Albert Biermann takes a sip from a frothy pint of pilsener, looking relaxed as can be. We’re chatting in the hotel bar, having a drink the evening before a cadre of journalists will drive the Veloster N the next day. I ask him to convince me why, if I owned a Volkswagen GTI, a Hyundai Veloster N would be the better choice.
“It comes down to the driving emotion,” he says, without missing a beat. “The GTI is your dad’s car. The N is your car. You’ll see when you drive it tomorrow.”
It’d be easy to mistake his confidence for bravado, but I have no doubt that Biermann knows what it takes to build a true sports car. Formerly head of engineering at BMW M, where he worked on legends from the E30-generation M3 to the E39-generation M5, Biermann’s role at Hyundai is to take vehicle dynamics and performance to that next level.
In the U.S. there’s a lot riding on the new Veloster N, which will be Hyundai’s first attempt at a full-fledged, no-nonsense performance car here. While the Tiburon and later Genesis Coupe were admirable, aspirational cars, Hyundai admits both were up against a difficult learning curve. But with the Veloster N, Hyundai is eager to prove it can now build a sports car that requires no asterisk. “A lot of companies say a car is a track car, and then after three laps it’s in limp mode, or the brakes overheat. This car is the real thing—not a pretender,” Biermann promises.
The best way to win the hearts and minds of sports car enthusiasts and weekend track warriors alike is to build a car that is both fun to drive and durable enough to handle hard lapping, so we made the trip to Thunderhill Raceway in Willows, California, to go a few rounds with the Veloster N. With its staggering elevation changes, blind corners, and tricky layout, Thunderhill is a track that can bring the best out in a great car, or expose the worst flaws of a lesser one.
We already knew that the revamped Veloster was a good foundation for an everyday sports car, and the additional N puzzle pieces indeed take things up a notch. Biermann tells me that although the Veloster N looks more or less like the regular Veloster, his team left basically nothing untouched. Under the hood is a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, good for 250 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque Hyundai says the engine was tuned for responsiveness more than anything else, so that the power you need is always there when you put your foot down. The engine is mated exclusively to a short-throw, close-ratio six-speed manual gearbox, which uses carbon-coated synchro rings and reinforced gear materials to make sure the transmission is durable enough for its intended use.
The standard Veloster N comes with 18-inch wheels and Michelin Pilot Super Sport tires, but all the cars at Thunderhill are equipped with the $2000 Performance Pack, which adds 19-inch wheels with Pirelli P Zero rubber, larger brakes, an electronic limited-slip differential, and 25 extra horses. About those brakes: Hyundai wanted to keep the Veloster N affordable without sacrificing performance, and so it made a point of forgoing fancy Brembos in favor of in-house parts it borrowed from the Kia Optima.
Hyundai tested and crafted the Veloster N at Germany’s Nurburgring, but Biermann is adamant that the car was not developed for maximum speed or record lap times. “When you’re working from a blank slate to define a new brand, you have to decide what your identity will be. For us it’s about making you grin and experiencing driving emotion. We don’t have the biggest brakes or the fanciest engine, but when you put it all together we’ve made a car that you’ll want to drive every day.”
I strap into a light-blue Veloster N and press the checkered-flag button on the steering wheel to switch into “N” mode. One of several selectable driving modes, this track-focused option firms up the steering, stiffens the electronically adjustable suspension, increases throttle response, and allows the active exhaust system to unleashes its maximum bark. The cloth seats are comfortable and supportive, the ergonomics of the steering wheel, shifter, and pedals are all very driver-friendly, but the interior is otherwise largely standard fare.
Once you slide the shifter into first and lift the nicely weighted clutch, the interior plastics are the last thing on your mind. The Veloster rips through first and second gear with satisfying thrust, and by the time I’m through the first turn at Thunderhill—a long, sweeping left-hander—I can tell this car is for real. The Veloster N has remarkable balance mid-corner and an unflappable character that allows me to easily adjust the throttle and steering without worrying I’ll upset the car. The brakes don’t have an especially strong bite, but the pedal is firm, consistent, and there was never any fade. Even when I come too hot into a few sections, I just point the Veloster where I want to go and punch the the throttle, letting the limited-slip diff claw out of the corner. Even on this tricky, technically challenging track, at no point does the Veloster N feel unruly; novices will find approachable and experts will find it rewarding. And that’s by design, too. Hyundai knows it needs to bring the heat for seasoned enthusiasts to respect the Veloster N, but the car also intends to lure in younger, more inexperienced drivers who don’t want a car that will scare them away. Little details like selectable automatic rev matching for downshifts and a progressive shift light indicator in the gauge cluster appeal to both ends of the spectrum.
But you don’t need a race track to have fun in the Veloster N, which is equally enjoyable to rip around your favorite twisty road. Although the car is a little bouncy with the suspension in its stiffest setting, the Veloster N is overall an extremely livable hot hatch that can multitask as grocery hauler, autocross slayer, and commuter. It’s not quite as lively as a Ford Fiesta ST when just puttering through traffic, but the Veloster N is nonetheless satisfying as a daily driver that can occasionally blast through the fast lane on the highway or carve up corners on the long route home.
Cheers to Biermann—as promised, the Veloster has all of the poise of the VW GTI but with a healthy extra dose of playfulness that encourages you to push the car harder. It’s really more fair to compare the Veloster N to the Honda Civic Type R—and given the fully-loaded Veloster N will come in under $30,000 and the Honda is $4000 more, the Veloster is a hell of a deal. I would certainly love to have one in my garage, and I bet my dad wouldn’t mind taking it for a spin, either.