Hyundai’s first proper attempt at a hot hatchback has resulted in one of the best cars in its class, the i30 N

Hyundai has dabbled with driver’s cars before. Its old coupe models won plaudits in the 1990s and more recently the Veloster offered moderate B-road thrills, but no previous effort has hit the spot quite like the i30 N.

It’s the first car from Hyundai’s N performance brand, the letter standing for both the brand’s home in Namyang, South Korea, and its home away from home at the Nürburgring Nordschleife. And Hyundai has hit the mark on its first attempt, because the i30 N is a hugely entertaining driver’s car and one that sweeps aside some fairly well-established opposition, too.

Good value, well-judged styling, and an engaging chassis and drivetrain all count in the i30 N’s favour, and nowhere does the car stumble to any great degree. Only the badge will hold it back for some, lacking the kudos of Volkswagen and Peugeot’s GTI emblems and the charisma of a Renault Sport or Type R billing, but to dismiss the Hyundai for this alone would be a mistake.

Perhaps best of all is what we have to look forward to from Hyundai in future. If this is what the company is capable of the first time it tackles a proper hot hatchback, we’re even more intrigued to see what’s next.

Engine, gearbox and technical specs

Whether you opt for the regular i30 N or the N Performance there’s just one engine and gearbox option. The engine is a 1998cc, turbocharged four-cylinder badged T-GDi, and the gearbox a six-speed manual, which in the Performance sends its power to the front wheels via an electronically controlled limited-slip differential.

In normal specification the 2-litre makes 184kW at 6000rpm with 352Nm of torque developed between 1500 and 4000rpm. The Performance gets a power boost to 202kW at the same 6000rpm, with an identical peak torque figure but produced across a wider spread: 1500-4700rpm.

Structurally the i30 N is much like any other car in this class, with a steel, five-door monocoque shell and steel panels. In terms of hot hatchbacks its suspension set-up is also common, with MacPherson struts at the front and a multi-link rear axle. As part of the N’s improvements, the chassis is stiffened with the use of a brace between the rear suspension towers.

Electronically controlled and adjustable suspension is standard on both models, while the Performance alone gets the electronically controlled limited-slip differential. Performance models also get larger brakes, with 345/314mm front and rear brake discs to the regular car’s 330/300mm rotors.

Likewise, wheels and tyres are also different. The regular i30 N gets 7.5×18-inch wheels with 225/40 R18 Michelin Pilot Sport 4s, while the Performance has 8×19-inch wheels wrapped in 235/35 R19 Pirelli P Zeros. Both get electrically assisted power steering with just 2.14 turns lock-to-lock.

Officially the i30 N weighs 1400-1480kg in standard form and 1429-1509kg as the Performance. On evo’s scales a Performance came in at 1477kg, comfortably within that range but certainly no lightweight.

Performance and 0-100 time

In the realm of current hot hatchbacks the i30 N’s outputs almost seem undernourished, and with a reasonably hefty kerb weight they obviously won’t challenge some of the lighter, more powerful cars in the class – but nor are they remotely slow.

In 184kW spec the i30 N will hit 100km/h from rest in a scant 6.4sec, while the Performance knocks a further three-tenths off that. Both will reach a limited 250km/h, and having driven the car on sections of derestricted autobahn, we’re confident in saying it would be capable of more if uncorked.

In our own performance testing, we recorded an i30 N Performance at 100km/h in 6.6sec, and 0-160km/h in 14.9sec. Those numbers are respectively 0.1 and 0.3sec off a Volkswagen Golf GTI Performance, and 0.6 and 1.1sec off the significantly lighter and similarly powerful Peugeot 308 GTi by Peugeot Sport.

The Peugeot feels quicker on the road, too, but what neither of those rivals can match is the i30 N’s exhaust note, and the effect that has on your impression of speed. All Ns get electronic sound enhancement, but the Performance in particular has an active exhaust system that instantly makes it the best-sounding car in this class. It’s loud, raucous and perfectly judged to the car’s character, with pops and crackles thrown in for good measure (but, pleasingly, sounding far from synthesised, as they feel in several other cars).

The noise definitely enhances the average country road drive, and can be tailored to the Custom mode so you can switch it off when you want to fly under the radar. A firm, short-throw gearshift and good traction also both contribute to the entertainment factor of extending the N’s engine.

Ride and handling

There are hot hatchbacks with more grip, some with more adjustability, and others that will out-sprint the i30 N point to point, but in the current market it’s difficult to think of many that are quite as entertaining to punt down a twisty country road. With such a broad spread of talents, it’s also difficult to think of any aspect that could be significantly improved.

The i30 N’s steering is the first statement of intent. It’s weighty even in its lightest setting, not unlike that of a BMW Motorsport product. Delve into the menus and it’s possible to make it even heavier, but whichever setting you choose, it’s always responsive, with the slightest movement off the straight ahead resulting in a reaction at the front axle.

There’s grip to back it up, too, whether you’ve chosen the Performance with its sticky P Zeros or the regular model on Michelin Super Sports. Even better, there’s some semblance of feedback through the chunky steering wheel rim, which makes apex-hunting a real joy. It’s not a chassis likely to catch you out, either, unless you take liberties – while the rear end will rotate if you throw the car at a corner, it’s otherwise benign and grippy, without ever feeling inert.

Performance versions feature an electronically controlled limited-slip differential. It’s not something you’re likely to notice most of the time, but it does aid traction through tighter corners and when the roads are damp, without being too much of a handful.

It even rides well. Granted, flick the dampers to their sportier settings and it’s a little too firm for the road, pogoing over bumps and pitching around with the camber, but left in Comfort it’s firm but well-damped, with as much body control as you’d realistically need on the road but enough pliancy to deal with unexpected lumps. Incidentally, the 19-inch wheels of Performance models don’t seem to compromise the ride to any great degree compared to the 18-inch design on the regular N.

The stiffened chassis – most visible in the boot, where there’s a large cross-brace between the suspension turrets – helps, too, giving the i30 a real feeling of solidity even when the road gets rough. ANTONY INGRAM