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M, F, F, AMG, RS, RS, TRD, SRT…and now N? Thoughts on Hyundai N performance

Car companies have been rolling out performance brands for years, now we have the Hyundai N performance arm… 

I THINK IT’S SAFE TO SAY no car has ever been marketed as being “unsporty, but comfortable and safe”. Cars are mostly sold on emotion, and chief amongst the feelings marketers play on is the desire to be cool, dynamic, fast and different. That’s why everything from an 1800kg luxury SUV to a peoplemover is sold as sporty.  Here’s a tip, by the way. There is an inverse relationship between the effort manufacturers put in to telling you something and the actual capability of the vehicle. For example, Lotus makes perhaps the sportiest cars on the planet yet their marketers do not feel the need to resort to the sort of hyperbole surrounding lesser vehicles.

Such is the attraction of sportiness that most car manufacturers have a sub-brand which specialises in “sport” vehicles. Examples are BMW’s M, Mercedes-AMG, Lexus F Sport, and Mini with John Cooper Works. Jaguar also has F, like Lexus… don’t marketing people do research first?  It’s like Audi RS and Ford RS, how’d that happen? Anyway, Toyota has TRD, although after their last efforts here in Australia, at least, it’s best that marque is left in the history books, and Mitsubishi had Ralliart but now they lack anything remotely sporting in the local lineup with the demise of the Evo. Volvo has Polestar and Chrysler has SRT.  The list goes on, but there’s some notable exceptions, and one of which is Hyundai. That looks set to change.
 
Recently the company announced the N brand for performance cars. Like any other manufacturer, it will now go to great lengths to create an air of elite mystique around the cars using all the usual words and imagery, but for us lovers of fast machinery that means nothing, if you have a great car then it sells itself – witness most recently Toyota’s 86 launch where the good word spread so fast stocks were sold out leaving owners on waiting lists of many months, and Toyota simply shelved its planned advertising campaign.
 
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A standard-issue teaser shot, just like many we have seen before. Not excited.
 
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Everybody creates one of these nowadays.
 
Now you can create a sporting car very easily. Here is the recipe. Take your standard hatchback, and fit larger rims, say 18-inch not 17-inch rims. Use slightly better tyres, certainly at least 15mm wider. Stiffen the suspension, maybe drop it 5 to 10mm, replace the front seats with ones that have fake harness holes and might or might not hold the driver better. Add various cosmetic bolt-on touches  such as a chrome gearshift, spoiler, perhaps a different grill, definitely chrome pedals with holes in them and of course the all-important chrome Badges of Sporting Honour. Tack on a front lip and make some unsubstantiated claim about aerodynamics.
 
And, If you’re really keen, add paddle shifts, make the steering wheel flat at the bottom, use marginally larger brake calipers (brightly coloured of course) and change the exhaust pipes to dual not single. Add a Sports Mode which will change the gearshift points on the automatic and, er, well… Go on a long lunch and at the end belch up all the same words everyone else uses to describe their sports cars, get a racecar driver to say something quotable, make a graphics-heavy website and job done, halo car created. Oh and these days, promote the chief engineer and designer as some sort of uber-talented demi-god whose sole life ambition is to create the ultimate sportscar.
 
Now if that’s your thing don’t let me stop you. But don’t get all sniffy if people like me review such cars and say they don’t measure up to the marketing, because that sort of budget makeover doesn’t make a sportscar any more than me putting on a lycra suit makes me a competition cyclist.  I apologise for that mental image, but you get the idea. If carmakers really want to create a performance brand that commands true respect, and the benchmarks here are BMW’s M and Mercedes AMG, then you need to thoroughly re-engineer the car, race and win, beat other cars in well-known comparison tests, be seen at local motorsports events, and do all that over a long time.   No advertising agency can come up with the campaign that shortcuts that process.
 
Once you have your performance brand established the benefits can be reaped.  All the normal cars bask in the glorious aura of the performance cars – generating extra publicity, an air of “well the base car must be good if the company builds sports cars”, and as BMW and Mercedes do, fitting bling items with the hallowed badge to a standard car, and charging a premium as a result.  But how to create such a brand?
There are three broad directions a performance brand can take – Fun, Bling or Speed.
 
Fun means tech that makes the driver work for an enjoyable reward, or provides a useful safety net – advanced stability control for example. Bling means homeopathically pointless, for the hardparking crowd – spoilers that deploy at certain speeds. And Speed means tech that makes you go faster, which is absolutely not the same and often the opposite of fun, and the best example there being torque vectoring.
 
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This could be a Fun Car, a Fast Car, or a Bling Car. There is no way to tell until you drive it.
 
So which option will Hyundai choose? We asked, and they told us that, “It’s a performance arm that demonstrates that our brand can design, engineer and build fast versions of our cars.” and “it’s Hyundai’s official performance division, so in a way it’s like BMW M or Mercedes-Benz’s AMG.”
 
But we also have this:
 
N-statement
which is more interesting and informative.  It seems to indicate a Speed bias.  There is more here:
 
 
N-3
That’s quite reassuring, especially the emotional delight bit. What I like is the reality of that part – we’ve all been there with the reflection anecdote, and the tunnel, and they could also reflect (sorry) on The Look – you know you’ve bought the right car if, after you lock it and walk away, you cast a wistful look over your shoulder. 
 
As for the N logo itself:
 

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Here’s the explanation:

Hyundai Motor’s passion for N can be identified by the curved lines of the signature letter N. The logo shape of N represents the corners of a race track where cars are pushed to the limit – namely, the chicane where the technical skills of the driver and the balance of the car are rigorously tested.
 
Again, augurs well. Cute about the chicane too, although by that logic I’d say an S is a better shape, maybe an M. Oh, wait…
 
Anyway, so much for the theory. Can Hyundai deliver? I think so, which makes the question will they, not can they. 
 
You may not have noticed, but Hyundai are now building very, very good cars, some of the best in the market in fact.  They are kind of doing to the Japanese what the Japansese did to Ford and Holden back in the day – better quality, dynamics, longer warranties.  When reviewing a Hyundai it is actually hard to find much fault, whereas I get into the average Japanese car and instantly you can see aged infotainment units, mismatched interior styling and lack of attention to detail.  Hyundai is a large carmaker on the up, it has momentum and money, and that is why when it said it was making a sportscar brand I am paying a lot more attention than what I would had it been pretty much any other marque.  
 
I also wonder if Hyundai will embrace the aftermarket. The Toyota 86 has an absolute galaxy of modifications for it, to the extent that no two at a club meet are the same, and I see the beginnings of that for the Veloster as well. The aftermarket has always seemed to scare Australian manufacturers, but I think if that nut was cracked there would be rich rewards for manufacturer, consumer and aftermarket alike. The major blocker is of course our pathetically over-governed nanny state with its pointlessly harshly restrictive modification laws, but I’ll save that for another blog.
 
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What is the collective term for a bunch of modified Velosters? Comment below, I just can’t imagine. Anyway, there’s two here.
 
 
Q – PM: Hyundai say: “The sub-brand N will build new momentum for an exciting driving performance and provide emotional driving experience for customers” – what does this translate to in real terms.  Is it likely to be just a few extra stripes, stiffer suspension, flat bottom steering wheel, bit of bling or will it be useful stuff like special engines, lighter weight, decent seats and brakes, more serious.  Trying to figure out if N is just a badge with cosmetics and easy changes or actual engineering to make a difference.
 
A: “Good question. It’s worth noting that Australia is the world’s biggest i30 market. If – as the spy shots would seem to indicate – the first N car is to be an i30, it stands to reason that our parent company, Hyundai Motor Company in Korea, will listen carefully to what Australia suggests an N car should be. Australia is also a very large hot hatch market – the largest in the world for some major brands – so again, it’s important the car is a proper hot hatch and competitive with the best on the market. HMC is extremely supportive of Australia, helping us by building bespoke parts for our cars in the home factory and giving their full backing to local suspension tuning. For that reason, and considering that all major markets are listened to when new products are developed, we think N will be an exciting and highly relevant product for Australia. We certainly have our hands in the air and our arms, feet and legs in the air asking for the car. More than that, we can’t say right now.”
 
Sounds promising, and we will keep you posted. Now what cars could be first up for the N badge?  Hyundai tell us that “there is nothing official yet”, but pointed us to stories indicating the i30 might be the first car to become a N-model.  Hyundai already have a sort-of-sporty SR badge, but they told us it is “too early to say” (that expression again) as to what will become of it once N arrives on the scene.
 
Could the i30 become a hot hatch? I see hopeful signs, as the i30 I had on long-term test and the i40 I’ve got in my driveway (review soon) are both reasonable handlers. Neither has any torque steer despite many newton metres through the front wheels, both have a pleasant dieselly kind of urge and while is neither hot-hatch sharp, there’s a certain enjoyment to the drive that is lacking in several competitors. However, I do have a concern. Those two cars deliver upwards of 300Nm through the front wheels, and Hyundai has carefully tuned the electric power steering to deal with the resulting torque steer and generally unwanted feedback. This works well enough for normal cars with no particular sporting pretensions.  However, when it comes to a sportscar I very much doubt the best tuners in the world will be able to deliver an entirely natural feel as well as letting the car talk to the driver.  To do so properly would mean some serious re-architecting of the front end, perhaps equal length driveshafts, certainly a trick front differential.  
 
How they deal with this issue will be a very good mark of how serious Hyundai is about N. It could be they fix the problem with an AWD vehicle, as they already have an AWD rally car. That would then go up against the likes of the Focus RS, Golf R, AMG A45, Audi RS and the WRXes.  Serious competition there.  Regardless, the good news for us petrolheads is that Hyundais are typically priced a bit cheaper than the competition, so maybe we can get more car for less money.
 
Finally, we asked if N would herald local motorsport involvement. The answer was “it’s unlikely – traditionally Hyundai does not get involved with Australian motorsport to any serious degree.” No matter.  Hyundai has the resources and skills to do N right, and I for one can’t wait to see what they deliver.  What about you?
 
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Enjoyed this article?  What about Caterham, Morgan and the future of Niche Vehicles?   


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Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper