It's rare to find a really powerful small SUV with all its power directed through its front wheels, but that's what we have here in the rather dynamic shape of Hyundai's Kona N. Ford's Puma ST is the only other class contender that takes a similar approach, but this fast Kona also has in its sights 4WD segment performance models like the Audi SQ2 and the Volkswagen T-Roc R. With 280PS on tap and a track tamed team behind this Hyundai, the prospects are intriguing.
You need a really clever set of engineers to be able to take a high-sided small SUV, give it a really powerful engine and deliver really engaging drive dynamics. Especially if all the power is to be directed through the front wheels. You'd expect Ford to be able to deliver such a thing - and the Blue Oval brand has with the Puma ST. But that only offers 200PS. Until the arrival of this Kona N, if you wanted more than that in a car of this sort, you had to stretch to around £40,000 and get models like the Audi SQ2 and the Volkswagen T-Roc R, which both need 4WD to get around 300PS to the tarmac. Ex-BMW M car engineer Albert Biermann and his team - the people who brought you the surprising Hyundai i30 N hot hatch - reckoned they could deliver a small front driven performance SUV to plug the gap between those two categories of compact performance crossover. The Kona N is it.
With this wild variant, much is borrowed from Hyundai's well-regarded i30 N hot hatch, including that car's 2.0-litre T-GDi turbo petrol unit, in this case tuned to 280PS. Obvious rivals like Audi's SQ2 and Volkswagen's T-Roc R believe 4WD is necessary to control that kind of output, but the Kona N directs it through its front wheels via an 8-speed DCT paddleshift auto gearbox that incorporates Launch Control, so will (in dry conditions) fire you to 62mph in just 5.5s. On the way to 149mph. All to the rorty melody of the standard Active Exhaust. Thanks to Electronic Controlled Suspension, the Kona N driver can influence the stiffness of the suspension with the push of a button to optimise the vehicle's response for a variety of driving situations. Plus the car's Electronic Stability Control can be turned to 'OFF' to allow experienced drivers to use the full array of this car's abilities without restrictions. There are also lots of fun tools for Kona N drivers to play with. An 'N Grin Shift' system maximises engine and DCT performance with a 20 second boost, an 'N Track Sense Shift' set-up optimises gearshifts for racetrack driving and 'N Corner Carving Differential' provides an Electronically-controlled Limited Slip Differential that allows the wheels to turn at different speeds by applying different amounts of torque, reducing understeer during fast cornering.
The exterior design features body-coloured design elements with N-exclusive red accents. At the front, there are large air openings that fulfil the cooling needs of the powerful N-tuned engine. The front splitter of the bumper has been increased in size by 10mm to improve aerodynamic drag and balance. A lowered ride-height, N-exclusive alloy wheels in a dark satin finish, red brake calipers and exclusive side sills in red all feature too. At the rear, the large, double-wing roof spoiler dominates the view, alongside a triangular third brake light. Lower down on the rear bumper, a large diffuser enhances the airflow departure and minimises turbulence. Plus its red accent line and two large exhaust mufflers aim to further emphasise the performance spirit. Inside, the Kona N's cabin features blue colour accents, as well as N-specific finishing for the seats, steering wheel, shift knob and metal pedals. The central monitor and the instrument screen are both N-specific too, plus there's an exclusive racing head-up display, able to communicate updates such as lap time and N track maps. Otherwise, it's the usual Kona package, which means a couple of adults can just about fit comfortably on the back seat. And there's a 374-litre boot, extendable to 1,143-litres with the rear bench folded.
For this Kona N, the asking price from launch was just over £35,500. Key rivals include the Ford Puma ST (which costs a bit less) and the Audi SQ2 or the Volkswagen T-ROC R (both of which cost a bit more). This high performance model does of course have its own very bespoke level of trim. You can expect electronically controlled suspension, launch control and a throaty active exhaust. Plus a unique body kit with a big front splitter, a double-wing roof spoiler, a large diffuser and N exclusive alloy wheels. Convenient technologies like wireless device charging, parking sensors and reversing camera, smart key, adaptive cruise control and a KRELL 8-speaker premium audio system also come as standard. To ensure the highest possible standard of safety, KONA N is equipped with a full array of advanced driver assistance system features, too, including Forward Collision-Avoidance Assist, Lane Keeping Assist, Lane Following Assist, Driver Attention Warning, High Beam Assist, Blind-Spot Collision-Avoidance Assist, Rear Cross-Traffic Collision-Avoidance Alert, Safe Exit Warning and Smart Cruise Control. The Kona N is available uniquely in a newly developed colour, Sonic Blue, designed especially for this SUV body type while still referencing the now-iconic shade of Hyundai N Performance Blue. The new colour complements and contrasts with the other red, dark grey, and glossy black exterior design elements.
This is the only model in the Kona range which isn't in some way electrified - and the running costs of course reflect that: you're looking at 33.2mpg on the combined cycle and 194g/km CO2, though if you get anywhere near that on a regular basis, then you probably shouldn't have bought this car in the first place and it deserves a better home: you know where we are. You might want to know that a rival Puma ST manages 41.5mpg and 155g/km, though that car has manual transmission and 80PS less. More worrying for Hyundai is that a rival Volkswagen T-ROC R with automatic transmission, slightly more power and the extra weight of 4WD can almost match this Kona's emissions figure and slightly improve on its fuel return. The warranty's the same of course as you'd get on any other Hyundai, a five year unlimited mileage package that's backed up by breakdown cover that last the same length of time and free annual vehicle health checks over this duration. As for servicing, well your Kona N will need a garage visit once a year or every 10,000 miles, whichever comes sooner.
The Kona N usefully widens Hyundai's N performance brand, sitting alongside the full-fat 'N' versions of the i20 and the i30. The sheer limitations of high-sided SUV-ness limited what Albert Biermann and his Nurburgring-based engineers could do here. But it's still some achievement to have brought 280PS to the table, directed it through the front wheels and made the car in question handle with engagement. We'd still prefer a proper hot hatch. But if you must have a small SUV and it must be this powerful, then the Kona N is worth a look. It probably won't have originally been on your small car performance shopping list, but it's a credible contender. And it'll look great down at the gym.