Hyundai's N Performance Division Doesn't Care About Nurburgring Lap Times

Albert Biermann once ran BMW's M division. Now he's in charge of Hyundai's N performance brand—with a drastically different philosophy on high-performance cars.

Brian Williams

Hyundai surprised attendees of the 2018 Detroit Auto Show by unveiling the Veloster N, a manual-only hot-hatch boasting up to 275 horsepower from a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder. We sat down with Albert Biermann, president and head of Performance Development and High Performance Vehicle Division, Hyundai Motor Group, to learn more about the philosophy behind Hyundai's first performance vehicle for the US market. As it turns out, Hyundai's newly-formed N division is pursuing a unique path among high-performance automakers.

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"Driving enjoyment is the whole point of an N car," Biermann told me at the Detroit Auto Show. "We developed it for driving fun, for nice challenging mountain roads or a tiny challenging race track. We don't care about lap times. If you're going for lap times, the aero settings are different, the suspension setting is different. It’s faster for a professional driver, but it’s not as enjoyable. We don’t care for that. We want many people to enjoy this N experience, people who might not have driven a sporty car before.

"Our car should be very approachable," Biermann continued. "You don’t need to be a highly-skilled high-performance driver to have fun in an N car. It should be really accessible to normal drivers. They can sense this N feeling, learn and grow with the car, and get even more fun out of it. That’s our philosophy."

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That's not to say that the Veloster N isn't capable on the track. "You can enjoy it on the track, a lot," Biermann told R&T. "But it’s not the fastest car on the track. The brake system, the oil supply system, the precision in the car, it’s all there for track driving. But the way we set the aero, the way we tuned the chassis, the tire choice, we were never focused on fast lap times. If we did that, we would have a different car."

Brian Williams

The Veloster N packs a bunch of high performance equipment. In addition to the new turbo motor—which makes 250 horsepower in the Veloster N, or 275 with the optional Performance Package—Hyundai added three-mode adjustable dampers, an electro-hydraulically actuated limited-slip differential, rev-matching, and an active exhaust system on Performance Package models. All of these components are controlled by a drive mode system with four distinct settings: Normal, Sport, Eco—"forget it," Biermann quipped—and N Mode, the stiffest, edgiest of all. Drivers can also select a custom-tuned setting. Rev-matching, traction control and stability control can all be minimized or turned off entirely.

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"In engine development, the only thing I focused on was dynamic response," Biermann told me. "A few horsepower more or less, I didn’t care. The dynamic response was the key target, so you could easily play with the car. When you’re mid-corner, it’s all about dynamic response. Peak power doesn’t matter as much."

Hyundai

So why is Hyundai making a new push into performance cars? Biermann, who spent more than 30 years at BMW and spent nearly a decade heading up its M high-performance division, explained it like this:

"First of all, we did this to strengthen our brand. In the end, it doesn’t matter so much how many of these [N performance] cars we sell. We want to demonstrate that we’re capable of providing really fun-to-drive cars. We want to increase the performance of Hyundai cars. The strategy was to start with a tough one, with a high-performance car. If we can be successful there, this can all trickle down into the mass-production cars."

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Does that mean this 275-horse front-driver is the pinnacle of Hyundai performance? "We had prototype cars with more powerful engines and all-wheel drive and all kinds of stuff," Biermann told me. "For now, I think this is the right way to go. We’re coming from nowhere. This is the right first step. Now we have to watch very carefully how the market responds to this, what kind of customers do we get. Then we'll see how we move on. Is there room for a higher level [of performance]? We need to learn with this car first."

Hyundai

One thing is for certain: Biermann didn't concern himself with lap times on this Veloster N—even though the automaker has spent months developing the car at the Nurburgring. "There are companies that spend like five months at the Nurburgring, with tons of people. For that amount [of money] we can almost develop a whole car. It’s just a waste of time. I don’t do that."

"The fun of driving has been out there for many, many years. We discovered it a little bit late in the Hyundai Motor Group, but now we’re catching up. This is our first car, and our first car has to give a clear message: What is N? What do we stand for, what is important to us? There has to be a clear statement of who we are. This car should express that."

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