Photo: Andrew P Collins
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It’s an interesting era for high-performance hatchbacks. The Ford Fiesta ST, Focus ST and Focus RS have abandoned us. We have to wait a while for the next Volkswagen GTI and Golf R to drop. Small car sales are down across the board. But the remaining competitors are stronger than ever and the newest player in the mix, the 2019 Hyundai Veloster N, is coming out swinging hard.

Having driven its competitors, I decided to point out the reasons this new, hot Veloster—yes, that’s a thing now—belongs on your list of cars to check out.

(Full Disclosure: I asked Hyundai’s reps if I could borrow a Veloster N and they were kind enough to make it happen for me.)

The Veloster N is a small, light and powerful hatchback that lists at $26,900 and 250 horsepower, optioning up even higher. But the coolest thing about this car is that it’s managed to carve its own niché in a tight but longstanding sport compact market.

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Right now the hatch scene is pretty much populated by Honda’s Civic Type R at the upper end of performance, the Golf GTI as the gold standard of car-for-your-money, and the Mini Cooper S as the whimsical design-focused choice.

Since almost every question I got asked about the Veloster N was some form of “how does it compare” to one of the above, we’ll go through the Hyundai’s strengths and weaknesses in the form of a lowkey side-by-side.

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If you zoom out to see all the current sport compact cars, the Subaru WRX, Honda Civic Si and Toyota GT86/BRZ bring their own benefits, too. And if you want to talk all-fun-cars-under-$30,000 you’ve got to let the Mazda Mazda3 into the tent, along with the small-engined versions of the Ford Mustang, Chevy Camaro and Dodge Challenger... plus, like, half of Craigslist. It’s a good time to be here.

But for the sake of simplicity, we’ll stick to a hypothetical non-empirical current-era hot hatch showdown.

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But First: Don’t Skip The Veloster N’s Performance Package

Photo: Andrew P Collins

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The $2,100 Performance Package you can spec on a Veloster N is one of the best deals in car options–unlocking an extra 25 HP, a big brake upgrade (13.5-inch front; 12.3-inch rear ventilated rotors), 19-inch split five-spoke wheels, an electronically controlled limited-slip differential, and a multi-mode exhaust system.

That brings the Veloster N’s MSRP to just a hair under $30,000; its total claimed output to 275 HP and 260 lb-ft of torque. The transmission is a six-speed manual only; two-pedal options are completely off the menu. Curb weight is 3,106 pounds, the wheelbase is 104.3 inches and the whole car measures 167.9 inches front-to-back according to the brochure, which also says:

“N. It’s the first letter of Namyang–the location of our global R&D facility, where the models are created. And it’s also the first letter of Nürburgring, the epic track where they’re further tested and developed. The goal of N: to send a race-inspired thrill surging through you the moment you grab the wheel.”

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My short takeaway is that the car lives in a lovely medium between fun, funky and fast. Now let’s look a little more closely at how it compares to your other options in 2019.

Versus Civic Type R

Photo: Andrew P Collins

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The Honda Civic Type R is a beast; it almost transcends “hot hatchback” and trends toward “extreme performance car that happens to be front-drive.” The shifter makes every gearchange feel divinely definitive; turbo power swells and surges as you ride the gas pedal.

It’s mighty (306 HP, 295 lb-ft) it’s not heavy (3,117 pounds) but it’s also a little spendy ($36,300) and arguably exhausting to look at. More significantly, it’s pretty hardcore for daily driving duty.

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If you’re buying new, I hypothesize that a Civic Type R will hold its value better than a Veloster N. Type Rs command high prices because people seem to have an elevated reverence for them, and I can’t say I’m not a little seduced by the “Type R legend” myself. After all, a lot of us car fans grew up reading about its heroism. But if you can afford either one, you should seriously consider the Hyundai because it’s a significant step up in practicality and step down in price without sacrificing all that much appreciable performance.

The N seemed quieter, more compliant on the highway and just generally more comfortable around town than the Type R on my commutes in and around Los Angeles. The Hyundai’s power’s not as explosive and its handling is a little softer, but man, as far as backroad driving fun goes it’s really pretty close.

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The Hyundai is brutally stiff in its most-hardcore “N Mode,” but everything’s adjustable to the point where you can set its suspension to “Comfort,” everything else to “Sport +,” and get and experience I found very well-balanced for realistic driving.

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One Veloster N review I read called the interior “chintzy” compared to the Type R, which I only bring up because I disagree. The N’s interior is Fine; materials are just OK but the fitment is good and the ergonomics are nice. The interface itself is refreshingly simplistic–gauges, infotainment, HVAC–everything’s where it should be and easy to interpret.

The Civic’s interior might have a slightly more robust vibe, but the difference is really mostly that the Honda is brightly colored inside. The cockpit of the Veloster N’s powdered donut blue, sorry “Performance Blue,” seatbelts and trim are unique and interesting though, and the Hyundai cockpit has one great thing that the Civic Type R sorely lacks: a manual hand brake.

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Versus GTI

Photo: Justin Westbrook

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I still think there’s some weirdness with being a Volkswagen fan in a post-Dieselgate world. It may be slightly irrational, but years later I just don’t want to trust any specs the company publishes now.

On the other hand, we don’t need a build sheet to tell us that a Golf GTI is a fun car. And the fact that you can order something with plaid seats, practical package and a manual transmission with a list price under $29,000 in 2019 is pretty cool.

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If you need to use back seats on a regular basis, a Golf is going to be significantly easier to live with than a Veloster. Its larger cabin and higher seating position afford better visibility, and the interior build feels just a little more elegant. The VW’s stereo on/off icon rotating with the volume knob makes me want to go gorilla and smash everything around me every time I notice it, but otherwise I like sitting in Golfs.

But stripes on the VW seats aside, the Veloster N has more flavor–and a lot more power. The GTI claims 228 HP–a 47 horse deficit–and the VW’s about 80 pounds heavier (3,186-pound claimed curb weight) standing at almost exactly the same overall length. The Veloster N’s weight is noticeably lower: It’s 54.9 inches tall with the Performance Pack; a GTI is 57.8.

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It’s been too long since I’ve driven a new GTI for me to drop a gavel and claim the Veloster N is more fun behind the wheel, but I do think the Hyundai’s cockpit is cooler and I found its digital interface to be more intuitive to use than Volkswagen’s.

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If you don’t need your back seat for baby seats, it might be worth edging a little further from family-friendliness toward seven-day weekend warrior mode with the Veloster N.

Versus Cooper S

An older Mini, but it checks out.
Photo: Patrick George

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It’s not too hard to keep a new Mini Cooper S build around $30,000, even with a few options. The John Cooper Works I’ve driven, the performance-oriented flagship of Mini’s fleet, was too numb and soulless to justify its $44,100 as-tested list price. (That said, other contributors here are JCW fans.)

I think the 189-HP Cooper S is a better buy for people who are keen on compact sport-luxury and infatuated by Mini’s cutesiness.

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A Mini’s main advantage over other sport compacts in 2019 is design. These cars are fun to look at and feel special inside. They also derive a lot of what a driver will perceive as “sportiness” from the way they look. Which is totally fine, as far as I’m concerned.

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A Mini is a lot more of a luxury car than a Veloster N. The seats are thick, the switchgear’s all polished and pretty, and there’s an optional panoramic sunroof. But while a two-door Mini has better visibility than the Hyundai and an impressively low claimed curb weight of 2,760 pounds, its backseat is borderline unusable for adults, so it’s hard to say which is actually more practical.

You could spend a few extra bucks and get the longer four-door Cooper S, but the extra doors look preposterous on this car and if you’re going to get a Mini you might as well take advantage of the fact that it’s the only true hatchback “coupe” you can buy new right now. The Smart (are they still selling that?) doesn’t count.

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If you’re into the idea of a zippy Mini but you’re not married to the brand and its friendly face, you might find the Veloster N not only significantly more engaging to drive, but similarly east to live with and way cheaper.

It’s All In Fun-Wheel Drive

Photo: Andrew P Collins

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The point here isn’t to establish the Veloster N as the mightiest of fun front-drive fun cars in 2019—though I do believe it’d be a strong contender. My intention is simply to highlight where it’s good and where it’s not in the context of its rivals, all of which are quality cars with a lot of cachet.

And of course the Hyundai’s not without weaknesses. The paint job on my test rig wasn’t particularly smooth, fuel economy was kind of weak considering the small footprint, and not having heated seats or a sunroof, even as options, makes me sad.

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The Civic Type R, Golf GTI and Cooper S are all interesting and have their own advantages, but Hyundai’s new hot hatch should be raising serious eyebrows in this segment and I hope it raises the stakes for sport compact competition going into the future.

What impressed me most about the N wasn’t its flat-out speed or fuel economy; the car’s coolest move is how nicely balanced it is, with just enough gimmicks to give it some personality without getting embarrassing to be seen in or tiresome to live with. And the price is actually within reach for a large group of car enthusiasts.

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Photo: Andrew P Collins

I really appreciated the N’s on-the-fly customization while I had it–being able to cycle between dramatically different suspension feels, throttle response and even auto rev-matching settings gave the car a lot of versatility, and to crib a line from video game reviewers, high replayability.

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If you’re looking at hot hatchbacks, you need to take a close look at this car. If you’re hunting cheap thrills in general, it should definitely be on your radar.