The 2024 Hyundai Ioniq 5 N Is the Start of Something New
“If you only have a 400 volt car, you might as well stay home,” Albert Biermann, Hyundai’s former head of R&D, now Executive Technical Advisor, said when I asked him why the BMW i4 M50 couldn’t make it a single lap at Car and Driver’s Lightning Lap without degradation.
Biermann explained that the i4’s EV drivetrain has to work twice as hard as the 800-volt system in the Ioniq 5 N. The basic Ioniq 5 has that same 800-volt architecture, and high-efficiency silicon carbide inverters, too. It’s an efficient and high-output platform, one that the N team was basically gifted for the N version. The N is more of less is a project to unlock the potential within that structure.
“And they don’t have our silicon carbide inverters!” Biermann continued, explaining that the car has to work twice as hard, twice, making a great deal more heat in the process and wearing everything down. While the i4 can’t make it a single lap of Virginia International Raceway without losing significant performance, the Ioniq 5 N can do a little more than two laps of the Nürburgring Nordschleife, Biermann claims, before it starts to wear down. The only other performance EV that has an 800-volt system is the Porsche Taycan, but Biermann says it doesn’t have as efficient inverters as what they’re working with at Hyundai.
This all puts the Ioniq 5 N in a weird space. We think of N cars as fun more than anything else. Little sedans and hot hatchbacks that punch above their weight, that make do with around 300 hp.
This Ioniq 5 N makes about double that, or “around 600” as the Hyundai people have been saying here in Arjeplog, Sweden at their winter testing facility. That’s as specific as they’re going to get now on this early first drive, but it’s enough to go on. This is a different kind of product. It’s the first N with all-wheel drive. It’s the first N that’s electric. It’s the first N with this kind of power. I asked Biermann what was the last AWD car he worked on. After some thought, all he could think of was the X5 M. It probably weighed as much, too, we joked.
The Ioniq 5 N seems half a generation ahead of the competition, the only EV that—if what Biermann says about its Nordschleife runs is true—can survive doing the kind of track-day duty we expect of internal combustion performance cars. This isn’t a peppy hot hatch to rival Hondas and Toyotas. This is something like an M5. This is something like the M5 when the M5 first came out in the 1980s. There’s nothing quite like the Ioniq 5 N in production right now.
It is a moment. One that we both share. I am the one driving, seeing if I can link every corner on this handling circuit plowed out on top of this frozen lake in Arjeplog. We both sense that I’ve misjudged something, and that this car, big and heavy, is headed towards a snow bank. There are a few decreasing-radius turns on this course, as my instructor for the day, Chris Nigemeier, has pointed out. Nigemeier has run the Nürburging 24 hours, he’s run in the European Drift Championship, but his day job for the past few years has been working on the Ioniq 5 N. Formerly at Pirelli, he says at first that he is in charge of tire development for the 5 N, but it quickly becomes clear he is just as much in charge of destroying tires as he is engineering them. As an actual pro drifter, he helped calibrate the N’s drift mode. At first, he explained, all the other engineers thought that drift mode would just mean sending all of the car’s power to the rear axle and calling it a day, but that setup quickly proved undrivable. The moment you touched the gas, the rear wheels spun up virtually to maximum velocity, and you spun out. There was no control, particularly with the limited steering angle the 5 N has to work with.
Instead, the N sends a variable amount of power to the front of the car, acting something like a virtual steering angle. As you near the limit of how much lock you can put on to catch a slide, the car is able to send more and more power to the front to pull you straight. It’s possible not only because of g-sensors and wheel speed sensors in the car, but also from these fiendishly responsive motors front and rear, and the 5 N’s ability to so instantly vary torque. The car can vary how much power is devoted to the front or the rear, then varied left to right by an electronic limited slip differential. A gas-powered car can never act as fast.
In those two aspects alone the car is varying power sent front to rear, and left to right, but the charmingly German “Drift Optimiser” integrates also the torque rate, the suspension stiffness, and the steering effort. There is so much that you can tune with an electric car. All of this is direct, digital, working through electric motors and not fickle gas engines or hydraulic lines. Normally, this kind of electric tuning is dedicated to raw efficiency, or simply straight line speed. In the 5 N, it is about making an EV that drives like a performance car.
In this moment, I remember to not look at what I don’t want to hit and look where I want to go. I redirect my eyes away from the snow bank and through the corner. I ease off the throttle, the nose of the car tucks in, I add more steering angle, the car slows, and we gracefully drift through the curve and link up with the next.
A lot is happening in the car through all of this. Electric cars don’t engine brake like gas-powered cars do. The N team had to specifically tune electric motor regeneration to simulate it through its various modes, making the car act like you would expect on a track. I wasn’t working to figure out how the Ioniq 5 N worked. It just did.
The more you think about it, the more of an achievement it becomes. It’s impossible to grasp all the permutations possible with this platform. All of the opportunities are mind numbing. They multiply and cover you, snowflakes turning into an avalanche. All of that work, and the N engineers have made an EV with a real character. Intuitive. Engaging. Multi-dimensionsional.
Amazingly, Hyundai wheeled out two prototypes for journalists to drive. One was set up basically as an EV as we know it. The other got simulated gear shifts and simulated engine noise to go along with it. Everything I said about the car feeling, acting, responding like a gas-powered car comes from the car without the simulated shifting and sounds. Even with all of its gimmicks turned off, the Ioniq 5 N still reads as a responsive, reactive, performance car.
I never had a chance to test the simulated sounds, but Hyundai confirmed at the end of our day that they were not finalized anyway, and may not represent what will hit showrooms late in 2023. We still have no announced date, nor do we have an expected price.
Much of what makes the N so interesting is just that it uses the 5’s platform to its fullest. All the changes from 5 to 5 N are slight. It has more camber, it is lower, wider, with stiffer springs, roll bars, and a different steering ratio. The rear motor is different, as is the E-LSD, which the N team had to speed up to be fast enough to work for a car like this. “The same procedure we did on existing N cars, we did also on the Ioniq 5 N. We didn’t need to do much more than that,” Biermann says, “because the E-GMP platform is so good already.”
The only thing similar to the Ioniq 5 N is the Kia EV6 GT, a car that shares the same electric architecture as the Ioniq 5 N, and makes similar power. (We don’t know how close it comes to the Hyundai, as Hyundai isn’t yet giving us an exact figure for the 5 N.) It also has a drift mode, but it doesn’t have the same tuning as the N. I’ve driven the EV6 GT on the road and it doesn’t have the same wild heart as the N car. I’d have to drive them both on pavement to give a fuller analysis. I could say the same about the N’s willingness to slide. It loved holding absolutely outrageous slides for lap after lap of that frozen lake loop, but that’s a frozen lake. Much of its drift mode capabilities, in particular its faux clutch kick, we need to try on asphalt.
Of course it’s a question of how much of the Ioniq 5 N’s tech might filter down to cars like the EV6 GT. The e-LSD, the torque differential, how it has tuned its drift mode, will these stay exclusive to N to protect its character? “That’s more of a nightmare for Till (Wartenberg, Vice President of N Brand Management & Motorsport) and Joon( Woo Park, Manager of Global Marketing Strategy Team at Hyundai Motor Company), not for me, not for the engineer,” Biermann says.
There are limits to how extreme you can make an internal combustion-powered car where it still is usable every day and economical to produce. This Ioniq 5 N, like all N cars I guess, takes principally from parts Hyundai already had in use in ordinary vehicles, only positions them and sets them up for driving enjoyment. Where does this end? What happens when you can build an M5 with the same engine as a base 5 Series? What happens to the 5 Series then? These are, as Biermann says, questions for the marketing people, the brand management team, not him and the other engineers. All they want to do is make as good a car as they can.
Given all of this new territory to explore, new avenues of electric tuning to experiment with, it’s amazing that at the heart of it the Ioniq 5 N still feels natural. For such a pioneering EV, that might be the most impressive part of all.
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