Hyundai i20N prototype review: can it tackle a Fiesta ST?

That’s not finished, is it?

Nope. But Hyundai gets how important the i20N is. It knows 2020 hasn’t exactly been a picnic. So, how about a preview of this nearly-ready hot hatchback on the roads around the village of Nürburg, and a few laps of the Nürburgring GP circuit? Sounds like the tonic we’re after. Cheers!

So this is the i30N’s little brother?

Got it in one. While the family-sized i30N hatch and Fastback slug it out against the Golf GTIs, Cupra Leons, Focus STs and Megane RSs of this world, the i20N is a smaller, souped-up supermini.

That scene has gone rather quiet of late. There’s the sublime Fiesta ST, the lacklustre Polo GTI… and that’s about it. No Cupra Ibiza, no Fabia vRS, no Corsa VXR and no Clio RS to speak of right now. It’s the perfect time for a newcomer to strike…

Are the specs on point?

This isn’t a ‘numbers’ kinda car, but the outputs all seem spot on. Under the bonnet, there’s a 1.6-litre turbocharged engine – a four-cylinder unit, not a wound-up triple like the Fiesta ST’s, or the much more exotic Toyota GR Yaris. It develops 204hp and 275Nm. Sounds about right, doesn’t it?

Power is sent to the front wheels, though a proper limited-slip differential. There’s only one choice of gearbox: a six-speed manual. Hyundai is saving its clever new eight-speed DCT paddleshifter for the i30N, and bigger, taller N products to follow...

Yum, tasty. What’s next?

So far, so simple. Same goes for the suspension: the dampers have one factory setting, which can’t be fiddled with if you’d prefer to be less comfortable. There’s a mechanical diff up front, but no option to tweak the locking ratio on the touchscreen. You have to trust the ladies and gents of N to know their onions. Judging by the i30N and the Veloster N sold to our American cousins, they do.

But don’t be tricked into thinking the i20N the dunce of the N family. Because the i30N carved out a reputation for modes and configurability, the N Division has trickled that into this new baby of the range.

Good. Tell me about the toys.

There’s launch control as standard. You’ll never use it, but nice to now it’s there, eh? The engine will automatically blip the throttle for you when you shift into a lower gear, thanks to a rev-match button on the steering wheel. Then there’s the modes. Or, as Hyundai calls them, the ‘N Grin Control System’. Yuck.

Anyway, you’ll quickly learn never to bother with Normal and Eco Mode, and be much more interested in Sport, which wakes up the engine response, uncorks a bit more noise, adds steering weight and slackens off the stability control. But that’s merely for starters.

‘N’ mode ramps all that up the max-treme. And of course, there’s an ‘N Custom’ mode – the golden ticket of mix’n’match settings that lets you save your favourite choices. This is where i20Ns will spend 95 per cent of their days.

Sounds like plenty of goodies on board.

Haven’t even finished yet. You get shift-up lights, the power steering motor has a bespoke tune to resist torque-steer, there’s massive 320mm front brakes and much beefier suspension than a standard i20. Even the bodyshell has been stiffened, so the suspension can be set just so. None of this is cheap to do on a hot hatch. Hopefully it’ll still be a reasonably priced car.

Go on, just one more pub fact.

You want to know how serious Hyundai has got with this car? The i20N’s pedals have been calibrated to let you left-foot brake, like a racing driver. Most hot hatches assume you’ve panicked and forgotten which of your feet is which if it senses you riding the brake as you aim for the apex. Not here. That’s pretty serious stuff for a jumped-up Hyundai i20, official pace car of the 2020 Indoor Lawn Bowls World Championship.

So, first impressions?

Can’t say much about the looks, or the interior, as both were cloaked in disguise, but the seat is grippy and well-bolstered, though it won’t drop very low if, like me, you like to sit right on the deck. As per the i30N, you get a very chunky steering wheel, some alloy pedals and a ball-topped gearstick. Textbook stuff.

The digital dials are crisp and you get completely different clocks and colours as you wind up through the modes. There’s more than enough sense of occasion to make it feel like a special little car.

Prod the starter button. The engine is bassier than a standard supermini four-pot, but lacking some raw aggression, some parp and growl. It’s on the to-do list, say the engineers, though exhaust emissions filters are making that job harder by the day.

Nowt wrong with the gearshift or brakes, though. The control weights feel purposeful and well-matched. A Fiesta ST has a slicker, more mechanical gearshift action, but the Hyundai isn’t far off the mark.

Foot hard down, there’s bags of traction. Perhaps the glassy German B-roads – which if anything are smoother than the nearby grand prix track – flatter the front axle, but there’s little sense of the steering wheel trying to tear itself free of your grasp and escape out of the window. You don’t need more than 201bhp when not one of them is being wasted.

How fast are we talking?

No official numbers yet, but it’s clearly going to be capable of 0-100km/h in six-point-something. Quick enough, in other words.

What’s encouraging is how it feels like an N product, even if you’d been led up to it blindfolded. The positivity of the controls, the sense of a four-square wheelbase under you that’s taut and grippy, but also responsive to lifting the throttle or turning in on the brakes. That’s all part of the N bloodline, and it’s survived being hit with the shrink-ray.

On this brief first drive, I wouldn’t say it has the Fiesta’s addictive-but-semi-artificial sense of agility. The class-leading Ford feels like it belongs on three wheels. Its set up is all about a pointy front and hyper-mobile rear end that wants to wag its tail at every roundabout.

The i20N plays the game with a straighter bat. That might make it a cleverer, less wearing machine on a long trip, on everyday errands, but less of a giggle on a short, opportunistic blast.

So it’s a just the right amount of grown-up?

Too soon to say for sure, but it’s seems ironic: the bigger i30N is one of the less mature, more unruly hot hatches in its class, but all the more charming for it.

We’ll need a longer drive to learn how many layers the i20N has to its multi-mode personality, but the spec promises plenty. Can we have one quite soon please, Hyundai? 2020 has been a bit of a drag. We deserve this one.

STORY Ollie Kew

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