Photo: Hyundai
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The 2019 Hyundai Veloster N is a practical commuter car with the specs to moonlight as a lowkey track day contender. I could barely drive stick when I climbed in, but by the end of the day I was autocrossing it. Not particularly quickly, but still, the N is friendly enough to turn anybody on to performance driving.

Should I have made a stronger effort to master manual transmissions earlier in life? Probably. But it’s never too late to revive old resolutions, and Hyundai hosting a driving academy to get people dialed in with its new hot hatch was an opportunity to get acquainted with track driving and a three-pedal car at the same time.

(Full Disclosure: Hyundai flew us out to its Proving Grounds in California and roomed us for a few days to give us plenty of time to try out both the Veloster N and the Elantra GT N Line. The company was very accommodating to novice track drivers.)

The Veloster N is Hyundai’s answer to the questions of performance and affordability. How do you transform your everyday vehicle into something that you could take to the track without requiring a ton of upgrades? How do you give a car personality, make it fun, ensure it’s exciting, and still make it attainable to the regular car enthusiast?

Photo: Hyundai

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Hyundai’s N Line—the Veloster N included—is the automaker’s attempt to bring fun, budget-friendly driving to the masses. The division is run by Albert Biermann, who used to run BMW’s M line—if you want to develop a damn good performance car, this a good guy to call.

The standard package Veloster N rings up at an extremely accessible at $26,900, with a 2.0-liter 4-cylinder inline turbo engine with a claimed 250 horsepower and 260 lb-ft of torque, a 6-speed manual transmission with rev-matching, rack-mounted Motor Driven Power Steering for a smooth ride, and 18-inch wheels.

The performance package kicks it up a notch. At $29,000, it has all the equipment of the standard package but with some fun added bonuses. The engine puts out a slightly beefier 275 HP and comes in three preset modes—Normal, Sport, and Sport+—with the option to customize your settings to your personal taste. This is where neat stuff comes into play: optional exhaust settings that let you pick the crackling sound, an electronically-controlled limited slip differential to improve cornering, and 19-inch wheels.

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Since the car only comes in manual, folks who are only familiar with automatics might be too intimidated to take it on. But if anything, the Veloster N should be a carrot motivating you to learn. And I’m happy to say that once you take on the challenge, it’s not much of a challenge at all, and the reward is huge.

Photo: Hyundai

I knew the basics: depress the clutch, put it in first gear, then give it gas as you lift off, get moving, and definitely do not stall the car. I just didn’t know how to physically execute.

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I decided that the best—really, the only—way to learn how to drive stick to just throw yourself into the thick of things. So, after riding along on a lap of the autocross to get a feel for how the car moved, I thought to myself, “it’s time.”

I was ready.

(I was not ready ready. I was not I-am-a-master-at-this-subject-and-will-ace-this-test ready. I was not even I-crammed-all-night-for-this ready. I was sweaty-palmed do-or-die I-have-no-idea-what’s-going-to-be-on-this-SAT-but-I-gotta-take-it-to-get-into-a-good-college ready.)

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I hopped behind the wheel in the large parking lot of Hyundai’s California Proving Grounds determined to figure out what I was doing, then apply my rediscovered skills to the autocross track.

So I paired up with Miles Johnson from Hyundai. Before I even moved, he taught me how to really feel the car as it responded to the simple things I was doing, how to listen for cues. One of the biggest things I took away from the drive was a deeper understanding of the sensory experience that it takes to drive a car, beyond basic observations like, “huh, this road sure is bumpy!”

For the most part, it was a matter of re-establishing the muscle memory of the singular time I’d recruited a friend to teach me how to drive stick. I knew the steps in theory, but Johnson taught me how to incorporate that into smooth motions.

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You can have a million people tell you what a clutch bite point is, but until you feel it, you’re not going to understand. For me, it was largely a matter of figuring out what physical sensations translated to what mechanical functions of the car. How do you start to feel the car start to stall? What is it like when you successfully change gears as opposed to accidentally skipping a gear? Which I definitely did... at least twice.

Photo: Hyundai

I struggled most with actually getting the car moving in first gear without stalling. I grew up in a family plagued with lead feet—“gentle” pedal motions are just not in my DNA. The more I stalled the car, the more sweaty-palmed and nervous I got—my heart rate was probably, like 500 bpm. But the Veloster N actually made me so comfortable that that didn’t even matter. Johnson told me to to press the gas and let off the clutch as I exhaled slowly (“like pulling the trigger of a gun” were words that cut right through to my Texan heart)—and suddenly, everything changed.

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Once I conquered that initial hurdle, I was doing it. I was depressing the clutch, accelerating, and shifting gears like I’d done it my whole life. With the confidence that I could actually make it off the start line without making a complete fool of myself, I lined up for my first ever autocross.

The track was short, sweet, and compact—somehow, in the midst of sharp turns and aggressive curves, there was still room for a pair of esses and a brief straight that shot you off the course. Hyundai’s professional TCR drivers Michael Lewis and Mason Filippi lapped it in just over 30 seconds behind the wheel of their actual race car. Most of the other media personnel were lapping around 45 seconds.

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It was the brief nature of the track—and the tips I’d received from the people who had tried out the course before me that I wouldn’t need to shift above third gear at absolute most if I was feeling super ambitious and competitive—that gave me the confidence to channel all my nervous energy into navigating that third pedal.

Things surely couldn’t turn out that bad if I wasn’t going to be accelerating above 30 mph—and even if it was terrible and embarrassing and the real life equivalent of those dreams where you show up in public without pants, well... at least it would only be one single minute of my life. I could always cut my hair, change my name, move to Iceland, and become a nomadic goat farmer where no one would ever have to hear of this again.

Thankfully, the Veloster N is an incredibly intuitive car. It’s fun immediately. Honestly, I was shocked at how quickly I picked things up because the car guides you along—the clutch has an obvious bite point, and it has enough resistance to remind drivers like me, who aren’t gentle on their pedals, to slow down.

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Photo: Hyundai

I was equally surprised at how quickly I felt prepared to test out the autocross course with one of the Hyundai instructors in the passenger seat. A mere 10 minutes had passed from the time I buckled into the driver’s seat to when I was pulling up for my first exploratory lap of the autocross course.

I almost felt like it was too easy, if that makes sense. I didn’t have to focus as hard on RPMs as I did behind the wheel of a Volkswagen Golf; the last manual-shift car I tried to drive.

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I actually used the shift-up light–a notification pops up on the dashboard when it’s time to shift gears–expressed as a number with two arrows pointing up or down. Shifting, obviously, was one of the things I was most worried about coming into the drive—I’d struggled to make sense of what my first co-driver meant when he was telling me to shift at a certain time.

I’m going to be honest: that didn’t magically change. The Veloster N is the stick equivalent of jumping into the deep end of the pool with a floaty: you might learn the basics, but you’re not necessarily going to know how to float on your own. But it’s a car designed for the enthusiast’s enjoyment, which means stripping away all the things that might distract you from figuring out a great line and shaving off another second on your next lap.

Funnily enough, that makes life a hell of a lot easier for beginners, too. It’s an incredible car for just figuring shit out in a stress-free environment, whether you’re figuring out how to change gears or find a better braking point on a fast lap.

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Photo: Hyundai