The hot hatch segment is about to lose two stalwarts in the Ford Focus ST and Fiesta ST. Who, oh who, now will compete with the class-leading Volkswagen Golf GTI and Honda Civic Type-R?
Will it be Subaru, bringing back a hatch version of the WRX? Chevy with an actual hopped-up Cruze hatchback? Perhaps Toyota with a performance version of the new Corolla hatch?
No. As you no doubt know by now, the newest player in the hot-hatch game is Hyundai, with the N version of its Veloster three-door entering the fray. Positioned above the sport-trimmed R-Spec Veloster and the top-trim Veloster Turbo (which blends luxury with sport), the N is meant to be an affordable track-ready toy that’s ready to go from the moment it leaves the showroom while still being usable a daily driver.
A peach in the streets and a freak off the streets, as it were.
(Full disclosure: Hyundai flew me to Sacramento, California, and put me in a nice hotel in which I shared the halls with C-list NBA players. They fed me several great meals with booze, and rented out Thunderhill Raceway for the day. They may have offered a hat; I didn’t take one.)
Most press events run on a similar schedule – dinner the night before, presentation with breakfast on the morning of the drive, drive for a few hours (getting two or three stints behind the wheel), dinner, sleep, fly home. Hyundai changed things up for this one, giving us time on track and street in the Veloster, as well as on an autocross.
In a bid to be economical, the brand sent us to the track not behind the wheel of Veloster Ns, but in either a refreshed Elantra or Tucson, with a swap on the way back. Since the drive was mostly freeway and the Elantra’s changes are cosmetic, I won’t be writing it up here. I’ll wait for a proper loan. Same for the Tucson – though I can tell you the updated 2.4-liter engine works well for relaxed freeway passing.
The focus here is on the N. It was the star of the day, the reason we were there. In order to keep things sane, Hyundai had a rotation going – some of us took to the street, others to the autocross, and others to the track. At certain points, we switched. Sort of like how we handled certain sports in gym class during my high school days.
My first taste of the up to 275-horsepower N came along California Highway 162, working west from the track. It’s a lovely road with gentle curves that don’t really require braking at highway speeds – the kind of country road that you can drive leisurely or with some pace. Thanks to bad timing and a lack of safe passing zones, I was forced into a relaxed pace for my entire turn behind the wheel by a box truck I couldn’t safely get around.
This turned out to be a blessing, in a way. Relieved of the burden to drive aggressively (not to mention knowing I’d be on track an hour or two later), I was able to futz with the drive modes and play commuter for a bit. In Normal and Eco modes, the Veloster N felt no more high-strung than the R-Spec, and perhaps even a tad more relaxed. If the N tickles your fancy but you’re never going to drive it anywhere but to the office, you won’t be punished for picking the highest-performance Veloster model.
Flick it into Sport, and you get a sense of the car’s boy-racer qualities. The steering gets firmer, the exhaust gets louder, the already-stiff suspension feels a little stiffer. All cars I drove had the optional Performance Package – more on that later.
The fun begins when you hit the other drive mode switch on the steering wheel, activating either N mode or Custom (which basically allows you to adjust settings within the N mode). The exhaust now sounds borderline obnoxious, the steering gets downright heavy, and the car stiffens more. If you want to drive like a Fast and Furious extra, just engage N each time you start the car.
On road, there was some initial tire noise, even in the softer modes, but it quickly became apparent that it was caused by the pavement – the road surface switched to fresh pavement a few miles in, and the car got appropriately quiet (in Normal and Eco, anyway) on the fresher surface. The clutch and shifter worked well in tandem in all modes – the clutch has a quick take-up that makes launches effortless and the shifter’s throws, while a tad loose, are generally satisfying.
The steering still feels a bit artificial, even when firmed up via drive mode – Hyundai’s come a long way when it comes to steering feel but it still doesn’t have it quite to what I’d call “natural.” Still, it’s engaging enough that you won’t be let down, and it’s not that far off what the GTI offers, but not as well dialed-in as the Type-R.
So, fine, the N is a livable daily driver. Big whoop – the GTI is still better at being a daily companion. Not to mention that Hyundai didn’t build this car to be a daily – it already has the R-Spec and Turbo if you want a sporty hatch that’s perfectly comfortable on the street. How does the N do when pushed harder?
Very well, as it turns out. One of the key pieces of tech on the car is the electronically-controlled limited-slip differential, which exists to reduce understeer and help you power out of a corner quicker. Typically, it’s hard to feel technology like this in action, but it was noticeable on the autocross. The car does understeer, which is unsurprising for a front-driver, but as you accelerate out of the corner, you can feel the inside wheel pulling you onto the straightaway.
It’s less noticeable on track, mainly because the higher speeds make it harder to sense. Speaking of the track – the Veloster N had plenty of power for the straights and stout brakes. Come in to a corner off-line or too hot, which I did several times, and the Veloster N understeers its way through. Get the line right, and the car moves with agility from turn-in to apex to track out.
I’ll admit I had a bit of a bad day – I was unusually ham-fisted, and nearly got an impromptu off-road test – but even so, I got the sense that for the young, relatively inexperienced track driver, the Veloster N would be a good starter vehicle. Understeer is less problematic than oversteer in many cases, and had I known the line and brake points better, I’d have had less of it. I also went into a few corners too fast. Drive the track correctly, and the N will be more rewarding.
It’s not just about the e-LSD. The rack-mounted power steering leads to a quicker ratio, and the rear axle is setup to increase yaw response while reducing roll-center height for better balance (the front axle increases roll-center height in a bid to improve traction).
You can get your Veloster N with 18- or 19-inch wheels, and Pirelli Trofeo R Streetable Competition tires are a dealer-installed option. It’s all about whether you select the Performance Package or not – if you don’t, you get 225/40R18 Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires. Select the Performance Package and you get 235/35R19 Pirelli P Zero summer rubber, or the option of the Trofeos. I got a lap or two in a car equipped with the Trofeo tires, and they are definitely stickier on track.
That Performance Package will add about $2K to the sticker – pricing is not yet finalized – and bumps the horsepower from 250 to 275 (torque is 260 lb-ft either way), adds the e-LSD and variable-valve exhaust, larger brake rotors (13.6 inches as opposed to 13 upfront, 12.4 instead of 11.8 out back), and the 19-inch wheels/tires.
The N is stick-shift only, and standard features include Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Blue Link (Hyundai’s connected-car tech), uplevel audio, keyless entry and starting, cloth seats, LED head and taillights, shift indicator, electronically-controlled suspension, and automatic climate control.
Setting the N apart from other Velosters are the front and rear fascias, grille, exhaust outlets, and spoiler on the outside. The cabin gets different gauges, steering wheel, and shifter.
Dimensionally, the Veloster is shorter in height and length than most of the competition, while being in the middle in terms of width and weight.
It’s an attractive little car that gives off just enough of a boy-racer vibe, thanks to the spoiler, and manages to avoid being ugly despite the different styling cues.
Pricing will be around $28,000 to start and $30K for Ns with Performance Package. That puts it beneath the GTI and Type-R, but above the Civic Si (which is not available as a hatch). While the GTI is more refined and a better all-around car, the Veloster N is close enough in terms of on-street poise that with the value pricing, it will serve as a tempting alternative. And it’s almost certainly more track-ready as it sits on the showroom floor.
Then again, so is the Type-R – which is an even better track companion than the Veloster N. But good luck getting one at sticker, and the Type-R is a bit more high-strung on the street, not to mention more in your face with its styling.
It all comes down to personal preference. Want the best refinement? Save for the GTI. Want the best track car? Honda is the place to look. Hyundai has cooked up the happy medium here – a little less refined than the VW, a little (but only a little) less trackable than the Type-R, but cheaper than both and better at switching tasks.
Sure, you can get a Civic Si and pocket a few grand, but you lose the hatch utility.
The Veloster N is a new player in the game, and already it’s a contender. While some folks will always dismiss the Veloster for its looks and three-door weirdness, they’d be remiss to do so. Hyundai has something good on its hands.
It’s a peach of car, with just the right hint of freak.