the eight-speed dual-clutch automated transmission that’s standard on the Kona and optional on the Elantra; using launch control, Hyundai claims acceleration to 100 kilometres an hour in 5.3 seconds for the sedan and 5.5 for the crossover.
The real challenge is harnessing big power in a small, “simple” car. It appears no corners were cut when it came to carving curves. Almost every suspension, steering and braking component was upgraded, and the body to which they’re attached was stiffened in four places. Adaptive dampers adjust themselves automatically to driving conditions, while an electronically controlled limited-slip differential and torque-steer control together curb the unruliness that could otherwise result when almost 300 horsepower is channelled through two front wheels.
It all comes together beautifully on the track. Many cars that feel sporty on the street can become fumble-footed and overstressed on the track, but the N cars remain tirelessly composed, balanced and smooth for lap after lap of one of autodom’s fastest road courses. No brake fade, no wilting tires and no sense of strain under the hood.
Of course, nothing’s foolproof. The Kona – taller and heavier with a shorter wheelbase – is a bit slower on the straightaway and edgier at the limit. That said, I didn’t experience the Kona’s “eagerness to rotate” that I overheard some instructors discussing among themselves.
But even the steadier Elantra can wag its tail, as I discovered when I overcooked a corner. Because the corner in question was Turn 2 – surely one of the scariest in the universe of racing – I thanked the stability-control system for setting things straight before I had a chance to try, and possibly fail.
Why does Hyundai bother building cars like these when (according to Hyundai’s own figures provided at the debut of the Veloster some years ago) only a tiny percentage of drivers could be considered genuine driving enthusiasts – and even fewer actually book track days.
“We consider them to be more like a halo car,” says senior product planner Sean Jo. “We don’t expect to sell a lot. But we are successfully building the N brand.”
And as long as some rivals like the Golf GTi or Honda Civic offer manual transmissions, so will Hyundai. “We believe enthusiasts are still out there and that’s why we still offer the choice of manual or automatic.
“We see the Elantra as the second generation of the N cars after the Veloster,” he adds. “It’s a more refined car.”
That said, the sales numbers and (presumably) profit margins will come from the less pricey N-Line division, which Jo describes as “more like volume vehicles but with inspiration from the N car. The N-Lines have performance and aesthetic enhancements but are geared more toward volume buyers.”
With that, Hyundai is emulating Audi, with its S-Line versus S models.
Even if N-car owners could take their street cars to the track, Jo doesn’t have data yet on how many “civilian” owners actually do so. But if you go to the right track at the right time, you’ll see it swarming with race-modified Elantra Ns. Hyundai has been competing in the International Motor Sports Association’s Michelin Pilot Challenger touring car racing (TCR) class since 2018, initially with the Veloster N and switching to the Elantra N this season. In partnership with Bryan Herta Autosport, the little powder-blue cars have been so dominant (four consecutive championships in as many years) that in the recent round at the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park in Bowmanville, Ont., more than half the 15 class entries were Hyundais (seven Elantras plus one Veloster) and the sedans finished first (crewed by Canadians Mark Wilkins and Robert Wickens) second and third.
Racing is expensive, but even the street cars aren’t going to bring back into the fold many young drivers, many of whom are notoriously indifferent toward cars. “Right now, as performance cars, they’re not quite that cheap for the younger enthusiasts that we’d like to go toward,” Jo says. “Our prediction right now is 30-to-40-year-olds who can afford these cars.”
As for this old dog learning new tricks, a $40,000 or so new sedan or crossover doesn’t fit my lifestyle right now. But the new Ns have reminded me that, back in 2019, a small Hyundai nosed out the BMW M340i as my favourite test car of the year. I wonder what kind of price a used Veloster N is asking these days?
The writer was a guest of the auto maker. Content was not subject to approval.