2018 Hyundai i30 N track review

The best car Hyundai has ever made is in serious contention to be the king of hot hatches. Meet the Hyundai i30 N.

If you’ve been living under a rock for the last decade, it’s hard to fathom the South Koreans are now not only making exceptionally good cars, but they are also making exceptionally good performance cars.

We have had a lot of arguments in the CarAdvice office about the 2018 Hyundai i30 N. Anthony drove it first and boldly proclaimed it’s a better hot hatch than the Volkswagen Golf GTI. There were collective gasps in the office, things were thrown around, Anthony threatened violence if we didn’t believe him, but ultimately our ratings committee – which at the time hadn’t driven the car – decided to temper his original rating of 9/10 (in the old rating system).

You could argue – if you were a cynic – that we wouldn’t have reacted the same if he was testing a new Golf GTI, or Renault Megane RS. Yes, there is an inherent level of caution when it comes to rating South Korean performance cars so high. On some levels, it can be seen as a European bias, but really, what it came down to is the company’s heritage. Hyundai has no legacy in this segment, so to go from never having made a hot hatch to making one ‘better than the Golf GTI’ is a big leap. But the Koreans are very used to making giant leaps.

To be fair, the i30 N is arguably more European than Korean. It’s built in Europe, designed under the watchful eye of former Audi designer, Peter Schreyer, tested at Germany’s famous Nurburgring and the whole project was headed by famed German engineer Albert Biermann, a 30-year-plus veteran at BMW, where he led the development of some of the most revered M cars ever made. Icons like the E46 M3, E39 M5 V8 and even the F90 M5, at least in the early days.

In saying all that, we are yet to still put the icon and its challenger together for a proper comparison, and until such time as we do so, there is no point in saying one is better than the other, but the fact that – after having driven the i30 N – I can see it being a very, very hard question to answer, is a testament to Hyundai.

CarAdvice owns a Golf GTI (amongst half a dozen other cars, including a Kia Stinger), and soon, we will also own a Hyundai i30 N. Why? Because it’s a game changer not only for Hyundai, but also for the world of hot hatches.

As one of our CarAdvice commenters (sumodog) correctly pointed out in a news story: ‘first product forays into new markets by car companies can be excellent purchases. They tend to pull out all the stops and produce a car that is less about increasing profit margins and more about design brief.’

That pretty much sums up the Hyundai i30 N. The Golf GTI brings with it decades of legacy and heritage, and as such, it can feel a generation behind in comparison. The i30 N has no rules or heritage to adhere to (though Hyundai has been in WRC now since 2014), it’s just trying to be the best that it can be.

The main problem with the i30 N, for now, is that it’s manual only. It will be at least another 18 or so months before we see a dual clutch transmission from the South Korean brand make its way into the N hot hatch. Undoubtedly this requirement for self shifting will limit sales in the start, but then again, this car is not about sales volume for Hyundai; it’s about brand image and credibility. In that regard, it nails the brief just standing still.

From the outside, the i30 N looks the business, particularly in the hero ‘performance blue’ which it borrows from the brand’s WRC cars. There are five other colours, but really, go with this one. It looks epic on a sunny day, specially with the 19-inch alloys and red brake calipers. No one would dare think of it as a regular i30.

Hyundai Australia is yet to decide whether it would take both the base model i30 N and the i30 N with Performance Package or just the performance model on its own. Pricing is also still up in the air but expect it to start in the low $40k region (or maybe even just under) for the base and a few thousand dollars more for the performance pack.

That puts in right in contention with the Golf GTI (which now starts at $41,490 in base and $47,990 for performance pack with a dual-clutch transmission).

The standard 184kW/353Nm i30 N and the full-strength 202kW/353Nm Performance version are both hot hatches in their own right and both cars run the same in-house-designed 2.0-litre turbo petrol engine that boasts 378Nm of peak torque thanks to an overboost function when the right pedal is flat for an extended period of time.

That competes against 169kW/350Nm from the GTi and 180kW/370Nm from the performance version of the Golf. Both base model hot-hatches will do 0-100km/h in 6.4 seconds (manual) with the performance variants coming in at 6.1 and 6.2 seconds in favour of the i30 N, despite the GTI performance using a dual clutch. We haven’t had a chance to test those claims from Hyundai, but will do so when the car launches early next year.

Around a long forgotten kart track out in the middle of nowhere in Coffs Harbour, we started our review and track test with the base model – which wore Michelin Pilot Sport tyres.

Apart from the software tune that sees it lack 18kW compared to the top-spec, the base model misses out on the ‘N Corner Carving Differential’, variable exhaust valve system and also has smaller wheels and brakes as well as riding 4mm higher. Depending on the price gap between these two, we can see why Hyundai thinks it may make more sense to just bring in the top spec as that has the biggest appeal. Who doesn’t want to have a louder exhaust system?

Nonetheless, what was surprising for us was that around this very tight and technical track, designed for much smaller things, the base model turned in more confidently than the top spec, shod with Pirelli P-Zeros, which – like every other car company on the planet – Hyundai says was developed exclusively with Pirelli just for this car.

After much conversing with the Hyundai engineers, we came to the conclusion that the P-Zeros don’t deal well with dust, which this particular go kart track was full of. As such, they never reached their optimum operating temperatures and lacked the grip in comparison to the Michelins. Which, would suggest to us at least, the Michelin option is the better daily, even though the Pirellis might offer higher peaks of grip, they do so in very specific conditions.

Also, we didn’t really find the base model torque steering or misbehaving as we had expected without the front differential. It not only turned-in beautifully, but never understeered or pushed itself out.

The whole experience was rather surprising. The i30 N is actually really fast. Like, properly fast. It’s very easy to drive fast and it doesn’t scare the hell out of you if you push it too hard. It also rev matches on the downshifts (you can turn this off), so driving a manual at speed has never been so easy.

Having just completed a very intense driver training session with former Hyundai and Subaru World Rally Championship driver, Chris Atkinson, in a 2018 Subaru WRX STi the day before this i30 N drive (story on that soon), it’s fair to say the N is not just going to upset the hot hatch segment, it has bigger plans in mind.

Going by gut feel alone, we wouldn’t imagine a stock manual Golf GTI being anywhere nearly as fast as this around a track. There is a certain level of sure-footedness with the i30 N that you just don’t get from the base GTI. As for the GTI Performance pack, though, we will have to wait and put that and the i30 N performance together in due time.

One of the things we love about the i30 N is the exhaust note. It doesn’t sound so great being revved in idle, but get it singing in high revs on the move and it’s actually a very reasonable engine note. We were told the base model wouldn’t crackle as much from the exhaust, but hell, it crackled just fine.

Speaking of crackles, they are loud and enhance the appeal of the car as it flies past, but they are very manufactured. It’s engineered noise. You can listen to the video here on our Facebook page. Just like AMG, Audi RS and other high-end performance cars these days, the engine dumps fuel in the exhaust deliberately for the intended crackle. It doesn’t really vary either. You can of course turn it off, but it would be nice if the software guys got a bit more creative and had at least three or four different variances in how these crackles came to be as a sequence, to give it some semblance of authenticity.

Apart from the manual transmission for some – which is smooth and easy to use, after you stall it a few times – the i30 N can easily be used as a daily thanks to its five driving modes (video on that here), which are all well and good, but on a race track you just pick N mode, or if the track suits it, customise it to everything Sport except the suspension, which has an adjustable dampening force.

Switching from base to the i30 N Performance model, the uprated brakes made a difference after a few hard laps, but the main distinction for us was the additional power in the few long stretches that were available. We found the lower ride height not suiting this particular track, which lacked a smooth surface.

Rating the N differential was somewhat compromised by the misbehaving Pirelli tyres and track surface. Does it corner better because of its diff? Hard to say, we didn’t really feel like we were accelerating earlier out of a corner because of it, but we could brake much later and use the harder suspension to tip in and get the back to slide a little as a result. This allowed for a quicker entry and exit into tight corners but would not be all that advantagous around a freer flowing track.

If we had to pick, we would pick the Performance model for its louder exhaust and better brakes. No doubt, in the right setting it would also be noticeably quicker thanks to its front diff and stickier tyres.

You wouldn’t go amiss with the base model either though (if they bring it), the power increase is entirely software, meaning a basic tune would release it well beyond the Performance pack anyway. However, if the price difference is only a few thousand, the additional equipment makes the step up well and truly worthwhile.

The interior of both cars is pretty sedated, like a regular i30 but with better seats and steering wheel. It can certainly do with some colour (red or yellow seatbelts anyone?) and more overall character to set it apart. It's fair to say its flamboyant exterior design isn't really matched by its interior.

Overall, it’s fair to say the 2018 Hyundai i30 N is going to be one of the star cars when it launches next year. In our opinion, it needs to have noticeably sharper pricing than the Golf GTI to entice buyers to not only switch sides but take a chance on the upstart performance brand that is N.

It’s at worst just as good as its main rival, but it will take more incentivising than just pure performance and track times to make it a true success.