Hyundai's answer to the VW Golf GTI is a credible entry to the fierce hot hatch class.
The hot hatch sector may be fierce, but Hyundai means business with the i30N. This is the Korean car maker’s first dedicated model to represent Hyundai’s emerging high-performance vehicle division, otherwise known as ‘N’.
The N brand may still be in its infancy - the moniker was first introduced on the Hyundai i20 WRC rally car in 2014 – yet the team behind this race-inspired road car are proven, with some big hires coming from BMW’s M Division.
Two versions are set to go on UK sale in January 2018: the 247bhp i30 N and the range-topping 271bhp i30 N Performance on test here. Both versions use a turbocharged 2-litre petrol engine, but the Performance is fitted with bigger wheels, bigger brakes and an electronic limited-slip differential. It's expected to account for more than 90 percent of UK sales.
Rest assured this isn’t just a regular Hyundai i30 with exclusive Performance Blue paint. The i30 N Performance has been two and half years in the making and features hefty mechanical and aero upgrades.
Compared to the regular five-door hatchback, the i30N Performance sits 8mm lower with extended arches to accommodate 19-inch wheels, bespoke Pirelli P-Zero tyres and distinctive red N branded brake callipers with larger brake discs (18-inch at the front, 17-inch at the rear). The black side sills help to make the car look lower, while the third triangular brake light and rear diffuser, bookended by a pair of exhausts, offer a motorsport vibe.
Under the skin, the front sub-frame has been strengthened, there are improved engine and transmission mounts and the front wheels have increased camber stiffness and negative camber angle. Wheel camber has a major effect on the road holding of a car; negative camber is when the wheels lean in towards the chassis.
There’s more; a cross-brace running across the boot has also been installed to increase the lateral stiffness, but true to the everyday brief of this car, you can remove the bar with a few bolts should you wish to make a weekend trip to Ikea.
Of course, this being a Hyundai, you also have a raft of standard technology and safety equipment, including climate control, an eight-inch infotainment screen complete with digital radio, navigation with real-time updates and smartphone integration.
There's also two sets of Isofix points for child car seats, autonomous emergency braking, hill start assist, lane departure warning and that five-year, unlimited mileage warranty.
How does it drive?
Hyundai is keen to point out that the key focus with the i30 N and i30 N Performance is on driving pleasure, rather than huge horsepower, so the international launch circuit first let us thrash the car around the Autodromo Vallelunga in Rome, followed by an hour of driving on some very broken B-roads.
Hyundai may be building a business case for performance parts and accessories that include Recaro bucket seats, semi-cut slick tyres and forged OZ Hyper GT wheels, but the overwhelming sense you get from behind the wheel isn’t about its track-honed nature. It’s how brisk yet civilised this car could be as a daily driver. The Volkswagen Golf GTI, Peugeot 308 GTI and Ford Focus ST are all very much in the crosshairs.
Low revs pickup is strong and lag free, while torque steer – that sensation you feel on some powerful front-wheel drive cars when the steering wheel tugs to one side – is well mitigated under hard acceleration. Thanks to an overboost function that increases peak torque from 260lb ft to 279lb ft of pull, you always find yourself in a lovely swell of mid-range, too.
More impressive is the fact the i30 N has a suppleness to its chassis, while offering decent ride comfort too. Key to this is the continuously variable dampers which help prevent too much roll through corners or dive under breaking. It isn’t one of those washboard-flat cornering cars – there is still some movement – but that’s what makes it feel alive and enjoyable. There’s also a button to turn off traction control and ESC, and it properly turns it off.
The driving position is set quite high, like a Ford Focus ST, although the standard electrically adjustable leather and suede seats can be replaced with cloth items that sit marginally lower, shaving 12.7kg from the kerbweight in the process. The pedals are slightly offset, and the six-speed manual gearbox is the sweetest unit we have ever tested in a Hyundai: short in throw, positive in use; just lovely.
According to Hyundai bosses, the dual-clutch automatic transmission that is currently available in other models would not have been able to manage the torque transfer and track performance, so it's manual or nothing for now in the i30 N.
The steering weight is best in Normal mode, but it's still devoid of feel. The wheel itself has two prominent buttons finished in the same Performance Blue as the exterior. The left button allows you to toggle through Eco, Normal and Sport, the right button lets you engage full attack ‘N’ mode, plus a custom setting to tailor the steering, suspension, engine response and exhaust note individually.
Handy, because while we’re fans of the engine’s response in N mode, we’re less enamoured by the ‘enhanced sound’ that gets pumped into the cabin for a sportier effect. Just like the system in the Golf GTI, it sounds synthetic at best, and like something has broken at worst. It stays off.
Should I buy one?
Hot hatch fans, ignore this car at your peril. The N badge may not have the history or pedigree of names like GTI, Type R and Renaultsport, but Hyundai has made a very credible start in the performance car sector. Considered as a warm, rather than hot hatch, it’s competitive on performance, equipment and price. We feel a group test coming on...
Gallery: Hyundai i30 N
Hyundai i30 N Performance Package