Hyundai i30N review: new lights, and newly paddleshifted
OVERVIEW - What is it?
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 300bhp and a development programme 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 favourite 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.
The churlish among you might point out 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. Rumours 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 hatchback market, there’s lots to like about that. Its 2.0-litre 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 247bhp, sports seats and a full suite of adjustable driving modes with launch control, with another three grand adding a Performance Pack with a rowdy sports exhaust, a limited-slip differential for more precise handling and 19in wheels with stickier tyres, as well as another 24bhp.
It proved such good value, that for the i30N’s mid-life update, Hyundai’s ditched the base model in the UK. It’s also boosted the remaining model’s power (now 276bhp), stripped a bit of weight, given it stronger brakes and new tyres and added the option of – shock! – an eight-speed paddleshift gearbox. The new head and taillights and larger exhaust pipes seem almost token when the rest of the facelift’s been so heavily thought about.
Oh, and if a sensible old five-door isn’t quite your style, the i30N also comes in Fastback form, pictured here in grey. It’s still a hatchback, but is designed to resemble a saloon car. It’s Hyundai’s attempt at cracking the Mercedes CLA market, and adds £500 to the asking price, but brings more boot space with it.
DRIVING - What is like on the road?
In short, this thing’s sensational. Sure, its outright performance figures lag behind a Honda Civic Type R or Renault Megane RS, but that’s not the point. The N may partially stand for Nürburgring, but Hyundai didn’t go chasing lap records there. The i30N prioritises fun over outright grip and ability.
Here’s a car that’ll give you a bit more torque steer than its rivals, a more fidgety ride over rough surfaces and a scrabble for grip when the conditions are sub-par. It’s rougher round 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. Importantly, 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 (Leon Cupra), others have a chassis that shines in specific circumstances but are a bit plain if you’re not at maximum attack (Megane RS).
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.
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, for starters, but you can also turn it on and off with one simple button.
While other manufacturers only let you use their rev-matching when the 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.
The eight-speed automatic isn’t one to immediately shun, though. Much like the car as a whole, Hyundai’s knocked it out the park right from the off. The fact you get a nice, big physical gear selection knob that physically clicks between P, R, N and D is a strong start, when too many of the i30N’s 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’ ensure the car’s extremely smart at doing its own shifts when you’re driving quickly but not pulling the paddles, while ‘N Grin Shift’ gives you 20 seconds 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.
ON THE INSIDE - Layout, finish and space
It’s lighter and brighter in here than the i30N’s myriad 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.
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 boot 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 favourite 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 litres of luggage room, too.
As mentioned, the i30N’s mid-life update has brought a bigger media screen with much better graphics, including a very clever way of pulling together your favourite 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 Biermann appears to have brought with him…
OWNING - Running costs and reliability
The i30’s already impressive five-year warranty also includes track use with the N, which is simply unheard of. It has the potential to be financially crippling if enough people go overrevving their engines on Friday evenings around Bedford, but Hyundai’s clever: encourage people to razz these around on circuit and you’ll suddenly have a paddock normally dominated by Caterhams, 911s, Elises and RenaultSports with a group of Korean hatchbacks scattered throughout it, too. Way to convince petrolheads your car is made of the good stuff.
We lived with an i30N for close to a year, and in all honesty, fell head over heels. But there were a couple of issues using one as a daily driver. Its relatively small fuel tank and typically high-20s mpg meant it’d only just manage 300 miles on a tank, and usually only by playing chicken with the fuel light for a handful of that distance. Its turning circle, meanwhile, resembled an oil tanker’s. Both issues afflict an array of front-driven hot hatches – fast Ford Focuses, especially – but the i30N seemed to take each one on a step. Perhaps speccing the paddleshift ‘box and letting it do its own thing on a motorway run will add some crucial mpgs into the mix.
But the rest of the ownership experience was a piece of cake (servicing costs around £185 every 12 months or 10,000 miles) and the tenacity and aggression when you drove the car hard warranted a few rough edges in tamer, everyday use. The fact one of the most fun full-size hot hatches on sale is also by far the cheapest to lease and easiest to justify from a warranty perspective feels borderline silly, but that really is the case.
Buying a pre-facelift i30N on the used market? The entry-level car comes with most of the sensible equipment you could ask for – sports seats, sat nav, an array of active safety systems, 18in alloys – with its 2.0-litre turbo engine producing 247bhp. The i30N Performance adds 24bhp, an electronic limited-slip differential, a quite juvenile (but hugely fun) sports exhaust, larger 19in alloys with Pirelli tyres and electric seats trimmed in higher quality materials. It’s a no-brainer if you want the most satisfying driving experience possible and given how many more of these sold than the base car, there doesn’t appear to a price premium second hand.
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 metres 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.
Words: Stephen Dobie
Hyundai's first full-strength performance car, and it's nailed it. Few hot hatches are this fun to drive
|A total scamp to drive, yet so easy to live with||A weeny bit rough around the edges|