The Hyundai i30 N is one of the most anticipated new models this year, but does it have what it takes to hold its own in the overcrowded performance hatchback market?
“Born in Namyang, honed at Nürburgring”, announced the main heading on a presentation slide at the local launch of the Hyundai i30 N in the Cape Winelands last month. One of 51, presented to the motley assemblage of journalists and influencers, the slide made no bones about the origin of Hyundai’s sporty ‘N’ sub-brand.
There were more hashtagable slogans to follow: “Feel the Feeling” was one, and “BPM not RPM”, another, all of them essential elements of the unique ‘N’ identity, according to Hyundai.
See, for the powerhouse Korean carmaker, there is more to the introduction of the i30 N to South Africa, than just crashing the established hot hatch party. Bringing future N-models and N-inspired cosmetic kits to this market are all part of their strategy. What we’re witnessing is a full-on performance brand launch, with the i30 N as the main act.
HOT HATCH HEADACHE
There’s no right time to enter the South African performance hatch market with a “first pancake”, as another journalist quipped during the i30 N launch. No matter when you do, you will be competing against such established greats as the Volkswagen Golf GTI and Renault’s Megane R.S. Cup, both meticulously crafted machines that have been developed over multiple generations, and both available at the pricey but palatable sub-R590,000 mark.
Raise the price ceiling to R700,000, and an even more formidable posse of premium competitors come into play – including the Golf R, Audi S3 Sportback, and the Honda Civic Type-R. Now you’re talking real money, and perhaps more importantly; decades-old motorsport heritage and the powerful brand cachet that comes with that.
Get it right, and your “first pancake” will be a crépe suzette. Get it wrong, and the sweet treat is headed for the bin.
DID HYUNDAI GET IT RIGHT?
If you’re pressed for time, I can save you the hassle of reading to the end of this article for an answer to that question, which is: Yes, but.
Yes, to almost every aspect of engineering brilliance that Hyundai crammed into the i30 N, sourced from its successful WRC and WTCR programmes, and honed to near-perfection at the Nürburgring by, among others, former BMW M heavyweight, Albert Biermann.
Also yes, because the i30 N’s mechanical pedigree more than stacks up on paper… The front wheels are tamed by an electromechanical limited-slip differential, the 2.0-litre turbo engine makes 202 kW and 353 Nm (378 Nm in overboost mode), and the 6-speed manual gearbox has close ratios, a short throw and auto rev-matching. There’s also launch control and configurable drive mode adjustment.
The suspension, tuned lower and firmer than the standard i30, has electronically actuated dampers that respond to road conditions and driver input, and can be adjusted for everyday driving too.
In the real world, this means two things for Hyundai’s newcomer: Straight-line acceleration is as dramatic as you want it to be, and it is every bit as capable in the twisties as any of its competitors.
HOLD YOUR HORSES
What the i30 N does well, is adapt to the needs and abilities of its driver. Every proper hot hatch should be able to play both Jekyll and Hyde, and while some cars with driving mode options don’t show enough differentiation, the Hyundai becomes a different car when you push the right buttons.
Comfort mode (on by default) softens the active dampers to the point where the ride becomes respectable, dulls the initial throttle response a tad, lightens the steering, sharpens electronic stability control, and steadies the exhaust note.
In Sport and N modes you’ll first notice the significantly sharpened throttle response, then the crackle and pop from the active exhaust as it burns any unspent fuel in the exhaust chamber. In N-mode, it delivers even more sound inside the cabin by literally vibrating the front windscreen.
The limited-slip diff is also primed and sharpened, while the steering becomes noticeably heavier and the suspension stiffens to maximise cornering ability and road-feel.
While I’m by no means a risk-taker behind the wheel, I do like my hot hatches somewhat twitchy, maybe even a little hyper when pushed to the edge – the Honda Type-R being a case in point here. The i30 N lives on the other end of the scale, where its almost clinical precision reveals Hyundai’s engineering brilliance, but loses some of the ‘edge’ that rivals like, the Civic Type-R, has in spades.
GREAT OR GOOD
I must doff my cap to Hyundai for leaving no stone unturned when creating the i30 N. All told; it is a brilliant first attempt that holds its own against some exceptional competitors in the performance segment.
Adjusted for price against its rivals, the level of standard spec in the Hyundai is remarkably high, and includes a touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and/or Android Auto, mixed leather and suede bucket seats (heated and electrically-adjusted in the front), keyless entry and start, a reverse camera and parking sensors all around, a sunroof, tyre pressure monitoring, cruise control, and wireless charging.
Everything you’d expect to see in the car at this price point is there. But, at the same time, I found it impossible to not think of how the Hyundai’s interior look and feel stacks up against its German rivals, in particular.
Author James C. Collins once wrote that “good is the enemy of great”, and the Hyundai suffers some of that melancholy inside the cabin. Interior build quality is good, quality of materials used, layout, design, it’s all good. Yet, apart from bucket seats with an embossed ‘N’ logo on the backrest, an N-specific instrument cluster and steering wheel with its blue N-mode activation button, there’s precious little inside the cabin that reminds you of the car’s extreme performance potential.
In its segment, the i30 N balances the forces of good and evil exceptionally well, and I walked away from the driving experience with very few criticisms. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea mainly because ‘N’ is still somewhat of an unknown entity in South Africa, and if we know anything about local car buyers it is that they are fiercely brand loyal. Sometimes even beyond reason.
It’s evident that the i30 N was crafted with care, and all Hyundai need do is get bums in seats, and the i30 N will do the rest.
Report by BERNIE HELLBERG JR | Images © HYUNDAI SOUTH AFRICA