In our Hyundai i30 N Performance review, we see if the South Korean’s most powerful hatchback since the i30 Turbo and Veloster Turbo can take on the likes of the VW Golf, Honda Civic Type R, BMW M140i and Ford Focus RS.
When Hyundai UK CEO and president Tony Whitehorn introduced the i30 N to motoring journalists, who had gathered on a crisp, autumnal morning at Cadwell Park in Lincolnshire, he opened with a Susan Boyle analogy. Bear with us.
His point was that nobody expected Susan Boyle to sound as good as she did, let alone imagine her as a global megastar. Just like nobody expects a manufacturer of typically sensible, beige vehicles to create an apex-nudging, bringer of fast lap times.
Yet here we are, looking at the rather handsome i30 N, which is actually Hyundai’s third attempt at attracting the ‘yout’. The Veloster Turbo was actually pretty damn decent to drive and there was also the i30 Turbo, although that was more lukewarm than hot.
New or not, the goal is the same. Hyundai, which saw sales increase by two per cent where most have seen a drop, is using ‘Brexit’ uncertainty to enhance desirability. To do that, it has brought in someone who knows a little about sporty cars.
Specifically, Albert Biermann. The chap who headed up BMW’s M Performance division for 32 years, no less, and was responsible for the M3 E30 race car, X5 SUV and, the 1 Series M Coupe, which is often considered as one of BMW’s most compelling four-wheelers.
As the ‘executive vice president for vehicle testing and high performance development’, Biermann had a lot of say in the development of the i30 N as well as the Kia Stinger. That meant he could potentially deliver on his goal to mimic the bullet-proof, sporty BMWs of yesteryear.
Apart from being next in the alphabet after M, N was used for a couple of reasons. Namyang is home to the N High Performance Vehicle Development Centre, which was founded in 2012 and is home to around 130 employees.
It is also a nod to the Nurburgring, where the South Korean manufacturer put the i30 N through its paces. Because, as Hyundai explained, it could rack up 120,000 miles over 480 laps in just four weeks. The perfect way to ensure your latest creation is built to last, then.
Biermann says the i30 N is about “BPM, not RPM,” which could be construed as poor justification for being less powerful than the hot hatchback heavy-hitters, the Honda Civic Type Rs, Focus RSs and BMW M140is.
But the N exercise, though unlikely to make Hyundai vast piles of cash (or even quite a small one), has been taken incredibly seriously and coincides perfectly with its continued push into WRC and TCR motorsports. Has it resulted in a car that we would want to own, though?
We spent half an hour in the i30 N Performance lapping the ‘Mini Nurburgring’, as it has been called, and then a few hours out on Lincolnshire’s gloriously empty country roads to decide.
Hyundai i30 N review: What is it?
The Hyundai i30 N is based on the third-generation and latest i30, which was refreshed back in March, 2017. That means five doors in addition to a 381-litre boot, making it as practical as a VW Golf and only 14 litres fewer than the standard i30.
The front wheels are fed either 246bhp or 271bhp, depending on whether you get the i30 N or the pricier and sportier i30 N Performance. Either way, the 2.0-litre four-cylinder (seen in various Hyundais but never to this level of power) offers 260lb/ft of torque at 1,500 to 4,700rpm.
“Before we get to how the i30 N drives, we should point out Hyundai’s five-year unlimited mileage warranty applies to track days.”The gearbox is a six-speed manual only to emphasise the involvement factor, while the front and rear suspension is of the MacPherson strut and multi-link variety, respectively. Both models also share a rev-match function, launch control and an eight-inch infotainment display with navigation.
Besides weighing a little more (up to 1,509kg compared to 1,480kg for the standard N), the i30 N Performance features beefier 330mm discs, up 30mm in diameter, red brake calipers with the N logo, 19-inch alloys and an electronic limited-slip differential.
Not only that, you can adjust the noise of the exhaust on the i30 N Performance using the active variable exhaust system to induce crackle and pop sounds at 3,000rpm when in the Custom and N driving modes.
You can also shift between a gentle Eco mode (for saving fuel), the less reserved Normal and then more immediate Sport using a button on the steering wheel – just over from the button to enable or disable the auto-blip function that replicates heel and toe.
“There is a simple, very precise way to how the i30 N handles. Very point and shoot…”Then there is N, which is for the track, while Custom lets you fettle with just about everything for your perfect combination. The idea is that if you want gentler suspension and the loudest exhaust note, you can, and an easy to use menu makes it easy.
Before we get to how the i30 N drives, we should point out the fact Hyundai’s five-year unlimited mileage warranty applies to track days. As far as we know, that is a first for a sporty hatchback. Sadly, drive into a barrier at 80mph and you are on your own.
Prices start from £24,995 for the i30 N and £27,995 for the i30 N Performance. The one optional extra is metallic paint, which costs £585, but you can also choose to swap the latter’s leather seats in favour of cloth alternatives to save 12.7kg of weight.
Hyundai i30 N: What is it like on track?
Imagine a normal Hyundai. Got it? Now remove that thought because the i30 N is an absolute riot. Very un-Hyundai, if you will, and the fast corners and elevation changes of Cadwell Park circuit only make that more obvious.
Slap the i30 N into its all-singing and all-dancing N driving mode and you get suspension that almost entirely eliminates body roll, while the steering firms up to provide a very natural, intuitive feel and the engine makes more noise.
There is a simple, very precise way to how the i30 N handles. Very point and shoot, with little repurcussion for getting things wrong providing you are quick with the counter-steer.
You can, for instance, easily dab the brakes to get the grippy Pirelli P Zeros – of a bespoke compound, the same for other Hyundais – back in line and resettle the chassis if your entry speed is too fast. The rear tyres and weight distribution ensures the rear is almost always planted throughout.
The i30 N Performance’s electronic differential makes it possible to exit a corner with ridiculous speed. Getting used to just how early you can apply more power mid-corner to counteract a small amount of turbo lag and maximise speed is really the only hurdle.
Quite honestly, the chassis of the i30 N is considerably more nimble than that of the Ford Focus RS and reminiscent of the Civic Type R. It is just so balanced and predictable that getting the best from it is only ever as easy as it is rewarding.
Keep on keeping on and the exhaust chucks out a few loud but controlled pops, never to the overly artificial extent of the Focus RS. For a four-cylinder, the engine noise is surprisingly agreeable, it must be said, and we never tired of hearing it, lap after lap.
“Will it lose in a drag race? Most likely. But for getting the heart pumping, it is surprisingly close to the Type R…”Compared with the top-end of the hot hatchback food chain, the i30 N is way off the pace (but also a lot cheaper). 271bhp in the i30 N Performance is 73bhp less than the Focus RS, which is why partly why the former needs 6.1 seconds from 0-62mph compared to 4.7.
In reality, the i30 N blitzed to 100mph on the Cadwell Park ‘straight’, which is anything but. It lacks the savage, untameable sense of urgency you get in the Type R, but it has its own infectious enthusiasm you quickly appreciate.
A small amount of turbo lag works in the car’s favour. Instant punch is decent, but it is the subsequent full power kick, coupled with the rev counter lighting up like a Christmas tree, that highlights the 2.0-litre’s breadth of capability. We only ever needed 3rd and 4th, such is the flexible torque gap.
From zero is where the power deficit is noticeable. Go full attack in the Type R and its front wheels send the traction systems into meltdown for at least two gears, while the i30 N has things under control by the end of 1st.
There is no disputing the fact you could add significantly more power to the i30 N and give the M140i’s Baukasten lump something to worry about, but then being slightly less ballistic means you can push it harder within the realms of sensible and legal.
The manual gearbox is just as well-thought out as the rest of the i30 N, with considerably shorter and clear-cut shifts between gears than in a Focus RS and M140i, but it is never quite as slotty (that is now a word) as the Type R, which errs closest to Caterham for stubbiness and mechanical feel.
Another plus is the rev-match function, which can easily be turned off (take note, other manufacturers). You may want to heel and toe yourself, but there is no real need because it works so effectively at helping keep the car unflustered and it actually becomes more aggressive in Sport and N.
By the end of our 30-minute session, it was time to cool the brakes, which had remained fade free and strong throughout. We had come to realise how remarkably competent the i30 N is, particularly as you get faster ─ or let a pro driver show you how it’s done, as we did for one final lap.
Hyundai i30 N: What about on rubbish UK roads?
Blitzing along Lincolnshire’s swoopy, traffic-free country roads, the i30 N is just as pleasing. Mid-corner pot holes do nothing to knock it off course and there is just so much grip and pace on offer that it could give just about any car a run for its money.
It is possible to tempt the i30 N into a bit of a tail slide, particularly when the road is damp, which only heightens the satisfaction. There is a sense the car is always working with you to maximise your time in the car, not just keep you out of the hedge.
In N mode, the i30 N is akin to the Focus RS in terms of harshness. Liveable, just, but typically unpleasant. The softer Sport and Normal modes are considerably more preferable on your typical British road, with a firm but agreeable ride throughout.
Upon returning to low-speed suburbia, the DNA of the standard i30 N shone through. The cabin is quiet, especially when you variable exhaust is set to its less noisy setting, and the steering is light enough for any manoeuvre. Visibility, meanwhile, is excellent.
The fact you have a decent boot and rear seat space, coupled with its civilised road manner, means you can take the i30 N on the school run and avoid costing you dearly if the 40.1mpg combined figure is even 75 per cent accurate. Tax is bearable, too, thanks to 163g/km of CO2.
You could pick fault with the styling, which is reserved in an M140i way. Yet, thanks to that unique Performance Blue (other colours are available, including Polar White and Micron Grey), it is still distinct. We rather like the fact it is a bit of a ‘Q car’.
There is a very distinct standard i30 N vibe to the cabin. Apart from the Performance Blue buttons for switching driving modes, supportive sports seats and blue stitching, it is business as usual. Uninspiring, but robust enough to survive daily life.
Given the lower price, it is easier to forgive the i30 N in this area, especially as there are relatively few buttons and most sit where you would expect them to. It helps the display is touch-sensitive and only responsible for the lesser-used functionality.
Hyundai i30 N review: Should I buy one, then?
We need more time with the i30 N to decide where exactly it sits on the sporty hatchback podium, but that is remarkable, isn’t it? That Hyundai has been able to create a genuine alternative to its impressively talented rivals without needing as much power – and for less money.
Will it lose in a straight-up drag race? Most likely. But for getting the heart pumping, it is surprisingly close to the class-leading Type R and on a par with the Focus RS. The irony is that while certain recent M cars have been sterile, Hyundai has used Biermann to create the polar opposite.
You buy a hot hatch because you want a fast and affordable runaround. But you also want it to be exciting, something the i30 N does so well you forget it is a Hyundai at all. And seeing as that is the main issue holding it back, that is a very good thing.