Go to the Nth de­gree

Aim­ing to rise from pre­tender to con­tender, Hyundai takes on the revered hot hatches with the i30 N. Richard Blackburn gets track time

Herald Sun - Motoring - - FEATURE -

THIS is no or­di­nary Hyundai. For a start, it costs be­tween $300,000 and $350,000.

It’s also hand-built, one of only 20 world­wide and of­flim­its to the gen­eral pub­lic.

But they’re a brave mob at Hyundai and they’ve al­lowed a hand­ful of mo­tor­ing jour­nal­ists to sam­ple a pro­to­type of this land­mark hot hatch, the i30 N, at a tight, tree-lined pri­vate cir­cuit north of Syd­ney.

The pan­els are dis­guised, the cabin isn’t fin­ished yet but those are mi­nor de­tails, be­cause this car is all about the drive. Its job is to trans­form Hyundai from pre­tender to con­tender with driv­ing en­thu­si­asts.

The stakes are high. When it ar­rives here in about six months it will be pitched into bat­tle against revered hot hatches such as Volk­swa­gen’s Golf GTI and Subaru’s WRX.

Hyundai hasn’t de­cided on the price or whether there will be two i30Ns or just one.

For to­day’s ex­er­cise there are two vari­ants, one pow­ered by a 185kW turbo four and the other with the wick turned up to about 200kW. It also has big­ger 19-inch wheels, big­ger brakes, sticky Pirelli P-Zero tyres and elec­tron­ics that sim­u­late a lim­ited-slip dif­fer­en­tial to im­prove front-end grip and drive out of cor­ners.

Hyundai is likely to opt for the top-spec car only.

The i30 N is the baby of Al­bert Bier­mann, the for­mer BMW M Divi­sion en­gi­neer­ing boss who was poached by Hyundai in April 2015. It’s been a long ges­ta­tion but Bier­mann has been a busy man, work­ing for Hyundai and Kia to in­ject more per­son­al­ity and pre­ci­sion to the driv­ing ex­pe­ri­ence in both ranges.

Bier­mann says the em­pha­sis with the i30 N is on fun and the abil­ity to tune the car to suit the environment, be it race­track or high­way. “The key el­e­ment is to have a fun-to-drive car for the not-so-ex­pe­ri­enced sport driv­ers,” he says.

“The car should be ap­proach­able, you should have con­fi­dence in the car and you should have an en­joy­able ex­pe­ri­ence when you push it to the limit. The car gives you good feed­back and is very pre­cise.

“Our whole story at N is about the driv­ing fun and espe­cially fo­cus­ing on the cor­ner­ing. We love the cor­ners at N.”

To that end, the driver can ad­just per­for­mance pa­ram­e­ters. You can tune the sus­pen­sion, steer­ing, sta­bil­ity con­trol, en­gine re­sponse, ex­haust sound and the power de­liv­ery to the front wheels.

Only a six-speed man­ual is avail­able – an eight-speed du­al­clutch auto is still a cou­ple of years away. You’re not all on your own, though. There are shift lights and the car has a revmatch­ing fea­ture that blips the throt­tle to keep the revs up com­ing out of cor­ners.

Bier­mann says the em­pha­sis has been on feed­back over re­fine­ment.

“You might find that this is not the com­fort level you find in mod­ern front-drive cars but this is not the job of this car,” he says.

ON THE ROAD

The i30 N is so far re­moved from any­thing we’ve driven with a Hyundai badge, it’s hard to process.

It’s def­i­nitely quick off the mark and the en­gine feels will­ing all the way to the red­line. It also sounds like a race car, with a loud “blat” as you change gears and a blip of the throt­tle un­der brakes as you slow for a corner.

The steer­ing is sharp, the grip is fierce and, even un­der full throt­tle, there’s lit­tle ev­i­dence of torque steer, that dis­con­cert­ing tug­ging at the wheel you typ­i­cally get when a car puts a lot of power to the road through the front wheels.

The car is nicely bal­anced when asked to change direc­tion and the brake pedal stays firm through­out a three-lap stint on this tight and twisty 5km cir­cuit.

The bucket seats are well bol­stered but the pro­to­type’s cabin needs mood im­prove­ment — a splash of car­bon-fi­bre or lo­gos and stitch­ing may come with the pro­duc­tion car.

On a cir­cuit, the car is a huge amount of fun but we’ll have to re­serve fi­nal judge­ment on how well it bal­ances track com­po­sure with day-to-day com­fort. By Hyundai’s own ad­mis­sion, it’s un­likely to be as com­fort­able as a Golf GTI in the daily com­muter grind.

But as a track car for en­thu­si­asts, the i30 N ticks all the boxes. It’s a bark­ing, snarling beast of a car that could well do for Hyundai what the WRX did for Subaru.

Off lim­its: Hyundai i30 N pro­to­type on a pri­vate cir­cuit; top left, project boss Bier­mann in­spects his hand­i­work; in­set, Blackburn at the wheel

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