"It was like a bomb," Albert Biermann told me, describing one of the more, uh, experimental settings for the Hyundai Veloster N during its testing at the Nürburgring. Biermann runs Hyundai N, coming off of his old job running the alphabetically-adjacent BMW M. If anyone knows how to make a fully-realised performance car, it's Biermann and his team. But you don't get a well-polished car without it being rough at first, and I wanted to know how rough things had been.
(Full Disclosure: Hyundai flew us out to the Nürburgring and fed us and roomed us for several days. They also rented out the track for a couple hours, giving us time for two laps of the Nordschleife, and gave us a couple hours more to go around the local roads nearby, including a dead-end de-restricted Autobahn. They even let us borrow a staff Santa Fe to go see the Eifel Rallye Festival, where we saw many good rally cars and more extremely drunk Germans.)
Editor's Note: Despite initially being ruled out for Australia, there is a chance that we may getting the Veloster N at some point. Either way, it's fun to read about!
"There was a day when I was not happy with the power understeer," Biermann was telling me as we rested in some shade next to T13 at the Nordschleife. Hyundai N has a test center here (the N stands both for Nürburgring and Namyang, Hyundai's South Korean dev center), right on the industry row beside Aston Martin, Jaguar, Öhlins, Manthey Racing and everyone else.
Biermann said that his engineers had been futzing with different settings with the car's electro-hydraulic limited slip differential, tweaking as many different settings as they could with getting power to the front wheels.
"You keep telling me this," Biermann repeated, "for months." He was tired, and he took things into his own hands. "Just give me the car with almost no toe at the rear and I'll test it." So the engineers gave him the car with almost zero toe at the rear. Rear toe helps keep a car stable, pushing the car to straighten out. Taking it out adds instability, and that's exactly what Biermann got.
"It was perfect," he laughed, "but it was perfect conditions." The car had become wildly sharp and reactive, but nearly impossible to keep straight on even a sunny, dry, ideal track, in the hands of an experienced driver. "It was like a bomb," as Biermann put it, knowing that the car could never have this setup for production, but that at least the team had learned it needed to solve its understeer by fixing it at the rear. Resolve the car as a whole, not part-by-part.
In many ways, it's easy to see the Veloster N as what it isn't.
It's not a hardcore track car. Bierman and his team admitted they could have chased down quicker lap times, gone for a trickier aero balance, but they didn't. They wanted a car that was fun more than absolutely fast.
It's not a muscle car of a hot hatch, big boost and power and not much else, like an old Alfa Romeo or a Dodge Calibre SRT-4. The most you get is 275 horsepower and 118kg-ft with the performance pack, pushing around a hefty 1,409kg. (Standard is 250 HP and the same 118kg-ft for 1,377kg.)
And the Veloster N also isn't a collection of expensive parts smashed onto a standard car without much thought. N opted against putting Brembos on the car to keep costs down, instead using the rotors off of the South Korean Kia K5 (aka Sonata) but with different pads and more cooling.
The shocks don't come from a fancy outside supplier like Bilstein. Hyundai decided against putting 51cm wheels on the car for better laps, but they'd blow out on potholes driving to the track. Standard are 18s, 19s for the performance pack, and they kept as big a sidewall as they could.
The steering is "nothing special," in N's own words, "with Revo-knuckles" or whatever. They are heavier and more expensive and still not perfect. "Ours also is not perfect," Biermann said, but it works. The team even accepted that the car will get torque steer, and didn't try to tune it all out. Then they'd lose feedback.
What they focused on was making the car as fun as possible, as accessible as possible. It's simple and even tail-happy, and strong enough to take lap after lap on track. The car did 10,000 kilometers of testing at the Ring, only for the team to discover that the wheel bolts would break after changing tire after tire on a hot track. They had to change them to make them as strong as possible but also not over budget. Eventually they changed the coating on the metal, and sent the car back out for another 10,000 km of certification. (That extra testing was the idea of Biermann's Korean employees. He himself figured nobody would have the time to get it done.)
"We didn't go to the extreme," Biermann put it. "We knew that fun is lost."
And it fucking worked.
With no prior planning, I ended up driving three different front-wheel drive cars on the Nürburgring Nordschleife in a week. I did two laps in a race-prepped and caged Suzuki Swift. I did two laps in a totally stock manual Volkswagen Golf. And I did two laps in the Hyundai Veloster N, running in 'N Mode' with the performance pack. Of the three, it was in the Hyundai that I wanted to push more and more.
The Golf was hilarious but all over the road once things started getting fast. The Swift was totally competent and secure, but its limits were far above mine, all grip and no power. The Veloster just made me laugh. If it wasn't lifting a rear wheel going into a corner, it felt like it was.
The majority of the Ring is blind, full of corners where it looks like the road is about to cut in on you, only to reveal over a crest that you could have curled in with more speed, gotten on the gas earlier. I recognised a few spots by the time I was in the Veloster N, pushing into the throttle and letting the front diff pull the car up the track's steep grades. It's not aggressive, but it is satisfying.
More fun is to press into the corners harder and harder, starting to let the tires sing. You feel, genuinely feel, the car like it's starting to rotate under you. You play with it, not fight against it. It reveals its character quickly but stays entertaining, encouraging you and rewarding you.
Again, this is not a particularly extreme car, no mini GT3 RS. It's never twitchy. It's comfortable, mentally at least. In its stiffest setting, the suspension will hilariously pogo-stick over the concrete expansion joints of the Karussell. The car itself, at least, never feels deflected. It's stable. You just want to keep your foot planted and let the car hop and bound on the bumps of the Ring's faster back sections.
Even when you're not hunting for the limit on track, the car is still fun on the road. There's an "N custom" mode that lets you individually change the throttle response, rev-matching, steering weight, suspension stiffness, exhaust noise. It is very satisfying to keep the car super eager, but tone down the exhaust for not pissing off the neighbours, calm yourself and make the suspension comfortable, too.
There's even a good amount of leg room in the back seat. The front buckets (specific to the N along with the pedals, shifters, steering wheel, and gauges) are comfy but not race-car tight. It's an enjoyable vehicle to bop around in, if only because you know in your heart that it whips on track.
Particularly enjoyable is the exhaust. There is a quiet normal mode and a louder sport mode, and also a third "Sport+" setting that, after some testing, doesn't make the car any louder, it just turns on a part of the car's brain that makes the exhaust pop and crackle when you lift off the gas. It's retarding the ignition timing to do a kind of mock anti-lag, but Biermann and his team asserted that it's not there to make the car faster, just more fun.
It would be easy to be cynical about it. But it's not synthesized. It's a genuine novelty in the vehicle, a built-in goof. You can turn it off if you don't want to be silly, but if you do, the Veloster N is here to enable your dumbest tendencies.
It's kind of funny that this very German branch of Hyundai, with a staff that includes the guy who was in charge of all of the AMG Black Series vehicles, made a car that's such a lark.
The only thing they're stern about is that N will continue, strongly asserting over beers one night that the Veloster is just the first (for America) of a number of N cars. Only for the moment is it a lone attempt to make Hyundai seem more fun. The company has already changed its attitude on quality, on design, now it's looking for enthusiast credibility.
And you do get the sense that they could have bought their way into a car that had all the right parts and all the right figures but no cohesion and no character. But it didn't turn out that way. Maybe it's just that everyone in charge was too serious about a fun-to-drive car to let that happen.