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
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.