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Hyundai rocks our world with hottest hatch it’s ever made

Wednesday, 22nd August, 2018 4:29pm

You just don’t expect it from a Hyundai, but then that’s kinda the point.

Hyundai has never made an overtly high-performance car before, at least not in Europe. For a time it did make a big, rear-drive V8 coupe for the US market, but that was more cruiser than bruiser.

This, the i30N, is a rather more serious device. It’s designed to go head-to-head and toe-to-toe with the high performance glitterati of the big European car makers. This is a rival to the likes of the Golf GTI, the Megane RS, and the Focus ST, and yet it comes from a car maker best known for its affordable hatchbacks and family-friendly SUVs.

Why? Well, it’s partly because there is lucrative cash to be made from enthusiastic owners who will happily pay in the region of €40,000 for this i30N, when the more common-or-garden i30 models cost closer to €20,000.

There’s a more serious side to it than that, though. Hyundai has recognised that the motoring world is changing fast, and that big multi-national conglomerates, such as itself, aren’t always capable of changing tack fast enough to keep up.

What can speed up those internal corporate processes? Simple — motor sports, and the building of sporting cars. Hyundai has realised what so many others have done before, which is that the mentality that goes with high-performance cars is exactly the mentality you need to succeed in business today. Do it fast, but do it right, and do it with a little passion, while you’re at it.

So, and not for the first time, the Korean giant has begun poaching the cream of Europe’s sporting car talent to help create its N-Division. The N name comes both from Hyundai’s own engineering and design HQ, at Namyang in South Korea, as well as the famous Nurburgring race track in Germany, where its new performance cars are put through their paces.

It’s also, pointedly, one letter up from BMW’s M, and it was from BMW’s famed motor sports division that Hyundai plucked its two new superstars — Albert Biermann and Thomas Schemera. In former lives, these two were responsible for several generations of M3, M5, and the brilliant M2 models, and now they’re making hot Hyundais.

In the grand hot hatch tradition, the i30N starts like as a conventional i30 — a quietly handsome, not-bad-to-drive family hatchback. N-Division widens the wheelarches at the front and rear, and installs broader suspension, with adjustable dampers, and big 19 inch alloy wheels.

Up front, there’s a new 2.0 litre turbo petrol engine with 250hp. Except there isn’t, because while you can have a 250hp version, you’d be so much better off with the N Performance model, which gets a boost to 275hp, and comes with an electronically controlled differential between the front wheels to help put the power down smoothly.

The spec is topped off by a six-speed manual gearbox, which has a delightfully mechanical, snicky, action, a subtle, but muscular bodykit, and Performance Blue paint, with some little red highlights. It’s not in-your-face in terms of looks, but it is very purposeful.

And it is almost entirely brilliant to drive. You can, as is the way with such things, juggle the setting and parameters of the engine and suspension around. There are two, gorgeous, anodised aluminium buttons set into the steering wheel which allow you to switch between Normal, Sport, and N-Modes, as well as a customisable Individual mode.

In Normal, the i30N feels potent enough. With 275hp it was hardly going to feel otherwise, and with an overlying stiffness to the springs, it always feels a touch hard-edged, no matter how gently you drive it, but it is quick, fluent, and fun.

Up the game to Sport mode and the ride becomes stiffer still, the steering loads up, and the throttle becomes noticeably more sharp.

It is in N-Mode though that the real fireworks begin. The engine now howls and roars through its sports exhaust and sends out an almost alarming cannonade of pops and crackles when you lift of the throttle.

That e-diff means you can seriously get the power down, but there is still some torque steer to deal with, and the steering itself feels a little too stiff in this mode.

Better to go for Individual, and set the car up to have the engine in maximum attack mode, but keep the suspension and steering in their gentler settings. Thus equipped, the i30N is perfectly set up for Irish roads, able to absorb most of the worst of the bumps, and yet still feels utterly rapid and agile.

It is big, proper, fun this car, and that’s all the more remarkable when you remember that Hyundai has never before made a car like the i30N. This is its first try, and there are already improvements to the suspension and steering in the pipeline for the 2019 model year.

It’s not perfect, by any means. Excellent seats apart, the interior is a little dowdy for a car with this kind of price tag (although it must be said that overall quality is excellent and the central touchscreen is very good).

And while the suspension and steering are from the very top of drawers, overall the i30N isn’t quite as fluid nor as well balanced as a (less powerful, more expensive) VW Golf GTI.

Make no mistake, though; Hyundai has seriously arrived as a performance car manufacturer, and that mentality and sense of purpose is going to slowly trickle down to the rest of the Korean car maker’s range.

We hadn’t expected the i30N to be this good, but we can safely expect more of its like to come.

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