Even before the wheel is turned—whether in anger or otherwise—the Hyundai i30 N has a huge task ahead of it.
To start with, not only will the i30 N have to charm buyers into paying around 50 percent more over regular i30 variants, it will also have to tear potential owners away from entrenched, established competitors in the form of the Honda Civic Type R, Mini John Cooper Works, Renault Megane RS and the Volkswagen Golf GTI.
But while all of those cars have storied pasts stretching back years or even decades, with more critical accolades than you could shake a stick at, Hyundai N. the Korean carmaker’s performance sub-brand didn’t even exist until six years ago, when it hired one Albert Biermann, erstwhile of BMW’s M Division (see what Hyundai did there).
So, here’s the car’s background in a nutshell. Hyundai has no heritage in the segment and it certainly can’t sell its quick new cars on brand name alone, but it does at least know how to poach the right people for the task, and more importantly the will to make it happen.
And that last point is important, and we’ve seen it happen before a decade or so ago, when Hyundai’s cars made that great leap forward. Suddenly, a Hyundai’s only redeeming quality wasn't just the fact they were cheap, they were also loaded to the rafters with equipment, smartly designed and were well made.
But while all that is good enough to ensure success for a ‘regular’ car, a hot hatchback has to do all that and prove fun to drive.
If you can’t be bothered to read any further, all you need to know is that the i30 N is more than a match for its rivals in the handling department, looks the part with its aggressive, yet restrained styling (the polar opposite of the Honda Civic Type R) and perhaps most importantly, priced at SGD152,999, it undercuts most of its competition by SGD20,000 or so.
The i30 N even has one of those fabled manual gearbox things. It’s also the only gearbox choice on offer, which in 2019-speak is about the same as saying, “I’ve just seen a unicorn go past playing a trombone.”
That six-speeder ‘box with its unicorn of a third pedal is hooked up to a 2-litre turbo motor driving the front wheels with 250hp and 353Nm, though an overboost function will boost that latter figure to 378Nm for brief moments.
Its drivetrain is decent enough, though if we had to pick out some flaws, it does lack the Mini’s keeness for revs and there’s the bizarre inclusion of the Electronic Sound Generator, a speaker to pipe in a synthesised exhaust note. If we could be blunt, it’s kinda pointless.
Not only does this introduce a lot of drone under light engine loads while cruising, you can also tell the noise is coming out of some speakers. Plus, local cars get the uprated (read: louder and fruitier) exhaust system that sounds pretty darn good on its own, which makes the presence of the synthesiser even more perplexing.
But thankfully, its chassis more than redeems its middling powertrain. Firstly, its ride—pliant, yet with a solid helping of control, a sure sign that the car was developed by drivers for drivers. The suppleness of the suspension lends quite a bit of confidence when pushing on, coming close to the sublimely balanced ride of the Renault Megane RS.
We think its Normal mode is the only mode the car should be in on public roads, but if you’re the sort that visits race tracks often, or thinks that all performance cars should have spine-destroying suspension, the i30 N has adaptive damping that can be switched to Sport+ if you so choose.
We also loved the gearbox’s rev-matching feature. Like its suspension, you can vary the function’s aggressiveness, but in all modes, what it does is blip the throttle on downshifts to prevent jerkiness that could upset the balance of the car turning into corners.
Full credit to Hyundai N engineers here, because try as we might, we couldn’t fox the system. It delivered near-perfect throttle blips each and every time. There were a few times we caught it out, but that’s only because we were being extra silly and trying to trip the car up.
Things get even better on the value front. In addition to being significantly cheaper than the hot hatchback competition by some margin, the i30 N is, as we say in the business, fully loaded. An all-LED headlight/taillight array, front-and-rear parking sensors, a wireless charging tray, cruise control bucket seats… and the list goes on.
Sure, there are some cheap-feeling and cheap-looking materials in its cabin (that is, pretty much anything below the HVAC controls), but at least the hard plastic panels don’t creak, squeak or rattle.
As with most Hyundai products, it looks great on the surface, but once you scratch a little deeper, some flaws turn up. A little more forgivable in Hyundai’s other products, but in a performance car, they’re harder to overlook.
Well, they aren’t glaring flaws, but it does demonstrate Hyundai’s relative naivete in the segment. The gearbox’s long ratios make the i30 N far less highly-strung, but it does blunt the perception of performance and sucks the joy out of short-shifting.
Making its six-speed gearbox even less of a joy to use is the mushy clutch pedal, plasticky shift gates and throws that are just a touch too long.
Another little annoyance is the lack of granularity in its drive mode configuration. For instance, you can’t have a soft suspension, heavier steering, quick rev-matching and a ‘long’ throttle (our preferred setup). Some freedom is on offer, but we’d definitely have liked Hyundai decouple more parameters.
Still, what Hyundai has done with the i30 N is nothing short of amazing. Not only is the i30 N the Korean carmaker’s first hot hatchback, it represents its first ever roadgoing performance car, period.
And given what Hyundai N has achieved with its first car, we see plenty of potential here. If nothing else, it’ll give the segment a good shaking up. It’s been far, far too long since we’ve had a truly affordable performance car.
And one that’s effervescent and playful, too? Well, that’s a nice bonus.
ENGINE 1,998cc, 16-valves, inline-four, turbocharged
POWER 250hp at 6,000rpm
TORQUE 353Nm at 1,450-4,000rpm
0-100KM/HR 6.4 seconds
TOP SPEED 250km/hr
TRANSMISSION Six-speed manual
FUEL CONSUMPTION 7L/100km
VES BAND B (No rebate/surcharge)
PRICE $152,999 (with COE)