Here it is, the Hyundai Elantra N — the sub-$35,000 sport compact car of the moment. The car that the next Honda Civic Type R simply has to beat. Hyundai’s been a surprising and delightful force in enabling mass-market delinquency, cranking out the Veloster N hot hatch and surprisingly SCCA-legal Kona N subcompact crossover with such great finish, you’d think they’ve been making sport compact cars this entire time. The Elantra N serves as a bit of a crown jewel to the N lineup, promising that extra level of polish to really get the Civic Type R nervous.
[Full disclosure: Hyundai Canada graciously let me borrow this Elantra N for the week so long as I returned it with a full tank of high-octane gasoline and wrote an article on it.]
So what do I mean by polish? Well, a good sport compact car should be a riot to drive but not completely unlivable. Sure, the likes of the Dodge SRT-4 and Mazdaspeed3 pushed sport compact boundaries, but they weren’t excessively uncomfortable. In a similar vein, the Civic Type R was surprisingly compliant, with a certain deftness in everyday use that almost makes its tiny sidewalls disappear from your mind. The Veloster N, on the other hand, never settled down. It rode stiffer than a welded Pogo stick and was fairly tiresome over the god-awful roads that plague many of our cities. Granted, you could drop it into comfort mode, but that was more like being punched in the arm rather than in the face. To work in the real world, the Elantra N must offer more comfort without truly falling into the trap of growing up. A tricky slackline to walk.
What Makes It Tick?
From a mechanical standpoint, the Elantra N is largely similar to the Veloster N we’ve all been hearing about for the past few years. A two-liter turbocharged “Theta II” four-cylinder engine drives the front wheels through either a six-speed manual gearbox or an eight-speed wet clutch DCT, an electronically-controlled limited-slip differential helps put power down, electronically-adjustable dampers are standard fit, and big calipers clamping big iron brake discs haul the whole vehicle down from speed. Truthfully, there’s a lot you probably already know about the Veloster N, so I’m largely going to focus on differences and interesting observations here.
Let’s start with the heart of the Elantra N, its punchy 276-horsepower turbocharged engine. While it may have only gained one horsepower over the Veloster N, torque is up to 289 lb-ft. So is it just a matter of reworked software? Not quite. Hyundai has played around with the turbocharger, fitting a 5 mm larger turbine wheel and a 2.5 mm larger turbine passage. Combined with some alterations to the engine block, peak torque is increased to 289 lb.-ft. and holds from 2,100 rpm to 4,700 rpm. Impressive stuff.
The standard six-speed manual gearbox in my Elantra N test car doesn’t need a ton of explanation. Ratios are fairly close, automatic rev-matching is switchable independent of drive mode, and that’s about all there is to it. Hey, the joy of a synchronized manual gearbox is that it’s never really outdated. You’re the TCU, shifts are as quick or as slow as you wish. However, if you’re willing to trade engagement for a few tenths, the available eight-speed DCT is a pretty trick bit of kit. Not only does it bathe its clutches in fluid for longevity, it also slams gears when you’re really on the throttle. As a bonus, the button reserved for switching rev matching on and off on manual cars says “NGS” in automatic cars. That stands for N Grin Shift, which is a bit of a scramble mode – it dials up the lowest available gear and offers 20 seconds of overboost, taking horsepower up to 286.
Quick and reliable acceleration deserves quick and reliable stopping, and the Elantra N doesn’t skimp out in the braking department. While the calipers aren’t fancy branded affairs, 360 mm (14.17 inch) ventilated discs up front and 314 mm (12.36 inch) ventilated discs out back should act as capable heat sinks, while a high-performance pad compound should handily rearrange your spleen under heavy ABS activation. Speaking of brakes, all you handbrake heroes will likely be stoked to know that the Elantra N retains a proper manual handbrake for, um, parking. Let’s go with that.
Now, here’s where things get a bit weird. Hyundai has condensed each front CV axle, bearing, and hub into a single part. Called an integrated drive axle, these axles may sound like a servicing nightmare down the road, but they shave 3.4 kilograms (7.5 pounds) off the front end of the car and are said to be stronger than a conventional arrangement. As for steering, the Elantra N uses electric power steering with a rack-mounted motor, with an ultra-quick 12.2:1 ratio. In regard to bushings, Hyundai says it’s employed dual-compound bushings in the rear trailing arms to enhance compliance while maintaining control, a neat measure that offers a cool trade-off between comfort and component location.
Speaking of suspension, while base Elantras use a torsion beam rear suspension, N-Line models and this full N car get multi-link independent rear suspension. While more expensive to make and generally heavier than torsion beam setups, the camber curves and cross-axle isolation of an independent rear suspension are good things for turning quick, consistent lap times.
Finally, you can’t have a performance car without a decent set of tires, so the Elantra N uses 245/35ZR19 Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires with a bespoke tailored compound denoted by the letters “HN” stamped into each sidewall. Sporting a solid 300 treadwear rating, it’s nice to see Hyundai investing in really good tires.
Crawling beneath the Elantra N, it’s almost shocking how most components aren’t really made of special stuff. We’re still talking about stamped steel control arms, fairly basic noise reduction elements, and simple underbody aerodynamic measures. On that last point, the valved muffler is both massive and quite flat, effectively an air deflector in itself. Not only can it smooth out airflow, its location behind the rear axle pulls some weight rearward, an important thing to consider in any nose-heavy front-wheel-drive car. Deflection by muffler aside, it’s cool how exposed everything underneath the Elantra N is. Not only should this be a boon to DIY-ers, it’s nice to know that the first places Hyundai pulled weight and cost from were areas most people won’t see.
Up front, there are a couple interesting things to note, first of which is the brake cooling situation. Instead of drawing air through an intake in the front fascia, little deflectors on the control arms guide air toward holes in the brake backing plates. This is a pretty simple and elegant solution. Also up front? Simple plastic partial wheel well liners, plenty of quality control paint marks, and a really beefy 23 mm anti-roll bar. Interestingly enough, the rear anti-roll bar is even stiffer, a 24 mm hollow unit. Now that’s the sort of aggressive call I like to see.
Under the hood, Hyundai continues the theme of simplicity. As the strut towers are already tied into the cowl, there’s no real need for a strut tower brace. Instead, Hyundai’s chosen to beef up the strut towers with simple bolt-on brackets that tie each strut top’s fasteners to the respective upper rail.
As for the main upper engine mount, it’s a solid rubber design for reduced wheel hop and increased durability. A pretty smart decision considering how hydraulic-filled bushings can rupture under extreme abuse. Otherwise, things seem business as usual in the engine compartment. Plastic manifold, air-to-air intercooler, pleasantly-sized turbo, and more. It seems as if Hyundai has chosen just a handful of fancy components, then set its sights on fine-tuning everything else. After all, it’s pretty hard to band-aid subpar calibration using fancy materials.
How Does It Look?
In a word, rude. Oh come on, if you wanted to look like an upstanding member of society, you’d have bought a Volkswagen Golf R with absolutely zero hesitation. While the outgoing Civic Type R was firmly into vulgar territory, the Elantra N captures the loud and snotty visual essence of a sport compact car without looking like it crashed through a SEMA booth. Truth be told, it rectifies many of my complaints about the standard Elantra’s design. Far too much of a fastback? A chunky spoiler mostly sorts that silhouette out. Doesn’t look anchored to the ground? A thick skirt package with red accenting like on a metalcore kid’s shoes fills the lower edges right out. Standard wheels look small? Not these massive snowflakes.
Despite all of these improvements, the Elantra N still finds itself in the zone between gawky and attractive. There are angles that don’t quite work, surfacing that feels rather strange, and a bizarre amount of mass to the rear end. However, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I think the Elantra N is just attractive enough to largely work. Besides, it’s a cheap car with thousands of dollars in go-fast stuff bolted to it, and almost all the money went under the skin.
How Does It Drive?
Let’s cut to the chase. The Hyundai Elantra N has some awfully big shoes to fill. The Veloster N may have been Hyundai’s first really serious attempt at a modern sport compact car ,and it was such a step up from the first-generation Veloster Turbo that it genuinely worried the Honda Civic Type R. It was a quick, sharp hot hatch that could spin both front tires and brawl with the rest of them. More importantly, it was properly juvenile and exciting. The whizz-pop exhaust would crop-dust pedestrians with minute afterfires, the front tires had tenacious grip, and the two-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine’s torque curve was fabulous. It was just a big thrill to fling about, a monument to teenage id.
Right, raucous first act over, it’s time to follow the industry standard blueprint of bigger, more spacious, more refined. Compared to the Veloster N, the Elantra N has a wheelbase 2.8 inches longer, an overall length 16.2 inches longer, and rides on a new platform with extra structural adhesives and sound deadening. So has the Elantra N gone soft? Hardly. See, size isn’t always a great indication of weight. In six-speed manual U.S.-spec trim, the Elantra N weighs a surprisingly reasonably 3,186 pounds — identical to a DCT-equipped Veloster N. While my Canadian-market test car likely packs on a few extra pounds thanks to the addition of a sunroof, an extra 11 lb.-ft. of torque evens things out nicely.
Press one of the blue steering wheel buttons marked N, select first gear, and power away like you’re racing to the altar, and it only takes about six seconds to fall in love. Roll off the clutch, smash the loud pedal through the firewall, and you’re greeted with incredible traction and a torque curve as wide and flat as the great plains of Alberta. Wind it right out to the 6,700 rpm redline, and a whip-crack rifle shot from the exhaust signals your action of snatching second gear like it owes you money. Back on the gas and bam, you’re at 60 mph. Sure, you could do the dash in the low 5s if you care to torture the clutch on the start, but I’ll be honest, acceleration like this is more than enough in the real world. More importantly, the Elantra N doesn’t just die once you get to highway speeds. The final drive ratio is short enough that you can simply pick any gear from 60 mph, roll into the throttle and disappear. Need to overtake a slow truck? No problem, squeeze the throttle and you’re away.
Hurl the Elantra N into a corner and you may notice a few things. First off, the brakes are awesome — incredibly easy to modulate, good bite, tons of heat capacity. Secondly, handling balance sits just barely on the loose side of neutral, with really dramatic (read: countersteer needed) mid-corner adjustment available with a solid lift of the throttle. A little bit of oversteer is about as much fun as you can have in a sport compact car without taking your clothes off, so it’s nice to see the Elantra N can make like a Labrador Retriever and wag its tail. Third, the steering is pretty great for electric. The N team hasn’t half-assed the calibration, it’s well-weighted, loads up quite nicely off-center, and lets the road chatter faintly up the column so well-attuned fingertips are clued into asphalt subtleties.
Fourth, corner exit traction is absurd, so feel free to use the throttle pedal as a fairly blunt instrument. No matter how bumpy the asphalt is, the Elantra N just spits power to its tires, finds grip, and goes. Repeat this procedure until you’ve made it all the way around your local cloverleaf interchange and are heading in the direction from which you came. Torturing the special-compound Michelin PS4S tires on this thing is an experience so intoxicating that you almost forget how absolutely livable the car is.
I won’t for a minute suggest that the Elantra N is refined enough to even approach the comfort of the plushest compact cars. There’s a lot of noise going on for a new car due to the lack of a hood seal, relatively conservative underbody sound deadening, and other measures meant to keep the base-model Elantra cheap. However, even with the adjustable dampers in full Viagra mode, the Elantra N never gets too stiff. It’s light years away from the Veloster N’s harsh, busy freeway ride, and rather reminiscent of the old Honda Civic Type R’s ride mannerisms. I won’t lie, N mode still offers a firm ride, but body control is so well tuned that going hardcore won’t beat you up.
What might tire you is the loutish exhaust drone with the valved muffler all the way open. Thankfully, custom drive modes let you keep the quick throttle response and weighty steering calibration while quieting the exhaust and slackening off the suspension. The result is a car that isn’t just comfortable, it so very nearly wafts. With the dampers in comfort mode, there’s a syrupy quality to the ride with just the tiniest bit of occasional excess motion in the front end. More comfortable than a GTI, believe it or not. Plus, the exhaust drone disappears and you can actually shut the fake digital engine noises all the way off. Then you’re left with a compact sedan with great steering, nice damping, and phenomenal seats. Nice things to have by any measure.
So what about fuel economy? Well, over a week of driving with a fairly heavy city mix, I averaged 9.5 L/100km, or 24.76 mpg in freedom units. On my one highway stint without any stop-and-go, I saw north of 30 mpg. Right around the EPA ratings of 22 mpg city, 31 mpg highway, and 25 mpg combined. However, driving range isn’t so great because the fuel tank can only hold 12.4 gallons (45 liters). Expect to fill up every 300 miles or so, or less if you’re actually having fun. Considering how the shifter is just crisp enough to be positive without feeling overly notchy, you’re going to be having plenty of fun in this thing.
Honestly, it’s astonishing how much care and consideration went into making the Elantra N drive brilliantly. It’s been massaged in just the right ways, spiced up with dashes of cumin and cayenne, set to cook slowly in a glaze of expertise, and not pulled out of the oven until it was truly finished. Sport compact cars have always been about performance with compromise at an affordable price. You’d get the tannins of torque-steer and the aftertaste of turbo lag, little compromises for having such acceleration and grip served up quickly on a paper plate. The Elantra N doesn’t have the bad habits of old sport compact cars, it’s been emerald-cut and polished with care to sparkle like the sports sedans of yore. This is Hyundai’s diamond in its pendant, a bit of prime rib feel on a bacon cheeseburger budget. It’s blown clean past goodness and found greatness, a seriously impressive feat considering Hyundai’s relatively short history of truly serious performance cars.
What’s The Interior Like?
It’s a time-honored tradition for sport compact cars to still feel a bit cheap on the inside. After all, the quality of some plastics must be compromised to get the base model below a very aggressive target starting price. Still, we’ve come a long way from the rejected Fisher Price plastics of a Chevrolet Cobalt SS, so it’s not unreasonable to expect a fairly nice cabin in the Elantra N.
Upon first glance, things look good. Hyundai has dipped a finger into its swirling cauldron of interior materials, and picked a few key touches to really elevate the Elantra N over its lesser siblings. The tweeter bezels and interior door handles adopt a dark finish, the door card inserts are now faux-suede rather than coarse cloth from a cheap couch, the steering wheel is upholstered in lovely smooth-grain and perforated leather, and the front seats are fantastic. Bolstering that hugs you like your grandmother did at graduation, nice use of contrast stitching and colored perforations, good thigh support, and illuminated N emblems that hold adolescent appeal. Come on, most things that light up are just plain cool. Literally topping things off is a black headliner that looks miles better than the gray glued mouse fur so common in the compact car segment.
So far, so good. Look closely though, and you’ll see some cheap surprises. For starters, the plastic on the upper door card feels straight out of a ‘90s economy car. You’ll see that plastic a lot, from the upper portions of the door cards to the center console, through to the rear door cards. It’s really quite a strange choice considering how high-level plastics – the ones that are most visible – typically get priority of material choice. Other strange curiosities include an undamped glovebox lid that cartoonishly bounces against its stop when opened, a complete lack of an interior trunk pull-down handle, and old-school cable-style releases for the trunk and fuel door.
So, definite signs of cost cutting, but nothing heinous yet. However, things take a turn for the worse when you move into the passenger seat. The seat is weirdly high, like subcompact crossover hip point high. A passenger might instinctively reach for the height adjustment lever, only to find that there isn’t one. However, after about five seconds or so, the console-mounted grab handle will infuriate a taller passenger to the point where they no longer care how high they’re sitting.
Well, when I say grab handle, I mean accidental knee surgery device. If you’re reasonably tall, this grab handle digs into your knee in a particularly aggravating fashion. This might be an acceptable trade-off to some if the grab handle is strong enough for vigorous cornering, but it simply isn’t. I weigh about as much as one of those 8×8 In-N-Out abominations and have the musculoskeletal strength of a three-toed sloth, and me gripping the grab handle still results in some incredibly concerning noises – squeaking and groaning and popping and possibly cracking. This grab handle is one of the most infuriating interior design elements on any new car and one of the reasons why I consider the standard Elantra’s interior to be among the worst in its class.
Thankfully, things improve a touch in the rear seat of the Elantra N. Sure, the rear seat passengers don’t get their own climate vents, but there’s so much room for activities back here. Not only are the front seats two inches slimmer than the seats in a standard Elantra, there’s plenty of space in the rear for a rear-facing child seat or your one friend with a 34-inch inseam. You could host a Counterstrike LAN party, or hold a wedding, or perform interpretive dance back here with all the space afforded to rear passengers. Rear cup holder count is a bit short at just one bottle holder per door and nothing else, but I honestly don’t mind. The single-piece rear seatback is lighter than a 60:40 split folding arrangement and doesn’t feature an uncomfortable lump for an armrest.
Wait, a single-piece rear seatback? Yes, although its impact on practicality varies on how handy you are. See, the single-piece seatback — with its outboard hinges — isn’t just there to shave weight, it also makes space for a massive stiffening brace behind the rear seat finished in the color of speed – red. While this certainly enhances the Elantra N’s body rigidity by 27 percent, it creates some weird quirks. To fold the rear seat down, you have to pull both releases in the cargo area, ideally with some pressure on the seatback to prevent accidental re-latching. Secondly, the brace obstructs the cargo pass-through, although it’s held in with just four 12 mm bolts holding it in. Two are easily accessible, two are hidden behind easily-removable trim pieces.
Alright, so interior materials are a mixed bag and some obvious cost-cutting is going on. So where did Hyundai spend its interior budget other than on seats? Well, Hyundai spent it on gadgets and tech. Now, cheaping out on plastics to add tech is often a losing game because interfaces grow outdated as a car ages. Case in point, the standard digital cluster layout. While I generally like skeuomorphism, limited configurability and information certainly dates this cluster. Truth be told, there are two ways of really fixing this. Either go into the vehicle’s setting and cue up the funky bar-style display setting or simply push either of the steering wheel buttons marked N.
Go with the latter option and a whole new gauge cluster layout appears, displaying oil temperature, oil pressure, coolant temperature, and tire pressures in actual numbers. Oh hell yeah! Now you can know if your oil’s up to temperature before ragging on the engine, a vital feature for anyone with the tiniest shred of mechanical sympathy. Also sweet? Pages in the infotainment system for G-circles and lap timing. Sure, they’re both gimmicks, but now you can precisely quantify how much you scared your passenger on that on-ramp back there. Isn’t science fun?
Keeping on the tech theme, the Elantra N definitely spoils its driver compared to the Civic Type R. Granted, the old Civic Type R featured the austerity of life under Margaret Thatcher, so I’m not talking about a high standard to surpass. Sure enough, the Elantra N vaults over the bar like a scooter kid hopping over a couch at a house party by featuring heated seats, a heated steering wheel, an available moonroof, and two large dashboard screens with decent black levels and solid response. One weird thing? No physical home button or back button for the infotainment. You can somewhat fix this by setting the star button on the dashboard to be a home button, but the lack of a hard back button can still be rather annoying.
The final bit of tech is the Bose stereo. Now, there is a saying among audio fans – no highs, no lows, must be Bose. While this particular Bose stereo isn’t reprehensibly flat, it’s not massively clear, nor massively fun to listen to. Sub-bass isn’t exactly vibrant, subtle electric guitar notes are drowned by the mids, and power is merely alright. It’s a perfectly fine stereo for the segment and leagues better than what came in the Civic Type R, but it won’t knock your socks off. Think of it as a very acceptable minimum.
Alright, so the interior is a tech fest made of slightly subpar stuff, but do you know what? None of those cheap materials really matter. Hyundai’s N division has focused on giving the driver nice touch points and everyone else can get bent. Admittedly, I kind of admire that. It’s driver-centric and a very appropriate approach given the Elantra N’s price point. Plus, be honest with yourself. How many passengers do you take? How much time do you spend with another person in the car every day?
What’s The Verdict?
So, is the 276-horsepower Elantra N as good as it promises to be? Yes, yes, a million times yes. It can go from raucous, angry playground hero to rather comfortable compact car with wonderful powertrain and chassis calibration at the flip of a switch, sacrificing nothing while still bringing sparkle to the daily commute. It rides tautly but never harshly, there’s actual feedback coming up through the steering column, and the torque curve is absolutely tremendous. Cornering balance is undeniably neutral, a sign that Hyundai’s N division has put serious work into refining this car and not simply built a flashy bit of kit that gets all vague and woolly at the limit. It’s an inspiring sports sedan with just enough rough edges to have character.
Cementing this status as an enabler of everyday mischief was an encounter I had with another Elantra N owner while shooting some pictures. I was eating an ice cream in the middle of an empty parking lot around midnight when a dude in a Performance Blue model tore in like a bull was chasing him, then attempted to max out the g-meter while circling my test car. It’s the sort of harmless, dumb, fun behavior we’d have all indulged in as youths, that high-octane bypassing of the prefrontal cortex any good performance car should allow.
With a reasonable starting price tag of $33,245 in America or $38,474 in Canada, there’s a good chance that at least one of you is seriously considering picking one of these firecrackers up. My advice? Do it. Sure, the outgoing Honda Civic Type R may be more of an experience, but it never really fades into the background. The Volkswagen Golf R features similar refinement as the Elantra N, but it isn’t the occasion the Hyundai is and the latest generation of Volkswagen infotainment is moderately awful. So, main competitors seem vanquished, but the Elantra N isn’t quite done yet.
See, Hyundai products have recently been hellbent on punching above their weight classes. As such, this slightly odd-looking but really fun sedan isn’t just the best sport compact car on sale, it’s better than most sports sedans on the market. If you really love driving and are considering a Cadillac CT4 Sport, a Mercedes-AMG CLA 35, or a Genesis G70 2.0T, you may be wasting your money by not going with an Elantra N. Sure, all of those premium vehicles have better interior materials, but if you’re reading this site and are thinking of buying a sports sedan, you likely want something real. The Elantra N is realer than full-fat sour cream, the rustle of maple trees, and the morning cry of birdsong. It’s so damn engaging and just refined enough that it can stand up to some of the finest entry-level players in the premium sports sedan segment. That’s a huge deal.
Who Should Buy It?
So, who should buy this car? I say: Chassis enthusiasts, grown-up Warped Tour kids, trackday addicts, handbrake heroes, speed merchants, morning energy drink consumers, those with a balance of urges and responsibilities, hell-raisers, thrill-seekers, strategic users of middle fingers, bad influences, anyone who still rocks with Limp Bizkit, former E46 330i ZHP owners.
Lead photo credit: Thomas Hundal