Hyundai i30 N: Not Normal
The Hyundai i30 N is more than just another hot hatch, says William Scholes - it is a thrillingly brilliant calling card for the company's new N performance sub-brand
FOR more evidence that the old, established order in the car industry is being turned upside down and given a good kicking, look no further than the car on this page, Hyundai's marvellous i30 N, writes William Scholes.
Who would have thought that a South Korean hot hatch would have been one of the most anticipated new cars of the year?
Or that this steroidal i30 would not only manage to fulfil that promise but deliver, at Hyundai's first proper effort, a serious challenge to the European and Japanese companies who defined the hot hatch and have had up to 40 years to perfect the formula.
The i30 N really does deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as road-racer royalty such as the Volkswagen Golf GTI, Ford Focus RS, Renault Sport Megane, Honda Civic Type R and Peugeot 308 GTI.
The Hyundai is at least as good as any of those cars. In some key areas it may even suit the bumps and yumps of Northern Ireland roads better, thanks to the enormous variation of different settings that the driver can dial into elements such as the suspension, to stiffen or soften the damping.
Whether you agree with that or not, it is indisputable that if you are in the market for a proper hot hatchback, you owe it to yourself to try a Hyundai i30 N.
The standard i30 is a fine car - handsome, solidly built, refined and spacious - but it could hardly be called sporty.
This makes the transformation to i30 N all the more astonishing. As with all the best hot hatches there have ever been, Hyundai has taken all the good, useful bits of the i30 and sprinkled some automotive fairy dust over the car to create something rather special.
So you still get a big boot, room for five passengers, lots of gadgets and a reassuring sense of quality; but you also get a stonking 2.0-litre turbocharged engine which pulls and pulls and pulls, mighty brakes, a tremendously sonorous exhaust note, a nice driving position and grippy sports seats.
But it is the chassis and steering that really sets the i30 N apart. From an engineering point of view, making a car go fast in a straight line and stop quickly is relatively easy; the much, much harder task is to make the same car go around corners with poise and precision.
The i30 N has poise and precision in abundance. It has a delicacy to its movements that is all too rare; like a ballet dancer, it feels like it is on its tip-toes as it changes direction, as you feed in the power or alter the car's line through a corner. It makes other supposedly sporty cars feel leaden and imprecise.
Above all, it is fun. And isn't that why you buy a car like this in the first place?
And while the road is obviously the place the i30 N is going to see most action, it speaks of the depth of the car's engineering and quality that it feels completely at home on a race track - several laps of the Kirkistown circuit near Kircubbin on the Ards Peninsula, courtesy of Dalys Hyundai, helped prove that.
The chassis and steering really set the i30 N apart. It has poise and precision in abundance. Above all, it is fun. And isn't that why you buy a car like this in the first place?
Hyundai has invested heavily in its 'N' project, poaching an engineer called Albert Biermann from BMW - where he had overseen some of its finest 'M' cars - to inject genuine driving enjoyment into its cars.
The i30 is Biermann's first finished N car; for a debut effort from a company with no hot hatch or sports car heritage it is a deeply, deeply impressive effort. As a calling card for whatever comes next, it must also be a source of worry for the folks at Volkswagen, Renault, Honda, Ford et al.
'N' might be close to 'M' but was apparently chosen as the name of the performance sub-brand in honour of Hyundai's Namyang research and development centre in South Korea, though it is presumably handy that it also helps underline how much of the i30 N's testing was conducted at the Nürburgring circuit in Germany.
There are more powerful hot hatches. There may even be more powerful i30 N models in the future.
But the keen driver, who appreciates the balance, tactility, feedback and interaction of a proper sports car, understands that a sporty car's desirability lies not simply in big power and speed figures, but in how it feels.
In focusing on this, Biermann and his team have created something rather special.
Hyundai offers the i30 N in two flavours. A 247bhp engine is under the bonnet of the 'standard' car, which costs a fiver under £25k, while an extra £3,000 buys you the 'Performance' version with 271bhp.
Both versions have the same 260lb.ft of torque, which rises to 279lb.ft for up to 18 seconds with a full-throttle 'overboost'.
The Performance is the one you want, obviously. As well as the power hike - which helps it get from 0-62mph in 6.1 seconds, a tiny 0.3 seconds ahead of the standard version - you get larger 19-inch alloy wheels, electrically-adjustable front seats and leather trim, an operatic 'active' exhaust system, and serious hardware such as a trick electronic limited slip differential and beefed up brakes.
That, it seems to me, more than justifies the price difference between the two N models.
But if you value how a car drives more than what badge is on its tailgate, you can acknowledge that the N brand puts Hyundai in the same conversation as GTI, Renault Sport, RS and Type R
Both have the electronic controlled suspension which is clearly key to the i30 N's wide range of ability. An increasing number of cars, including some other hot hatches, can be specified with similar systems but few are as accomplished or offer the range of adjustment as Hyundai's.
Being able to soften and stiffen the suspension according to your mood, the road or the task at hand is part of what makes the i30 N such a strong hot hatch: keep everything soft and comfy for a trip to the shops, the rush hour commute or driving the mother-in-law; tighten it up for a solo drive on a favourite back road... or maybe to give the mother-in-law a fright...
Throttle response, exhaust noise, steering weight, stability control, differential response and rev-matching can also be adjusted.
Other trickery includes launch control, oodles of safety gadgetry, smartphone mirroring and basically everything you would expect on a well-equipped luxury hot hatch.
It would be a bit much to expect the Hyundai i30 N, no matter how accomplished, to have the same kudos straight out of the box as, say a Golf GTI.
But if you value how a car drives more than what badge is on its tailgate, you can acknowledge that the N brand puts Hyundai in the same conversation as GTI, Renault Sport, RS and Type R.
And that, from a standing start, is why the established order need to be afraid - very afraid.
AT A GLANCE
Hyundai i30 N Performance
Engine and transmission: 2.0-litre four-cylinder petrol turbo, six-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel-drive; 271bhp, 260lb.ft, with 279lb.ft 'overboost' for up to 18 seconds
Performance: Top speed 155mph, 0-62mph in 6.1 seconds
Fuel consumption and CO2: 39.8mph (EU combined), 163g/km
Car tax: £500 in first year, then £140 annually
Benefit in kind: 31 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Five stars (88/84/64/68), 2017