Auto review: The N-spired Hyundai Elantra N is a tattooed terror

HELL, Michigan — Hell has frozen over, but the roads are clear.

So I took my 2023 Hyundai Elantra N tester out for exercise on my favorite Michigan curves. On summer tires. In the middle of February. Hyundai’s hellion is more proof that pocket rockets are the best all-around cars in autodom. Though I may, ahem, put all-seasons on the N were this my own car — and save the terrific soft-rubber, barely-treaded Michelin Pilot Sport 4S’s for summer autocrosses. February blue skies don’t last long.

The N is the latest tattooed terror from the Korean brand — replacing the gonzo three-door Veloster N. It brings big personality to the pocket rocket segment as well as a lot bigger backseat than Veloster offered.

Like a Corvette Z06 wannabe, the N’s steering wheel bristles with features to encourage performance bedlam: Drive Mode paddle, N-Mode paddle and a sort of nuclear red button for stick-shift rev-matching. Yes, unlike the ‘Vette, the Elantra N comes standard with a glorious short-throw, six-speed manual so you can row the sedan’s gearbox to your heart’s content.

After a pleasant, smooth ride west to Hell on I-96, I poked the N-mode paddle to awaken the beast within. The engine’s voice got deeper, the steering wheel firmed and the compact chassis noticeably stiffened, its suspension following the asphalt’s every contour.

C’mon, Payne, what are you waiting for?

The roads were empty on a college basketball Saturday afternoon, and the N was eager to show me its own open-court athleticism. Hustling west on Doyle Road, I flung the N into a 90-degree left onto Unadilla, the chassis flat as a pancake. The Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires scrambled for grip across the cold asphalt, but grip they did. Visions came to mind of King Civic, Honda’s handling benchmark for the sedan segment. Unlike Elantra Sport pocket-rocket pretenders of the past, the N is fully engineered for back-roads mayhem with limited-slip differential and sticky tires.

And it has plenty of grunt to back it up. While Civic Si has resolutely stuck to its 200-horsepower formula for the last two decades, N comes with a major upgrade over Elantra’s standard equipment with a punchy 276-horse, 289-torque turbo-4. Where the Si leaves you yearning for more, N delivers with a wave of torque.

Heading south, Unadilla turns into Hadley Road, opening up into fast, undulating sweepers like the epic Nurburgring race track from which the N takes its name. Though the four-banger has half the cylinders of ferocious Corvettes and Mustang GT350s that I’ve tested in these hills, I still ran out of road before I ran out of power. Learning from those V-8 monsters, Elantra N-mode delivers a soundtrack for its action sequences (it’s not AC/DC’s “Hells Bells,” but it’s pretty good).

In N mode, the digital instrument display placed the tachometer at the center of my vision. The turbo-4 is free-revving, and the tac’s rim illuminated in orange — then red — as I approached redline so that I didn’t need to take my eye off the road. Like the dash of a modern race car, the colored lights — not a harder-to-read RPM number — told me it was time to shift. I recommend the stick, but buyers who prefer the dual-clutch automatic (a $1,500 upcharge) also get a cool toy: Hyundai’s Grin Shift feature, which, like a Porsche sports car, will give you 20 seconds of engine over-boost to, say, blow by slower traffic on Hadley Road.

All this swagger is wrapped in an equally outgoing wardrobe.

Unlike sleeper rockets Mazda3 Turbo and Civic Si, my Elantra wears an eye-searing dress right out of the Lamborghini catalog: knife-edge body stamping, shard-like headlights, low-profile 19-inch spider-web wheels, silver-tipped dual exhaust pipes the size of cannons. To add to the menace, the face is masked black and a 360-degree, blood-red line traces the body’s hem.

From the Ioniq 5 to the Sportage to the Elantra, Hyundai has some of the most distinctive designs in the market, and N is another standout in the portfolio.

But while the wardrobe can’t be turned off, N drivers don’t always have to drive in full N-uke mode. N offered a serene setting for the long highway ride back from Hell. Beyond the stylish N-badged black Alcantara sports seats, my $33,745 Elantra sported a similar digital interior as the $21,000 base car I raved about in the warmer temps of Naples, Florida, last year.

High-mounted dash screen, generous console room, intuitive control knobs. The Elantra N upgrades these features with a fully-digital instrument display (for that cool N Mode), a 10.3-inch infotainment screen (up from the standard 8-inch model) and one downgrade: the larger screen isn’t compatible with wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Weird.

This meant that, on my return journey home, my Dairy Queen onion rings container had to share the console cubby with my Android phone cord (whereas in the standard Elantra, I could just keep my phone in a pocket).

Also lacking is adaptive cruise control, which comes standard on N competitors like the Civic Si, Mazda3 Turbo and VW GTI. Again, it’s an odd oversight on a car equipped with state-of-the-art safety systems like lane-keep assist and redundant blind-spot assists in both the instrument display and mirror.

On I-96, I dialed the N’s drive mode to whisper-quiet ECO and made some phone calls over my Bluetooth-connected phone.

Readers of this column know I prize hot hatches, a body style with which Elantra N is not offered. Nor does it come equipped with all-wheel drive like the comparably-priced, 310-torque Mazda3 Turbo hot hatch.

But no warrior in the pocket rocket colosseum has everything. My favorite — and longtime-class-standard-bearer Volkswagen Golf GTI — comes at a premium $37K sticker price. The Mazda3 Turbo is a more reasonable $34K (loaded with tech and winter-taunting AWD) but has compromised rear seat room and doesn’t offer a manual. The Subaru WRX beast is a $32K bargain with AWD, a great manual and plenty of interior room — but is less engaging with no rev-match and no SPORT mode. King Civic? A $30K bargain with room, style, crisp handling, crisp manual — but noticeably down on power compared to its 250 horsepower-plus competitors.

So shop them all, then pick the one that makes your heart beat the fastest. The talented Elantra N is hard to miss with outsized styling, performance toys and power. Hell, yeah!

2023 Hyundai Elantra N

Vehicle type: Front-wheel-drive, five-passenger performance sedan

Price: $33,745, including $1,095 destination charge (manual as tested)

Powerplant: Turbocharged 2.0-liter, inline-4 cylinder

Power: 276 horsepower, 289 pound-feet of torque

Transmission: 6-speed manual; 8-speed dual-clutch automatic

Performance: 0-60 mph, 4.8 seconds (Car and Driver est.); top speed, 155 mph

Weight: 3,186 pounds (as tested)

Fuel economy: EPA 22 mpg city/31 highway/25 combined (manual); 20 mpg city/30 highway/23 combined (automatic)

Report card

Highs: All-around talent; stick shift standard

Lows: Polarizing face; adaptive cruise control and wireless Android Auto, please

Overall: 4 stars