Let’s hear it for the hot hatch. Supercars, with their mule-kick power and follow-me-home curves are great an’ all, but for the 95% of us they are about as obtainable as a COVID vaccine. They’re things to lust over at car shows and on re-runs of Top Gear (when it was good). The hot hatch, on the other hand, arrived on the scene in the 1970s and immediately set about democratising performance, offering boisterous engines and sharp chassis setups for a price we can all afford. Quite literally, power to the people.
Fast forward just shy of half a century and the hot hatch segment has become one of the most fiercely contested markets, with razor sharp offerings from Honda, Renault, Ford, BMW….I could go on and on. With so many manufacturers jostling with elbows out to sell us their performance hatches you might think anyone running late for the party would choose to stay at home instead. But not Hyundai.
Under the expertise of Albert ‘BMW M’ Biermann, the Korean outfit impressed us all in 2017 with the launch of the i30N – it’s first performance production car which traded on its rallying pedigree, offering 271bhp sent to the front wheels (in the Performance Package model, the only model the UK gets), a variety of drive modes and track-honed damping. All of a hot hatch’s greatest hits. While it wasn’t quite class-leading it was a sublime first stab, and with a sub-£30K price tag it really shook things up.
With 2021 looming the i30N has been checked in for its mid-life facelift, and I was lucky enough to get a drive of a prototype of it last week on the roads near Hyundai UK’s Leatherhead HQ. While the finished article won’t appear in showrooms until March time, Hyundai’s experts assured me in terms of exterior looks at least this is the finished article. Some fine-tuning of suspension setups might take place, but not necessarily.
So what’s new? Let’s run through it. Starting at the front, the LEDs now feature V-shaped daytime running lights, which look rather sharp, and the grille has grown and is centred by a bold N logo. The mesh itself is new too, as are new side fins on the bumper for improved airflow to the wheels, and altogether the car’s nose looks cleaner and less cluttered. On the hatchback model it’s a similar story of from behind: minimal messing. The tailpipes have swollen a bit and there are some new LEDs. I wouldn’t know what it looks like in the metal as the prototype was the Fastback version, which remains entirely untweaked at the rear. The choice to put journalists in the Fastback rather than the hatchback seems slightly odd, as Fastback sales only make up 20% of the mix, but with it being the only 2021 i30N in the UK who am I to complain.
You can see our walkaround video of the i30N prototype here.
Perhaps the most significant exterior update is the wheels. On the standard car they are 18-inch but, as I say, we won’t get that in the UK so that’s the last time I’ll mention it. On the Performance Package model the wheels are 19-inch forged alloy and are 14.4kg lighter than those found on the outgoing model, which is a far-from-insignificant weight saving.
Moving inside, there’s much more to discuss. As brilliant as the old car is (which is pictured next to the prototype in the carousel above) its interior feels cheap and, well, a bit too ‘Hyundai’. The infotainment screen seems as if it was been made by Fisher Price. The new car gets a 10.25-inch screen with all the smartphone bells and whistles, and it’s both sharp and slick to use. The seats are new too, again saving weight (2.2kg) but also offering much more support and the premium feel of Alcantara and leather, with an N badge stamped on for good measure. Everything has been lifted in terms of quality, from the switchgear to the steering wheel.
An enjoyable new feature of the infotainment system is the ‘spider diagram’ function with which you can tweak the driving parameters – damping, throttle map, exhaust note etc etc – in the customisable N driving mode. It’s a gimmick, but an incredibly cool one.
Speaking of the steering wheel, it’s here that we find one of the biggest updates to the car: paddle shifts. That’s right, for the first time the i30N is available with an eight-speed DCT gearbox, which will probably cost an extra £1,500 to option but will broaden the i30N’s appeal, especially for those who want a car which doubles as a daily commuter as well as a track day tool. Another new addition to the steering wheel is a small, innocent-looking button bearing the letters ‘NGS’, which stands for N Grin Shift. When pressed, it gives the driver 20 seconds of unbridled fun, dialling the settings up to 11 across the parameters. So you can be wafting along in Comfort mode before rounding a corner to see a snaking set of bends open up ahead of you, then hit the button to attack them at full chat. The digital driver display even counts down the 20 seconds.
The DCT ‘box is also clever enough to slip into sport shift mode once it senses 90% or more throttle pressed, offering a form of ‘boost’, and it also has N Track Shift Sense which recognises when the road and driver’s behaviour are geared up for performance driving so adjust the shift pattern accordingly. Basically, you never need to worry about the automatic gearbox not keeping up with the rest of the car or your driving style.
Finally, power from its 2-litre turbo engine has been hiked very slightly from 271bhp to 276bhp, and torque is up 39Nm to 392Nm. This means the DCT-equipped Performance Package can do 0-62mph in 5.9 seconds, which is 0.2 seconds faster than the old car. Useful functions which carry over from the outgoing model include the rev match function and launch control.
To drive, the new i30N is one of the most engaging hot hatches going, and with everything in Sport Plus mode it can even feel a bit intimidating on the greasy winter roads. And it’s not just because it feels much faster than its 5.9 seconds 0-62mph time, it’s the sharpness of its cornering and the responsiveness of the dampers. You have to recalibrate your brain to temper your steering inputs to minimal movements, because the car will dive in the direction you point it with such accuracy and urgency that you fear the alloys will become acquainted with the kerb. The Performance Package come with Hyundai’s N Corner Carving Differential (loving Hyundai’s playfulness with these names), which is an electronic slip-diff on the front which helps the i30N drive through corners with absolute sure-footedness. The only time the front wheels become giddy is when marching up from first gear to third in the wet. Even though the DCT helps you get power and grip down, it’s lairy at the front. In a good way.
So often when people talk about the i30N they qualify it for the uniformed with the phrase ‘Hyundai’s Golf GTI rival.’ It’s not that at all, and it’s unfair on both cars to mention them in comparison, although both being hot hatches it’s understandable. The GTI is lighter and therefore slightly more nimble at high speeds, but the lower power is noticeable and it’s softer around the edges. As an everyday all-rounder nothing comes close to the VW - nothing probably ever will - but the Hyundai isn’t trying to take a pop at the king. Of its rivals, the i30N is closer to the Honda Civic Type R in that it feels edgy and precise. Sure, it doesn’t have as much outright thump as the Civic, but it’s clear most of the money has been devoted to getting the chassis right for third gear corners and weekend track days.
I guess the million-South Korean won (look it up) question is: should you option it with the DCT or stick with the six-speed manual ‘box? The DCT naturally adds weight to the car, but as much as the ‘I’m a better driver than you’ automotive journalists will criticise it for that, to 99.9% of those buying an i30N it won’t make any difference to the handling. The DCT also adds more useable fun, such as the N Grin Shift and N Track Shift function, which are a hoot even on public roads. Plus an automatic gearbox makes a huge difference for anyone using the car every day which, as with most hot hatch owners, they will be with the i30N. Remember, that’s the hot hatch’s mission statement – everyday performance for everyday people. Absolute driving purists, or those who want to hone their manual skills, would be better off saving the £1,500-odd it costs to add DCT and spend the money on track time instead. But really, the DCT simply means the i30N is more versatile than ever.
As I say, let’s hear it for the hot hatch.
Model tested: Hyundai i30N Performance (prototype)
Engine: 2-litre 4-cylinder turbocharged petrol
0-62mph: 5.9 seconds
Max speed: 155mph