Hyundai RM20e Teases the Future of N

Hyundai’s N performance subbrand is not big on concept cars, at least not in the traditional sense. Rather than the superficial glitz of auto show mockups, the group prefers its science projects to have the substance of rolling development platforms. Witness the evolution of its RM prototypes, which the company has utilized since 2012 to refine its performance ethos and flesh out new technologies, largely with a focus on mid-mounted internal-combustion powertrains. But to show how its RM program relates to an automotive world that is quickly going electric, Hyundai invited us to drive its latest version, the 799-hp RM20e—on a challenging racetrack no less.

Seeing as we were already at California’s undulating Sonoma Raceway for the launch of the 276-hp 2022 Elantra N sedan, the timing of our drive was convenient. But it also was significant: Hyundai has numerous EVs in its product pipeline, including at least one dedicated performance model, and the company has struck up a significant development partnership with Croatian EV startup Rimac, maker of the impressively powerful Nevera hypercar.

In Hyundai-speak, RM stands for a rear-midship powertrain placement, which lends these prototypes a favorable weight distribution and agile handling. They’ve historically used Veloster hatchback body shells with adjustable control-arm rear suspensions and transverse four-bangers stuffed into where the rear seat and cargo area used to be. Recent iterations have taken the form of captive competition vehicles; the RM19 we previously drove is a modified version of the company’s TCR race car, featuring a 390-hp turbo four mated to a six-speed sequential manual. But the RM program has been instrumental in developing new production components, including active exhaust systems, electronically controlled limited-slip differentials, and the current eight-speed dual-clutch automatic found in a few Hyundai Motor Group vehicles.

The RM20e is the first electric RM model. Based on the RM19 and its EV counterpart that competes in the burgeoning ETCR racing series, the RM20e is a bundle of flared fenders, carbon fiber, and roll-cage tubing, decked out with aerodynamic appendages and a livery inspired by wiring diagrams. It is unmistakably a race car, complete with harnessed sport seats and a fixed competition steering wheel. Yet, it shares many interior bits with the Veloster N, even its pedals. Big six-piston front and four-piston rear brake calipers are metered by a motorsports-grade ABS system. And instead of slick tires, the 19-inch front and 20-inch rear wheels are wrapped with DOT-approved Pirelli P Zero rubber, sized 265/35ZR-19 and 305/30ZR-20, respectively.

Peer through the rear hatch and you can make out the Rimac label affixed to the rather small (60.0-kWh gross capacity) battery sitting atop the rear axle. With a stout 800-volt output, the lithium-ion pack feeds four motors that are mounted in pairs to power each rear wheel independently, allowing torque-vectoring capability. Maximum output is 799 horsepower and 708 pound-feet of torque, with the battery capable of being recharged from zero to 80 percent in a claimed 30 minutes. At more than 4100 pounds, the RM20e weighs half a ton more than the RM19, yet we have little reason to doubt Hyundai’s claims that it can hit 60 mph in less than three seconds and 124 mph in under 10.

The RM20e is noisy for an electric vehicle, and we mean that as a compliment. In addition to the whine from its direct-drive gearboxes with straight-cut gears, an array of speakers and amplifiers mounted both inside and outside the car can emit several sound-and-vibration profiles, from the authentic whir of an electric motor to a deeper, V-8-inspired thrum. The latter will never be confused with the rumble of a small-block, but it does give the car the effect of having a lumpy idle when parked. Toe into the surprisingly progressive accelerator, and the sound builds to a high-pitched warble, joining a chorus of go-fast noises from the cargo area. Fully programmable and adding some welcome entertainment to the often-dull vibe of driving an EV—Hyundai says the system can even simulate gear changes for additional theater—it’s a fitting technology from the maker of some of the best-sounding four-cylinder engines extant.

The RM20e is 5.3 inches wider than a Veloster N, yet its axles are only about an inch farther apart, at 105.2 inches. With its squat footprint and rear-weight bias, it’s not the easiest car to drive quickly. Trail-brake into a corner or disrespect the accelerator and it will bite, breaking loose in a pronounced yet controllable slide—even with the power turned down and the multi-stage traction control fully activated via buttons on the steering wheel. But once acclimated to how easily this car rotates around its center axis, it feels balanced and responsive, with laser-sharp steering and absolutely zero body roll. Our confidence grew as we progressed from a warm-up on an autocross course to laps of Sonoma’s big track. The full hit of the RM20e’s instant torque squishes you into the seatback and erases short straightaways in a blink, with the noise from the audio system elevating the excitement to what we expect from something with 799 horsepower. The greatest challenges came from toying with the various levels of regen under braking (effectively changing the brake balance) and adjusting to the seemingly endless powerband with no gears to shift through.

Hyundai’s engineers were obviously eager to talk about the next N model, even if they remained tightlipped regarding specifics, only hinting at an N drift mode and promising more details soon. Also of continued interest is the company’s commitment to hydrogen fuel cells, which has spawned both the portable fuel-cell generator that was on hand to charge the RM20e and the recent 671-hp Vision FK concept sports car that was co-developed with Rimac. That technology is likely further down the product pipeline, but experiencing the RM program firsthand left us excited for the future of Hyundai’s performance cars, regardless of what powers their wheels.

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Fredrick R. Siegel

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