The Hyundai i30 Turbo is no hot hatch – it’s lukewarm at best. And that’s exactly what it’s being billed as: a suburb-friendly precursor to the Korean brand’s much talked about high-performance N brand.
Looking to leverage its substantial involvement in motorsport via Hyundai Motor’s World Rally Championship (WRC), the fast moving Korean carmaker aims to “bring winding road fun to customers who love cars”.
According to Albert Biermann (previously BMW M VP Engineering), Hyundai’s Head of Performance Development and High Performance Vehicle Division, Hyundai N will look to create pioneering high-performance cars.
“We’re changing and challenging expectations of the Hyundai brand,” says Biermann. “Our future mode line-up will include performance-orientated and race-track-capable cars”.
Hyundai started laying the foundations for more performance-focused road cars several years ago, when they opened their European technical centre in Russelsheim and test centre at the famous Nurburgring in Germany.
In fact, it was at the 'ring where the new made-for-Europe i30 Turbo was engineered over 110 laps of the Nordschliefe - each lap covers a distance of 20.8km, which translates to around 42,000km of standard road use.
And that was precisely the venue for our first drive of the new Hyundai i30 Turbo after the commute from our Frankfurt base.
At an average cruising speed of 160km/h on the magnificent German Autobahn system, we made the 178km trip in just over an hour.
As the most powerful iteration yet of Hyundai’s small i30, the Turbo gets a few bespoke styling tweaks to highlight its sporty intentions including a new radiator grille, meaner front and rear bumpers with red detailing, new front LED design and 18-inch alloy wheels.
But by far the most telling sign (and most visually appealing) are the large twin exhaust tips and diffuser.
Inside it’s more distinctive, with properly bolstered sports seats with red inserts and stitching, sports shifter and further red accents sprinkled throughout the cabin.
Mind, it doesn’t shout too loud, but it’s definitely more appealing that a standard i30, both visually and from a performance standpoint.
Under the bonnet is the same 1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol engine found in the i30 Tourer, but as the badge denotes, this one’s got a turbocharger to boost power from 98kW/163Nm to 137kW/265Nm.
It’s a relatively modest gain in power compared to the Hyundai Veloster SR Turbo that’s offered in Australia, which shares the same engine, but tuned to deliver 150 kilowatts (European versions are detuned) .
This means you shouldn’t expect too much go, even when you stand on it.
And it’s definitely not designed to challenge the likes of a Golf GTI or Ford Focus ST, most likely the benchmarks for the first Hyundai N car that’s expected to arrive on showroom floors in late 2016 or early 2017, according to the brand’s director of design, Peter Schreyer.
Arriving at the Nurburgring for a few laps during the public sessions in our not-so-hot Hyundai 1.6-litre five-door hatch was a tad intimidating as we lined up behind a veritable fleet of the latest Porsche GT3s, Ferrari 458 Speciales, and even a McLaren P1.
You can pretty much forget about sticking to the racing line – important, but futile in the i30 Turbo as you’re far too busy moving out of harm's way and allowing fast-moving traffic to pass safely.
Believe me, that happened a lot throughout the two-hour session.
It never feels properly quick, but keep the revs up and the boost on song and the i30 can maintain a decent pace. Body control is actually pretty good and there’s loads of grip from the quality Michelin tyres (Australian i30s are shod with Hankook rubber).
While Hyundai has made big gains in refinement over the years, with cabin noise as low as any Japanese rival, the i30 Turbo doesn’t seem to get enough of it – at least when it comes to a growl or even sporty engine note.
There’s only a mild hint that there’s something more under the bonnet, which tends to dull the driving experience despite the extra pace available.
Just like the i30 SR manual, the gearshift feels positive and can be worked reasonably hard, as is required with the ever-changing conditions at the Nurburgring. The sports seats also do a decent job of supporting the driver, without compromising comfort away from the track.
The i30 Turbo also gets sports suspension tuning, and while I would argue that it’s still too soft for a warm hatch wearing a Turbo badge, ride comfort is a big plus for this model.
Not so encouraging is the mildly communicative ‘Flex Steer’ variable weighted steering that Hyundai seem bent on persisting with.
With 2.7 turns to lock, it’s a quicker ratio, but feedback is negligible and the weight settings (from light to heavy) offer little or no enhancement to the overall driving experience.
Somehow, I was expecting more from this turbocharged i30, but for now, if you want more poke with your Hyundai hatch, the Veloster SR Turbo remains your only option - at least until the first full-strength i30 N Performance version arrives.