"It would be sad if it doesn't get produced." Those were the first words Hyundai N Brand Manager Till Wartenberg said to us. We were at the Canadian International Auto Show in Toronto, and Wartenberg was looking longingly at the Hyundai N Vision 74 Concept car.
For Hyundai, N means performance. Performance, though, means many things to many different people. Crucially for executives like Wartenberg, performance is a definition that is in the middle of a huge shift as the industry moves from gas to electric-powered vehicles. We sat down with Wartenberg alongside the Hyundai N Vision 74
to talk about N, the two concepts, and the future of electric performance. Oh, and to ask what exactly "Corner Rascal" means.
Dealers didn't think the N brand would sell
Wartenberg has been with N since nearly the beginning. He made the move in 2016, not long after the N brand was launched, and was part of the launch of the i30 N hot hatch in Germany.
"Salespeople were actually questioning," he said of the formation of N. "This cannot be successful because it's a saturated market," he recalls dealers saying. Adding extra worry was the fact Germans were known for brand loyalty, and that loyalty was already associated with BMW M
, Mercedes-AMG, and Volkswagen R
Wartenberg, though, was not worried. "I knew, coming from my former employer (Wartenberg was in marketing at Mercedes-Benz for 16 years), that high performance branding really, really works."
The product is key in performance branding
There are some caveats, though. You have to do it right and have a high-quality product, he said. Wartenberg said that Hyundai was well past its former reputation as a "cheap" brand and so "the time was right to uplift the brand." he said. "And you cannot do it any better than with motorsports and an emotional product. Because everyone wants to buy the winner."
"I think (the launch of N) was perfect. Because we surprised certain customer groups and car enthusiasts and racers who actually want to have fun with a really, really good car," said Wartenberg.
Now that the brand is established with models like the Veloster N, Kona N, and Elantra N here, and i20 and i30 N models in the rest of the world, Wartenberg feels the time is right to uplift the brand even more. That means electric vehicles.
N Says 'Don't Worry' About Performance EVs
Wartenberg said that N moving into performance EVs and alternative fuels (the N Vision 74 is fuel cell powered) should reassure performance car buyers. "I think there is a bright future for performance cars,” he said. "This is also the message from N: that you don't have to worry about what's coming."
Hyundai is planning an Ioniq electric racecar. The Ioniq 6 will compete in the FIA's eTouring Car World Cup, replacing an electric Veloster N. It will likely look a lot like the RN22e concept, which is a test bed for the eTCR car and a pretty good preview of the Ioniq 6 N. A model that Wartenberg all but confirmed is coming.
"We will see the Ioniq 6-based eTCR car," he said. "I think we want to focus right now on the Ioniq 5 N. But normal logic would be to continue that product portfolio with another."
Brand VP wants halo car
On that note, Wartenberg added that he wanted something even more special than the current and future N cars. "My personal wish would be to do something with even more advanced technology that's in a smaller number."
That means a Halo car. Would the halo car for the brand be an Ioniq 6-based car or something else? At this point in the conversation, Wartenberg turned back to the concept car. "The N Vision 74. It just looks even more stunning than anything else I've seen for a long time." It's not confirmation, but it is a sign that there are people high up at Hyundai fighting to make it happen.
What about "Corner Rascal?" Hyundai N used the phrase as one of its brand pillars. We assumed that it sounded cooler in Korean, but it turns out the expression comes from Germany.
"Kurvenräuber," is the original, Wartenberg said. Which translates directly as "curve robber". Sort of a Hamburgler who loves to drive instead of snagging ground beef.
Wartenberg puts it better: "It (means) actually grabbing for the corners. It's not afraid of corners. This is 'Corner Rascal:' I don't only want to go fast from 0-100. Many cars can do that, you just have to add some power," he said. The N brand wants more.
More is a challenge for heavy EVs. "You cannot really cheat physics. But you can raise the bar and push the limits a bit further." Wartenberg is referring to features like the RN22e's twin-clutch rear torque vectoring system or using twin motors at each axle to boost agility.
Developing these systems is why the brand builds vehicles like the RN22e and N Vision 74 concept. They are cars where company engineers can learn how to make an EV as fun as a gas-powered N car. He said we can expect to see some of these engineering efforts in the Ioniq 5 N.
Developing Performance EV Sounds
Wartenberg said that Hyundai N knows that some buyers won't be happy with just handling. They want the missing sound. “We decided to not just copy the combustion engine sound into EVs. The Ioniq 5 N will have specific sounds for EV,” says Wartenberg.
“We did not go to famous musicians to do an EV sound,” he said taking a shot at BMW. And referring to the drill-like whine of an EV system, Wartenberg says “The dentist sound has to go.”
So, what will it be replaced with?
N engineers "try to really listen to what the demand is." That could include taking advantage of real sounds like tire noise, stones pinging from the undercarriage, and wind noise. He also said Hyundai N could reach out to the community and deliver crowd-generated sounds. A downloadable N sound of the week was the example he gave.
The Hyundai Ioniq 5 N is coming, and Wartenberg has us itching to get behind the wheel of the electric N car. The full reveal should happen later this year, and we'll have to wait and see if the RN22e cum Ioniq 6 N and a production N Vision 74 come to market.