We had to wait quite a while for it to arrive, but Hyundai’s very first N car has finally landed in South Africa. Has the Korean manufacturer hit it out the park at its very first attempt? After a couple of weeks of driving the i30 N hot hatch on near-empty Cape Town roads during the lockdown, we are ready to answer that question.
We like: Manageable performance, stable handling, understated looks.
We don't like: Lacks pure steering feel, ambitious list price.
- Price: R679 900 (May 2020)
- Engine: 2.0-litre 4-cylinder turbopetrol
- Gearbox: 6-speed manual
- Fuel economy: 8.5 L/100 km (claimed)
- Power/Torque: 202 kW/353 Nm
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What is it?
Ready to take on the hot hatch brigade, N has made it clear it is not just here to take part.
The Hyundai i30 N has been available in Europe since the end of 2017, but the N division's protagonist took its sweet time to find its way to local shores; Hyundai South Africa did not initially believe there was a business case for it here. Fortunately for Mzansi's performance-car aficionados, the Korean manufacturer's very first N car is here and has been tossed straight into the melting pot that is the hot-hatch melee. This segment is owned by the Volkswagen Golf GTI in terms of sales, but dynamically the strength of the competition is tough to beat: the Honda Civic Type R is the most hardcore and track-adept hot hatch and the Renault’s Megane RS is chuckable, precise and the latest in a long line of great hot hatches to bear its name. How does Hyundai intend to compete?
Well, the N in i30 N has 2 meanings. Firstly, it references Namyang, where Hyundai Kia's research and development centre is located in Korea and secondly, the Nurburgring – the brand’s test base in Europe where all the N vehicles are tested and honed. Hyundai also recruited the help of some of BMW M’s most senior engineers by luring them to the N division in order to deliver a product that could match up well with any of its peers. So, it’s time to get down to the nitty-gritty.
How it fares in terms of…
It's not the winner on paper, but it's hardly slow either.
Contemporary hot hatches produce once-unthinkable power outputs. There was a theory from engineers not so long ago that the maximum output one could feasibly put through the front wheels was 200 kW. It was believed that, beyond 200 KW, the mechanical bolstering and differential trickery required to combat the effects of torque steer would become too expensive to produce an economically viable front-wheel-drive hot hatch. That is why you see models like the Mercedes-AMG A45, Audi RS3 and BMW M135i xDrive, which have all gone the all-wheel-drive route.
The i30 N shovels a pinch over that perceived barrier – 202 kW (and 353 Nm of torque) are directed solely at its front wheels. The hot hatch recipe has always been "front-engined, front-wheel-drive and a hefty dollop of fun", so Hyundai has it the marks there. The newcomer's acceleration figures are admittedly not as bold as some of its rivals, but at 6.1 seconds from 0 to 100 kph, it offers adequate sprinting thrills. Still, you’re likely to lose a robot-to-robot dice against the Honda (5.8 sec) and Renault (5.8 sec), as well as the upcoming Golf GTI TCR (5.6 sec), but the Korean will theoretically beat a stock GTI (6.4 sec) in that regard.
Putting the claimed stats aside for a second, the i30 N accelerates intently (hard) with a distinct lack of torque steer. Even though the power is delivered in a chunk of mid-range thrust, the Hyundai's grippy 19-inch tyres deal with it well and the steering holds relatively straight under intense acceleration. The 'wheel doesn’t tug harshly to one side when you shift gear and give the i30 N a full boot of throttle.
A manual shifter is rare these days, especially one this accurate and fast-shifting.
The newcomer's acceleration is not quite linear – it tapers off towards the top of the rev range – but the snappy 6-speed manual gearbox provides plenty of driver engagement. The shifter is perfectly positioned in the cabin and the shift-action through the gates is precise and confident; you're unlikely to miss a shift, even when rushing down the 'box under heavy braking. And that braking comes with a free rev-matching blip of the throttle as you reverse through the box (depending on the drive mode you’re in, of course).
Modes? Yes, this car is all about modes and how they change the characteristics of the engine, suspension, differential, traction control and exhaust note. You can work your way through the drive modes via the steering-mounted button with your left thumb, which will scroll through Eco, Normal and Sport modes. The chequered flag button on the right puts everything into N mode, which is the most aggressive setup on all the aforementioned parameters. N mode can further be customised by using the infotainment screen menu.
Flicked into N mode, the i30 N goes from sounding like a plain warm hatch with hardly any wilful utterance from the engine or exhaust to a litany of cracks, bangs and pops at every shift (up and down), as well as every time you come off the throttle. From inside the car, it never sounds over the top, the cabin is particularly well-insulated, but from outside it sounds like an endless supply of Tom Thumbs that have been set alight in a drainpipe.
You can customise the N mode to tailor the i30 N's responses to your taste.
Driving the i30 N on near-deserted roads (with Lockdown Level 4 in place) felt strange... as if I was living in the Will Smith film I am Legend. It does have its advantages though, as it gave me the opportunity to really stretch the legs (and limits) of the i30 N without another vehicle in sight.
In full N mode, the Hyundai's suspension stiffens up drastically and the steering weights up in a similar way that it does in a (BMW) M car. In fact, the latter's a little too heavy in N mode. The ride quality, which is so absorbent around town and over bumps in normal mode, thrashes your kidneys as if they're body blows dealt by Mike Tyson; the impacts expel the air from your lungs every time the surface degrades or just becomes uneven. In N mode though, it all makes sense: the i30 N turns in fast and accurately – the grippy tyres and diff enable the front-end to cling to the tarmac so that you can introduce the power sooner and sooner until, eventually, the rubber gives way. You won’t lose traction on fast sweeping corners though, the i30 N is stable under braking and off-throttle, there’s not a hint of lift-off oversteer and in that regard, it behaves similarly to a Golf GTI, which is high praise. You can’t throw it around like a Megane RS, though: Hyundai clearly wanted a hatch that felt fast, but wouldn't pitch any curveballs in the handling department.
The Hyundai is still fun and engaging to drive hard... I found myself repeating the best sections of road with a bigger smile on my face on every occasion. I set the steering mode back to normal to reduce some of the weight, but the i30 N doesn't communicate the feel of the road in a granular manner. You have to introduce steering inputs quite early at corner entries to see how the car reacts before committing more/less lock. It’s a tenth-of-a-second adjustment, but something the aforementioned Renault and the Civic don't require.
To contextualise the dynamic characteristics of the i30 N with those of its rivals, I would say the Hyundai's more fun to drive and ultimately faster than a GTI (we await the TCR derivative for a showdown), but it won’t give you the same seat of your pants thrills of the aforementioned RS and Type R. That said, the i30 N has more refined day-to-day manners than the French and Japanese contenders.
The i30 N looks a little understated compared with its rivals, but that seems to be its appeal. Hyundai must have looked at the segment-leading Golf GTI and noted how a clean design with limited go-faster bits and some subtle styling additions can make you a global icon. The Hyundai gets a roof-mounted spoiler, some side skirts, a few N badges here and there and some red pin-striping around the front and rear bumper to distinguish it. Oh, don’t forget the pipes at the back and the fake diffuser, replete with faux air dams.
The Performance Blue paintwork, which is like a powder blue (it's not so easy to tell from the photographs of the test unit) and 19-inch wheels (with huge red brake calipers) complete the look. It’s actually a really good look; the i30 N has just the right amount of aggro without going full Civic Type R – and everyone knows you should never (need to) go full Civic Type R...
The interior could do with a few more fun elements.
The inside of the i30 N is the only real "meh" bit of the new entrant. Aside from the bucket seats finished in a leather and suede combination, there’s nothing in the way of racy detailing to make you giddy or swoon. The Hyundai's instrument cluster gets an F1-style shift light display and there are those 2 blue buttons on the wheel for mode adjustments, but there is a noticeable lack of "a sense of occasion" when you slide in behind the Hyundai's tiller.
Beyond that, it’s a very well executed cabin with modern finishes, heated seats and -steering wheel, as well as dual-zone climate control. To reiterate, the Hyundai is very quiet when pottering around town and adapts well to inner-city life on the daily commute.
The Hyundai i30 N is sold with a 7-year/200 000 km warranty and 5-year/75 000 km service plan.
The local price is the only thing holding the i30 N back at the moment.
Hyundai SA only plans to sell 5 to 10 units of its maiden hot hatch a month, so the proposition of i30 N ownership promises a level of exclusivity that its rivals simply cannot match. As a first-of-its-kind N model, the i30 N is a significant statement of intent from the brand. The Korean marque has hit the marks straight from the get-go, delivering a refined product that’s both fast when it needs to be and then perfectly capable in day-to-day traffic. It'd be even more practical with the introduction of a dual-clutch ‘box at some point.
Suffice to say the newcomer makes the right sounds and has great road presence in the same way a Golf GTI grabs attention without the need to brandish explicit wings and fins. While it’s not the fastest hot hatch on the market, the i30 N offers a fun-yet-safe driving experience that allows you to push hard without feeling like things could suddenly untangle and that the car might end up in a ditch at any moment.
So, in a comparison with the Golf GTI, the i30 N is better in many ways than its outgoing German rival and if I had to choose between the 2, at the same price, I would go for the i30 N. But, at the current price (May 2020), where it costs R100 000 more than a GTI, the Hyundai's premium is a near-impossible pill to swallow. Add to that, the next-generation (Golf 8) GTI will be here within 12 months and the Hyundai looks a little less appealing.