Hot hatches have always followed a simple formula: Cheap, practical, and fun.
It’s these traits that gave rise to some of the best entry-level performance cars we’ve ever driven. Cars like the early Volkswagen GTI, Peugeot 205 GTi, and more recently, the Ford Fiesta ST.
Lately, though, it seems manufacturers are taking hot hatches to the extreme. The Focus RS, a 350-horsepower, all-wheel drive supercar-beater, comes standard with a trick rear differential, and can be optioned with Michelin’s most extreme Pilot Sport Cup 2 tires. The Civic Type R, another 300-plus horsepower machine, has 20-inch wheels, three center exhaust pipes, and more aero-related trim pieces than you can count. While both are plenty quick, they’re priced well over $30,000 (before you factor in dealer markups), and have lost some of that original hot hatch magic.
Then there’s the Veloster N. It’s Hyundai’s first real attempt at a legitimate track-ready performance car in the US, taking aim at the GTI, Focus ST, and Subaru WRX. It’s priced less than $30,000, and packs a 275-horsepower drivetrain with a lot of cool engineering behind it. After spending some time behind the wheel, the Veloster N strikes the perfect balance between those extreme, overly priced super hatches and the original formula we’ve come to love. Here’s why.
The N is a big step up for the Veloster, which previously had the neat, but somewhat lackluster to drive, Turbo model at the top of the range. That’s been replaced by the R-Spec, which drives nicely, but isn’t especially memorable. The N trim, though, is more than just a tune and some bigger brakes. It’s completely reworked from the chassis up by Hyundai’s engineers, led by Albert Biermann, the former BMW M engineer who’s now the Head of Hyundai’s performance division.
How did Biermann’s team go about transforming Hyundai’s economic 2+1-door coupe into a full-blown smile-generator? A lot of it had to do with testing on the Nurburgring. Though we associate the Nordschleife with lap times and ultimate performance, Biermann says Hyundai’s ‘Ring testing wasn’t to make the Veloster N quick, it was to make it the most fun hot hatch on the market. “Lap times are against what this car is all about,” Biermann told me. “[In order to build the car for lap times], you make different chassis settings, aero settings, and the car gets more expensive, and you’re completely missing the point of what this car should be.” He claims the team never actually kept track of lap times while at the Nurburgring. Strange to hear, but the results spoke for themselves while I was behind the wheel.
Hyundai’s team at the Green Hell worked hand-in-hand with the engineers at the company’s headquarters in South Korea to perfect the N’s equipment, and the list of upgrades is extensive. The body-in-white chassis gets extra welds compared to the standard Veloster. It also gets reinforcements on the underbody, as well as on the shock towers. This creates a 6.9 percent more rigid frame compared to the normal Veloster. The engine and transmission mounts have been redesigned to decrease drivetrain movement, yet isolate vibrations. The roll center has been made taller at the front, allowing for more roll, because that allows for more mechanical grip. The standard adaptive suspension has four continuously variable valves, and five G-sensors (two for the wheel, and three for the body).
The brakes—which Biermann was quick to point out were not outsourced to a major company like Brembo—measure 13 inches up front, and 11.8 inches in the rear (add 0.6 inches to either if you opt for the performance pack). They work great, with immediate grab, and didn’t fade even after dozens of laps in the California sun at Thunderhill Raceway. It’s worth mentioning that towards the end of the day, I did get some vibration in the pedal, but considering the car had been beat on for the past six hours, I wasn’t too worried about the setup’s longevity.
Though the engine’s basic specs may read like any other contemporary entry-level performance car, it stands out among the hoard of four-cylinder turbos that flood today’s market. It’s a direct-injection unit that uses a twin-scroll turbocharger, allowing for a down-low shove that doesn’t die out when you inch closer to redline. With the optional performance pack, you get 275 horsepower and 260 lb. ft. of torque—more power than the GTI, WRX, or Focus ST. Redline is an admittedly lackluster 6750 RPM—though it does sound good getting to it—kind of raspy, plenty loud, and lots of pops. The exhaust has a two-mode flap that opens and closes depending on what mode you’re in. It’s important to note that, like the rest of the car, Biermann insists having the most powerful motor wasn’t the goal. “Our engine development wasn’t about having peak power or peak torque, it was all about response.”
The six-speed manual transmission? Slick, and easy to slot into whichever gear you desire. It’s not as perfectly notchy as a Honda or Porsche shifter, but it gets the job done well. Biermann told me an optional eight-speed dual-clutch would eventually make its way into the N, but for those wanting more driven wheels, you’re out of luck. “In the early stages we built a few all-wheel drive prototypes with a different engine and more power, but the price just drifted away,” he said. Hyundai’s objective is to make the Veloster N accessible to as many potential customers as possible, and driving the price up would do the opposite of that.
In order to make sure the drivetrain was up to Hyundai’s famous reliability standards, the N division entered two i30 Ns (the European N hatch car that uses the same setup) in the grueling 2017 Nurburgring 24 Hour. One car crashed out, but the other finished with zero mechanical issues. For those wondering, yes, you still get that 10-year, 100,000-mile warranty standard.
Drive modes play a big role in making the Veloster N so versatile. While some other cars simply adjust throttle response and call it a day, this car changes drastically depending which of the four modes you’re in. There are two pale blue buttons on either side of the steering wheel, one for switching between normal and sport, and another for going straight to the most hardcore setting, N mode. In N mode, the suspension, steering, and throttle response are set to their most aggressive setups. Rev-matching is turned on, and boost pressure is recalibrated to give you more response as soon as you hit the pedal, and keep power up between gearshifts via an anti-lag system that retards ignition and dumps a hot air-fuel mixture into the exhaust to keep the turbo spooled. It works wonders when you’re really pushing it, and lets you modulate how much torque gets to the wheels mid-corner with satisfying precision. The steering in N mode felt overly stiff, though. Thankfully, there’s an additional custom mode that lets you set steering, throttle, suspension, and the differential’s torque vectoring independently. It was fun to see which settings fit best on Thunderhill’s East circuit versus the road and autocross course. On the road, normal mode lets the suspension soften up, and gives the engine a more linear mapping for smooth inputs.
A set of 19-inch wheels wrapped Pirelli P Zero tires that were developed alongside the car come with the performance pack. I think they were one of the main reasons I liked the Veloster N so much on track. Combined with the limited-slip differential (which also comes with the performance pack), it makes for a wonderful feeling while trying to squeeze the most out of Thunderhill’s blind uphill corners. This isn’t a car that makes you wait on it—there’s no pulling into the pits to let the brakes to cool down, or the engine getting heatsoaked. The eight cars Hyundai had on track duty were being lapped all day, and felt as fast as they did in the afternoon as they did that morning. I think the best sort of car is one that doesn't get in the way of the driver learning how to push themselves. The Veloster N is one of those cars, able to communicate what’s happening to you every step of the way. The electrically-assisted steering is ultra-quick, and that adaptive suspension handled Thunderhill’s bumpy curbing without issue.
The moment you dive into a corner, you can feel the N’s inherent stability. The stiff chassis, combined with that perfectly tuned suspension, means you can smoothly trailbrake into a corner without worrying if the rear end will step out if you aren’t the smoothest on brake application. The result of Hyundai’s work translates equally as well to the front end—if you try to overdrive it, it’ll tell you through the steering wheel. Feeding in the throttle leads to a predictable exit you can place with precision, if you know how to work your right foot. Being front-wheel drive, you’ll always have the sensation you’re being pulled by the car rather than pushed, and the Veloster N doesn’t try to hide it—rather, it makes the feeling welcome.
And best of all, when I ventured out onto the road, I wasn’t met by a harsh ride or loud tire noise from those Pirellis—it was a perfectly fine, perfectly normal vehicle. Honestly, I was expecting a bit of tradeoff for how well it did on track, but to my surprise, there wasn’t any. Chalk it up to that suspension and Hyundai's decision not to use massive 20-inch wheels with rubber band thin sidewalls. That being said, the only roads I got the chance to drive on were some of the smoothest out there (California is just a wonderful place for cars, isn’t it?). A true test of how the N can handle bumpy roads will have to wait until I get my hands on one back on the East coast.
As a package, I don’t think there’s a better front-wheel drive road car on sale today—it’s more enjoyable than today’s GTI, Civic Type R, Focus ST, and even the Fiesta ST, a car so fun I’ve shelled out my own money for.
Here’s a great example showing just how easy it is to approach the limit in the Veloster N. After just a handful of runs on the ~40-second autocross course, I was able to come within 0.2 seconds of Hyundai’s TCR racing driver using the same car. I haven’t driven a front-wheel drive car on an autocross course in years, yet, everything just felt familiar, tight, and well-balanced. There wasn’t any learning curve—just set the mirrors and seating position, and go. On entry, don’t overpower the front end and it won’t plow. Out of corners, mash the gas pedal and the differential takes care of the rest. And unlike a lot of new cars, you could still feel what was happening with the rubber at all times.
As much as I’ve been yammering on about Veloster Ns equipped with the optional performance pack, the base model sounds nearly as fun. You get 250 horsepower from that engine, 18-inch wheels with Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires, and brake-vectoring in place of a proper LSD. Biermann told me that on tighter, narrower sections of pavement, he may actually prefer it to the higher-priced performance model. “The standard car is a little bit more playful, but the carving factor [from the limited-slip differential] is missing,” he said. Hyundai didn’t have any base Ns for us to test during the event, so a real opinion on it will have to wait.
As well as the Veloster N drives, I’m not totally sold on the looks. I’m a fan of the bodystyle—it’s low-slung, strange-looking (in a good way), and unlike anything else currently on the market. But the front and rear fascias just come off as kind of melty and weird. And those exterior red accents? Those can’t be optioned away, meaning you’re stuck with them, no matter which of the available colors you go for (the red doesn't come with the accents, obviously, because they’d just be the same color as the body). It’s not nearly as brash as the Civic Type R, but it’s not subtle either. And while I think the 2+1 door setup is neat, if I were buying this thing, I’d rather just have four doors. The interior is a different story, though. The climate control and volume are set with real buttons, and the seats are comfortable yet supportive. Best of all, they’re made with cloth, not some cheap knock-off leather. The leather-wrapped steering wheel was nice to hold, but a bit too thick for my liking (though, that’s par for the course for most performance cars these days). Also, I’m not really into the stick-on iPad-esqe touchscreen. The pedals are keenly placed for heel-toe downshifting, despite the car having an auto rev-matching feature, which works great. And unlike some other cars (BMW M2, I’m looking at you), it can be turned on and off with just a push of a button on the steering wheel, no matter the mode you’re in. It’s a nod from the N division that this car is built for beginners and experienced drivers alike. Whether you’ve been to one track day or a hundred track days, this car will satisfy.
After driving the Veloster N, I’d say the most impressive bit of info Hyundai gave us was the price. The base model starts at $27,785 (including freight), with an extra $2100 if you want the performance pack. If you’re just looking at things like horsepower specs and equipment, that sounds about right for the segment. But this car isn’t about numbers or specs—it’s about how much fun you have while driving it. It fits that original hot hatch formula almost perfectly, and that makes it worth every penny.