Review: Few hot hatches are as fun to drive as the Hyundai i30N

The Korean carmaker has nailed its first full-strength performance car
by Stephen Dobie | Nov 11, 2020
PHOTO: TopGear.com
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This is the first proper Hyundai performance car. There have been efforts before—mildly hot hatches and big-bumpered F2 editions of the pretty ’90s Hyundai Coupe—but nothing with circa 300hp and a development program overseen by a former BMW M boss.

Which is what you’re looking at here. The i30N has been developed at a depth far beyond any quick Hyundai before it, and you’ll tell before the wheels have turned an inch. An illuminated rev counter whose redline shifts as the engine warms up, the ability to channel your favorite mix of chassis settings into one button press, a manual gearbox and handbrake...this is a car that’s been honed by bona fide driving enthusiasts without yielding to the needs of marketing departments and the like.

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The churlish among you might point out that many of those nods are nicked wholesale from BMW M cars of the last decade. We’d respond by pointing out there are worse places to take inspiration from, and that Hyundai’s N boss Albert Biermann—as a former M Division chief—is perfectly entitled to bring the best bits of his old workplace across to his new one. Rumors that he also took a bagful of Sharpies and file dividers from the stationary cupboard on the way out? Neither confirmed nor denied.

So, the i30N’s spec. It won’t win a game of Top Trumps, but in an increasingly mad hot-hatch market, there’s lots to like about that. Its 2.0-liter turbo engine drives the front wheels only, through a six-speed manual gearbox only in early cars. Upon launch, you had a choice of two specs—a base car with 247hp, sports seats, and a full suite of adjustable driving modes with launch control, and one with a Performance Pack boasting a rowdy sports exhaust, a limited-slip differential for more precise handling, 19-inch wheels with stickier tires, and another 24hp.

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It proved such good value that for the i30N’s midlife update, Hyundai has ditched the base variant in some markets. The carmaker has also boosted the remaining variant’s power (now 276hp), stripped a bit of weight, given it stronger brakes and new tires, and added the option of—shock!—an eight-speed paddle-shift gearbox. The new head- and taillights and the larger exhaust pipes seem almost token when the rest of the facelift has been so heavily thought about.

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Oh, and if a sensible old five-door isn’t quite your style, the i30N also comes in Fastback form, pictured here in gray. It’s still a hatchback, but it’s designed to resemble a sedan. It’s Hyundai’s attempt at cracking the Mercedes-Benz CLA market, and adds more trunk space for good measure.

On the road

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In short, this thing is sensational. Sure, its outright performance figures lag behind a Honda Civic Type R, but that’s not the point. The N may partially stand for Nürburgring, but Hyundai didn’t go chasing lap records there. The i30N prioritizes fun over outright grip and ability.

Here’s a car that’ll give you a bit more torque steer than its rivals will, a more fidgety ride over rough surfaces, and a scrabble for grip when the conditions are subpar. It’s rougher around the edges, but that’s its making: It’s a vastly more involving car at moral speeds than competitors whose limits sit uncomfortably high nowadays.

It eggs you on, lifts your mood, and livens up any stretch of road. Also, it lets you impose your own driving style upon it. Some hot hatches demand you make allowances for their overpowered and slightly frenetic front axle; others have a chassis that shines in specific circumstances but are a bit plain if you’re not at maximum attack.

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The i30N responds faithfully to whatever you throw at it. If you want really impressive stability in high-speed corners, it’s got it. If you’d like to lift off into a damp second-gear corner to feel the car move around, it’ll do that, too. In all circumstances, the exhaust crackles away on a trailing throttle to widen your grin further.

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The standard six-speed manual gearbox—still the enthusiast’s choice—comes with rev-matching. It’s one of the very sharpest examples of the tech out there, but you can also turn it on and off with one simple button. While other manufacturers only let you use their rev-matching when stability control is on—then only let you heel-and-toe yourself with the nannies off—Hyundai lets you use the system on your own terms. Simple, but it’s been considered carefully.

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The eight-speed automatic isn’t one to immediately shun, though. Much like the car as a whole, Hyundai has knocked it out the park right from the off. The fact that you get a nice, big gear-selection knob that physically clicks between P, R, N, and D is a strong start, when too many rivals have tried something gimmickier. The paddles are small and fixed to the wheel—as opposed to being fixed on the column—but their reactions are quick and there’s a bunch of little extras that come attached to ticking the options box.

N Track Sense Shift’ ensures that the car is extremely smart at doing its own shifts when you’re driving quickly but not pulling the paddles, while ‘N Grin Shift’ gives you 20sec of the i30N’s gnarliest acceleration at the touch of a button, just like Porsche’s ‘Sport Response’ setup. While it’s clear N division’s naming department is working on commission, the actual functions give the twin-clutch automatic something to shout about over the manual.

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On the inside

It’s lighter and brighter in here than the i30N’s rivals from the Volkswagen Group, with flashes of baby blue throughout the hatchback and red smattered inside the Fastback.

The ergonomics have been nailed, too: clearly benchmarked on some of those VWs, with an easy-to-use touchscreen (much wider in the facelifted car), simple CarPlay connection, and a bunch of driver aids that deactivate with straightforward button presses.

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If that all sounds too sensible, then keen mimers of oversteer will enjoy a strut brace in the back (which doesn’t affect the i30’s practical cargo area or seating for five), front seat squabs that slide fore and aft (like in a BMW), and the ‘N’ performance button on the steering wheel that brings your favorite of the myriad drive and chassis settings together in one quick press (like an M car).

Like all the best hot hatches, it’s plenty practical enough in here to swallow most of the prosaic bits of everyday life. The swoopier Fastback version actually brings a whole 69 extra liters of luggage room, too.

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As mentioned, the i30N’s midlife update has brought a bigger media screen with much better graphics than before, including a very clever way of pulling together your favorite combination of driving modes. Given there are almost 2,000 possible combos, that’s welcome. You can even set up one of those mock log fires on the screen—complete with ambient noise—should you want to pop everything back into ‘comfort’ and just relax.

You can also option in a new pair of sports bucket seats, which save 1.1kg apiece over standard (so 2.2kg, it’s hardly like you’ll have odd seats), but then add a few grams back in with illuminated N badges that’ll sit between your shoulders as you drive, serving no real purpose. Another M Car touch that Biermann appears to have brought with him...

Final thoughts

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There are few other hot hatches that demonstrate such a transformation over their base car. The regular i30 is competent, but sensible to the point of anonymity. The i30N is fast, fun, and capable of bringing your inner scamp to the surface mere meters after you’ve pulled away. Just like all great hot hatches.

And make no mistake, this is a great hot hatch. Whichever body shape or gearbox you go for.

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NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.

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PHOTO: TopGear.com
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