After 25,000km in 9 months, how has Hyundai's first proper hot-hatch fared?
Hyundai’s first proper hot hatchback arrived with a reasonable amount of hype behind it. After nine months of running one in the Top Gear garage, the i30 N hasn’t just lived up to those high expectations, but surpassed them.
It’s an extraordinary achievement to cause such an upset first time out, not least when the hot hatch market is in its most exciting ever position. The i30 N had to impress against strong rivals from Ford, Honda, Peugeot, Renault, Seat and VW – among many others – but that’s exactly what it’s done. How? Have a click through our i30 N’s 2018 photo album.
Our i30 N Performance arrived with a mere 1300km on the clock. Naturally we specced the higher-powered, more-focused i30 N Performance version. For a slight premium, you get bigger, 19in wheels on stickier Pirelli P Zero tyres, a limited-slip differential, a riotous sports exhaust and another 25bhp, taking total output to 271bhp.
You also get the option of Performance Blue paint, a must if you want your car to look as vibrant as ours against a typically gloomy British backdrop. Total bill? Quite a lot for a Hyundai but very competitive in hot-hatch terms.
All i30 Ns get a pair of fantastic sports seats up front. Most hot-hatch makers are really nailing their seats at the moment, and Hyundai’s managed it without going to a big-name manufacturer like Recaro.
It made own-brand alternatives to keep the car’s list price low, but the seats hug exactly where you want them too and have never made me ache, even after some slightly exhausting 12-hour days behind the wheel. The driving position is great, too; not as low-slung as in a Civic Type R, but considerably better than the sitting-amongst-the-headlining Focus RS.
All i30 Ns also get a manual gearbox, with a paddleshift auto appearing on future N products further down the line. You wouldn’t want it here; while not as delightfully taut as a Type R’s shift, Hyundai’s 6spd transmission is a joy to use and with a nice, gimmick-free knob that’s shaped properly.
You also get auto rev-matching, the car blipping the throttle to replicate heel-and-toe downchanges. Evidencing the fact N’s engineers are proper petrolheads, it’s a function that turns on and off easily with a single button press. So if you want to try out your own skills, you can do so without navigating lots of clunky menus (take note, Honda).
Since March, our i30 N’s covered, um, over 25,000km. Quite impressive given my daily commute is only a 40km round trip. It’s fair to say the N’s been on some adventures, the first of which was a trip to its spiritual home to watch the Nürburgring 24 Hours.
The journey there revealed some chinks in the Hyundai’s armour. It’s tough to top 9.5l/100km in the i30 N, and a relatively small fuel tank means you’ll likely scrape 480km between fill ups unless you like playing chicken with the fuel light. Which I really don’t.
Mind, my attempts to nudge the 250km/h limiter on the autobahn took a good chunk out of the fuel economy. The best effort was an indicated 225km/h; above that, the i30 N’s acceleration isn’t so rabid. Don’t say we can’t provide proper consumer advice.
A month later, the i30 N and I returned to mainland Europe to follow Thierry Neuville’s i20 R5 around the Ypres rally.
Yet more great consumer advice: should you find yourself leaving a rally stage just as the roads it closed open back up, an i30 N is a fine device in which to live out your rally fantasies, sports exhaust popping and crackling away like it’s an anti-lag system.
Alright, some real consumer advice now. This year saw something important happen: Renault Sport launched a brand new Megane RS. Given the outgoing car is one of the greatest hot hatchbacks ever – and one of the very best performance cars I’ve driven during my decade on the job – the new one arrived to high hopes.
High hopes it couldn’t quite meet, a new four-wheel-steer system complicating its dynamics while the rest of the car matured too much trying to battle the Golf GTI. The perfect chance for the vehemently old-school i30 N to cause a bit of an upset, then, offering a simpler, easier to enjoy driving experience.
(Local notes: In the Singapore context, the 'base' Megane R.S. with DCT pips the base i30 N by a piffling S$5-6k for ex-stock units. The i30 N Performance isn't available here and we're told the Performance packs adds a huge chunk to the Hyundai's retail price, which will then sees its on-the-road price surpass the Renault's and possibly the GTI's.)
Fantastic as the i30 N is, though, it couldn’t quite dethrone our current hot-hatch king, the Honda Civic Type R. Yet it’s easy to argue the Hyundai’s a better road car: being 45bhp down and forgoing the Type R’s wild aero package, it’ll never provide pub bragging rights, but it will allow you to use much more of its performance on any given B-road. Unless you’re a regular track-goer, it might be the better option of this pair.
Time for some more quibbles. The Hyundai’s turning circle is atrocious, so even the simplest of U-turns or car park manoeuvres quickly turn into a nine-point turn soundtracked by impatient heckles and beeps from everyone around. Lots of high-power front-wheel-drive cars have this affliction – the mk2 Focus RS was especially guilty – but the i30 N seems to have had its manoeuvrability benchmarked to an oil tanker's.
Oh, and see those lovely wheels? Look at how little tyre sidewall they’re wrapped in. I’ve yet to kerb any of them, but every time I parallel park or negotiate an inner-city width restrictor, my heartbeat trebles. Merely looking at this picture makes me tense up thinking about it.
The interior’s not especially glamorous – a bit of blue stitching on the wheel is all that lifts it on first impression – but the ergonomics and layout have been nailed, with Hyundai clearly wanting to mimic the sensible layout of Volkswagen’s interiors.
There are loads of wonderfully geeky touches, too, many of them nicked from BMW M cars (Hyundai N’s boss Albert Biermann was poached from Munich). So the rev limit is illuminated on the dial by orange and red lights, and it visibly moves as the engine warms up. You also get two driving mode selection buttons on the steering wheel, one of them being where you save your favourite settings, so they’re one quick prod away when you pull onto your favourite back road.
Technically, there are 1,944 possible combinations of how you set the engine, exhaust, suspension etc. In truth the system is much simpler to get your head around than such a silly figure suggests – you’re never going to pair the Eco engine with the Sport+ exhaust, after all.
My pick? Sport for everything, except the steering (Normal) and the engine (Sport+). The stability control has a mid-way Sport setting, which is my pick most of the time. But on the right piece of road, you can turn it all the way off - and ‘off’ really does mean ‘off’ - to enjoy a surprisingly wild ride for a car with a five-year warranty. The i30 N will do proper lift-off oversteer if you go looking for it.
If you start to outgrow your standard i30 N, though, solace comes from a German tuner called RaceChip. An ECU remap and a new exhaust system lift the i30 N’s outputs to 316bhp and 523Nm, respectively identical to a Civic Type R and just 15Nm off a Ferrari 458 Speciale. Yikes.
There’s also 15mm-lower Eibach suspension and 3kg-lighter OZ forged wheels with Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres. You can spec it all separately with a premium.
Some big changes, yet they serve to amplify the i30 N’s existing traits rather than reinvent its character, which is what I admire most in tuner cars. There’s the same rambunctious attitude, just with added precision.
It was fun to get these together, too. The Toyota Yaris GRMN is one of the most fun cars I’ve driven this year, and perhaps the most unlikely hot-hatch on sale. Its development was rushed, so Toyota stuck in the supercharged engine from a Lotus Elise rather than develop its own turbo unit, a move that turns out to be the making of the wee Yaris.
Like the i30 N, it spent many of its development miles lapping the Nürburgring. “Cars developed for the ‘Ring don’t work on the road” is oft-repeated but rarely true; these two didn’t go there chasing lap records and thus are huge fun to drive on normal roads. Their limits are genuinely approachable, and they’re able to thrill whether you’re negotiating Mini Karussell or a mini roundabout. Myth well and truly busted.
In short? I’m rather besotted with our Hyundai. Its insatiable thirst, firm ride and bonkers turning circle are the kind of character flaws you tolerate when the rest of the car shines so brightly. The i30N gets that some of us just want to have a laugh, freed from worrying about being as quick as possible.
The engineers appear to have developed every facet to be as fun as possible, as often as possible; the day you get bored of the childish crackling from its exhaust or the way it picks up a rear wheel into corners is the day you’re too mature for hot hatches and ready for a wilfully staid SUV like everyone else. For me, I doubt that day will ever come.
STORY Stephen Dobie