My life changed a little bit when I first eased off the clutch and got Toyota's prototype, manual-equipped Lexus UX300e into motion. It changed even more when I intentionally "stalled" it a moment later, and further still when I learned I could rev-match and toe-heel the thing just like my MR2 at home.
It changed because I had so expected to hate this pantomime manual transmission, little more than a shifter attached to a joystick and a clutch pedal bolted to a potentiometer. When I found myself genuinely enjoying it, I had to re-think a few things about myself and what exactly I was looking to get out of the driving experience. (You can read my impressions about that here.)
Gallery: Hyundai Ioniq 5 N First Drive Photos
But I really hadn't expected an opportunity to test out another synthesized manual transmission just a few weeks later. And yet there I was, a mere 10 days after my trip to Japan, pulling out of Seoul, South Korea, in a pre-release Hyundai Ioniq 5 N that offered its own way of simulating the traditional transmission experience—just using a very different approach.
There are, however, two major differences between the two. First, where Toyota's system is a prototype, maybe/possibly/hopefully destined for some future EV like the brilliant little FT-Se, Hyundai's synthetic shifting experience will feature in every Ioniq 5 N that enters production. It'll be on the road in 2024 in one of the most fun and exciting everyday EVs to hit the market yet. (You can read my full impressions on the Hyundai Ioniq 5 N here.)
So, it is guaranteed to become a reality, but that reality is also quite different.
Gallery: Lexus UX 300e Toyota EV Manual Gearbox
Toyota made a pantomime six-speed manual transmission, complete with clutch, but Hyundai's is a faux eight-speed DCT, relying only on the paddle shifters mounted to the back of the steering wheel. This solution is much cheaper and easier to deploy since most of Hyundai's EVs already have shift paddles—they're just usually used for modulating brake regen.
In the Ioniq 5 N, the function of those paddles is returned to that for which they were originally designed. At least, it is if you dig into the settings in the 5 N's myriad setup screens and enable N Active Sound+. It's again important to note right up front that this is optional and mighty easy to disable, so if this whole idea seems silly to you it needn't be a turn-off for the car as a whole.
Once enabled, the car also enables one of its three sound profiles. Yes, the Ioniq 5 N has not one but three fake engine notes. The first, Ignition, is designed to sound like a high-strung small-displacement engine. The second, Evolution, still has an internal combustion rasp to it but with a futuristic edge. Finally, there's Supersonic, which actually takes inspiration from jet engines, of all things.
I'm sorry to say that I did not enjoy the sound of any of them. The first is the rowdiest and was the one I disliked the least, but they all have a too-synthesized tone. I've been playing racing games since the '80s and have enjoyed subsequent generations of titles like Forza Motorsport and Gran Turismo, games that gradually evolved and perfected the accuracy and fidelity of their engine notes.
The sound quality of the Ioniq 5 N's fake engine note is perhaps on par with that found in the first Gran Turismo, which is to say, more vacuum-like than vehicular. That's a real shame considering many of the people who will be most interested in Hyundai's most raucous EV will themselves have spent many hours playing the latest flavors of Gran Turismo and Forza Motorsport, so it's an unflattering comparison they'll be making themselves.
To be honest, though, the quality of the fake engine note in the Toyota prototype wasn't exactly stellar, so I can't say that either solution is vastly superior from an acoustics standpoint. Beyond that, Hyundais have never been known for the quality of their engine tone anyway.
Once enabled, Hyundai's system works just like a real DCT. Tap the right paddle to go up a gear, tap the left to go down. When you do, you'll hear the engine tone modulate appropriately. There's even a fake little throttle blip and some occasional crackling and popping from the "exhaust" when you downshift.
Like the Toyota system, nothing at all is happening. It's entirely synthesized. But, again like the Toyota system, the effect is quite realistic. You can rev the 5 N's virtual engine when you're sitting at a stop light, and that sound will not only play on the inside of the car but, optionally, it'll play outside the car, too. Yes, this might be the first EV that can annoy your neighbors, and I dread the day when the first tinkerer figures out how to upgrade the external speakers on their Ioniq 5 N.
When in motion, you can run the Ioniq 5 N up to its simulated redline, where it'll angrily flutter on the rev limiter until you grab the next year. Likewise, it'll bog if you're running too high a gear, though it does restrict which gears you can select to avoid over- or under-revving the engine, like a real DCT. Unlike the Toyota, I couldn't find a way to stall the thing.
Also, unlike the Toyota, there's an automatic mode—and not just one that turns the gear-shifting sensation off entirely. Yes, you can let the Ioniq 5 N pretend-shift itself. What the heck is the point of that, you're surely wondering? Believe it or not, there's a proper, tangible reason, and it comes down to acoustic feedback.
When learning a new track at a performance driving event, most folks refer to corners not by their speed but by their most appropriate gear. It's a way to simplify a confusing sequence of corners into a much more straightforward sequence of tangible numbers.
If someone says a faster turn is a fourth-gear bend, you're unlikely to enter it far too slowly or far too quickly if you take their advice.
Beyond that, the auditory feedback is a genuinely helpful, non-visual indicator of how much speed you're carrying into and through a corner. Don't believe me? Try running hot laps in your favorite racing game with the sound turned off, then tell me whether your lap times falter. Having run this experiment in the past, I can tell you that mine most assuredly do.
That's not to say that fake shifting and fake engine noises will make you faster. In fact, Hyundai's N division technical advisor Albert Biermann concedes that the fake shifting makes Hyundai's test drivers about three seconds slower on the Nurburgring, mostly thanks to the minute loss of acceleration when the car is pretending to grab the next gear.
But you needn't enable fake shifting to have the artificial engine noise. The Ioniq 5 N can be configured to modulate its sound with speed, giving you that auditory feedback without the whole pantomime DCT thing.
The Ioniq 5 N is configurable to an extreme degree, something that some drivers will find daunting but that members of the PlayStation generation will eat up with a spoon. I do wish it all sounded a bit more invigorating, but Hyundai's N vice president Joonwoo Park told me that they've already made huge leaps and bounds in improving the quality of the sound of their synthesized combustion and promised me they'll keep working to make them better.
Downloadable EV engine tones? Park didn’t make any promises, but I’ll say that’s an OTA update I could get behind.