First Drive: Hyundai i30 N

Brand loyalty has many forms and sources which are especially resilient in our local market. Hyundai has finally made an attempt to infiltrate the southern African hot hatch segment and we attended the S.A. launch to see if the i30 N stands a chance against the Golf GTi’s and Type R’s of this world.

Ignoring any rave international reviews for the moment, Hyundai certainly started with the right ingredients. They chose their biggest hatchback, the locally-discontinued i30, shoe-horned the customary two-litre twin-scroll turbo-petrol four cylinder under the bonnet but then started to veer off on their own path.

With up to 202kW (275hp) or 353Nm on tap, the Korean manufacturer chose front-wheel drive, a six-stack manual gearbox and a supremely clever e-diff for transferring power to your chosen road surface. And to let the proverbial cat right out of its bag, I wasn’t the only journalist who confirmed that this recipe works.

Despite scorching temperatures, the Western Cape launch route included village traffic, highway cruising, sweeping country lanes, some tight mountain passes and, oh, you know, a race track. Not only did the fleet of i30 N’s perform admirably, they also convinced the harshest critics with their impressive ride and cabin quality.

Did you know? N symbolises Nanyang, the car’s birthplace, but also pays tribute to its preferred testing grounds… the notorious Nürburgring Nordschleife (“Northern Loop”).

Hyundai execs rightfully boasted about recent rally and endurance racing victories, which obviously benefits fast production cars like this one. Speaking of which, the i30 N is quite a pioneer because it formally introduces us to the N performance brand while being the first genuine N-car from Korea.

More N-models will follow later while “N Line” vehicles get some cosmetic and drive train tweaks. The i30 N however, is distinguished by its stiffer chassis, adaptive suspension, sporty 19-inch alloys, red pin-striping, black headlight bezels, twin chrome exhaust tips, gloss black spoiler with triangular third brake light and N-specific interior goodies.

These include N logos on the seats, four-way drive mode selector, N-mode button, as well as a racy instrument cluster with adaptive red-line and shift lights. Other highlights are the wireless phone charging tray, 8-inch media touchscreen, heated seats and steering wheel, power everything and a gigantic glass roof.

Depending on the chosen drive mode, you also get a rev-matching feature which blips the throttle to the exact engine revs needed for the preceding gear. There’s also a launch control function (yes, in a manual), cabin sound generator, 18-second over-boost feature and a selectable “straight-through” exhaust flap.

“Why did it take so long to get here?” was the inevitable question during our Q&A session… which local execs explained as follows. The vehicle’s popularity exceeded everyone’s expectations and demand quickly overwhelmed the Czech Republic supply lines. It sold just over 20,000 units since its launch in 2016.

Not only is that dangerously close to the Golf GTi’s output, it also meant that the northern hemisphere (and presumably, left-hand drive) got preference until supply caught up with sales. Throw in some exchange rate headaches, price negotiations or RHD delays and this is the earliest they could land the i30 N on our shores.

Yes, there are differences to the overseas models but in all fairness that also applies to most of its direct rivals.

Did anyone say rivals? Below is a simplified table of comparable specifications which puts a lot of things into perspective; not least the Hyundai’s rather steep asking price.

Vehicle EnginekWNmDrive TrainPrice
Mini hatch John Cooper Works2.0T i41703208sp Auto, FWDR551,265
VW Golf GTi DSG 2.0T i41693506sp DCT, FWDR568,600
Renault Megane RS 280 1.8T i42053906sp DCT, FWDR589,900
Audi S3 Sportback 2.0T i42284007sp DCT, AWDR679,189
—- Hyundai i30 N —-2.0T i42023536sp Man, FWDR679,900
VW Golf R DSG 4M 2.0T i42284007sp DCT, AWDR684,400
Honda Civic Type R 2.0T i42284006sp Man, FWDR699,900
BMW M135i xDrive 2.0T i42254508sp Auto, AWDR711,452
Mercedes-AMG A35 2.0T i42254007sp DCT, FWDR758,946
Mercedes-AMG A45 2.0T i43105008sp DCT, AWDR995,108
BMW M2 Competition 3.0T i63025507sp DCT, RWDR1,003,030

So. The i30 N is uncomfortably sandwiched between the more powerful (and all-wheel drive) Audi S3 and Golf R, yet its caretakers will quickly remind you that the Hyundai offers better value for money due to its extremely generous warranty, service plan and standard specifications.

Oh, and those other toys I mentioned earlier are already included in the price which, when adjusted accordingly, slides the N into the ranks of the less powerful Golf GTi or traction-challenged Megane RS 280. Both of which, by the way, are only available as automatics.

Its only manual competitor, the Honda Civic Type R, falls into the same swivel-eyed category as the equally front-wheel drive Megane RS, i.e. bordering on overpowered. Whatever Hyundai have engineered onto the front drive shafts certainly does a superb job at curbing torque steer at most speeds.

So if you’re worried about its performance deficit – like the 0-100 time of 6,1 seconds – you best over-steer towards any of the previously mentioned rivals. In yet another unanimous approval from my peers, Hyundai has managed to produce a serious hot hatch with manageable power, great handling and VW-like build quality.

For a first attempt, it’s extremely impressive!

Hyundai’s marketing speaks of driving pleasure promises, feeling the N-feeling and BPM’s (heart rate) instead of RPM’s (engine speed) and this halo car being race-track ready which… um, is absolutely true. If you’re looking for a powerful, refined, manual, front-wheel drive hot hatch… this is the best one right now.

A dual-clutch automatic version should make its appearance next year which just happens to coincide beautifully with the launch of Golf 8 GTi.

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