2018 Hyundai i30 N review: The prototype drive

Development of the 2018 Hyundai i30 N isn't just a tremendous effort, it's bloody brilliant.
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This is the 2018 Hyundai i30N hot hatch.

Only recently, Korean car giant Hyundai released its third-generation i30 hatch with a sweet new Euro-style design inside and out, and it’s likely to find even more new homes that the previous two models – particularly in Australia, the largest single i30 market on the planet.

The top model for now is called the SR, and it’s got 150kW and maximum torque of 265Nm. And by any measure, it’s a lot of fun. But these days, that kind of power only buys you ‘warm’ hatch status.

But, all that is about to change.

Hyundai has created an entirely new performance sub-brand, from scratch: N. From that new division have come a couple of red-hot i30s, with enough firepower to take on the very best hot hatches from Europe - including the iconic Volkswagen Golf GTI and all its variants, a key benchmark for this new hard-core version.

Mind, they also had a good hard look at all the key rivals including the Ford Focus ST (and RS), Renault Megane RS, Peugeot 308 GTi and Honda Civic Type R.

Technically, this camo-wrapped i30 N is still a prototype, but even the guy in charge of Hyundai Motor’s performance development & high performance vehicle division, Albert Biermann, admits “it’s almost there, bar some fine tuning of the ESC”, which will determine how much lift-off oversteer there needs to be in the various drive modes.

That’s not a discussion that would have been warranted during development of the regular i30, but then, this is definitely not your average Hyundai i30 - as we discovered first-hand last week, when CarAdvice was offered the opportunity to get behind the wheel at a private test facility here in Australia.

Biermann is royalty, when it comes to this kind of thing. He’s got 31 years with BMW, from 1983 – 2014, including three stints with ‘M’ division.

His body of work is impressive, to say the least.

From 1986-87 he worked on the E30 M3 and Group A car, between 1997-2000 it was the M-chassis for E46 M3 and E39 M5 V8, and finally, he was head of engineering from 2007-14.

It doesn’t get any better, if you’re looking to build souped-up versions of standard road cars - in less than three years, mind. And Hyundai’s near-final creation is proof positive it has pulled off something quite special, though the car is very different in character to the Golf GTI.

It’s called the i30 N – where ‘N’ stands for Namyang, near home base in Korea, where Hyundai Motor’s major R&D centre is located.

At least, that’s the official company line. Others say it’s short for the famed Nurburgring, where Hyundai has a state-of-the-art test centre, while Biermann is pushing the idea that the new logo resembles a chicane.

Either way, the new ‘N’ car promises to be a quicker, better handling version of the standard i30, with a specially tuned engine, beefed-up suspension, better brakes, and a host of other enhancements engineered to make this car far more capable than the regular car.

Under the bonnet is a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder petrol engine in two states of tune – the entry-level N car packing 184kW and around 375Nm of torque to the front wheels, while the ‘Performance’ (working title only, we’re told) version is armed with 202 kilowatts.

By way of comparison, the yet-to-arrive Golf Mk 7.5 GTI will have 169kW/350Nm, while the more powerful Performance version will get 180 kilowatts, but won’t arrive until 2018.

Biermann is keen to point out that the whole ‘N’ philosophy is about driver enjoyment and how the car connects with the driver. He’s not that interested in straight-line drag races or lap times, though he boasts there are parts of the ‘Ring where more powerful cars can’t stay with the i30 N.

I like this car already.

Hyundai will launch the i30 N later this year, exclusively with a six-speed manual transmission, but we're told to expect an eight-speed wet dual-clutch gearbox by 2019.

Although both N cars were completely covered, obscuring much of the body work, the deep front bumper with multiple cooling vents was still visible.

There’s also a full body kit, which includes side skirts and a roof-mounted rear spoiler for reduced lift. It’s all capped-off by a pair of can-size exhaust tips.

The wheels and tyres, though, are a dead giveaway – 18-inch Michelin Pilot Super Sports for the standard version, and bespoke 19-inch Pirelli P Zero rubber for the Performance car, specially designated by a ‘HN’ logo on the sidewall.

In terms of braking, it’s not the sophisticated, specialised braking system you might expect on a high-performance hatch. In fact, it’s an off-the-shelf system that’s been modified, along with different pads for fade-free stopping power. However, the Performance car does get slightly larger rotors up front.

Underneath, there’s a stack of improvements to ensure this car is track capable – something Biermann is clearly satisfied with.

Take the gearbox, for example. It might be off-the-shelf, but the shift mapping has been modified for more precise gear changes, the synchromesh has been improved and there’s a heavy-duty clutch for durability.

The front axle has also been modified, while the whole kinematics setup is different. The roll axis has been changed; roll centre has been increased in the front, and lowered in the rear, for the best possible traction – a key deliverable for the N cars.

Biermann summed it up nicely, when he said, “the car should be approachable, forgiving, and you should be able to explore the limits of the vehicle without any scary moments”.

Both cars get adjustable shock absorbers, though they’re tuned slightly different; stiffer for the Performance model, which also lowers the ride height by 5mm.

Besides the power boost, the N Performance also picks up an electronically-controlled limited-slip differential and an active exhaust flap, for a deeper sound track.

There are different drive modes, too, which automatically adjust the dampers, steering and engine response. And there’s also a custom mode that allows for individual settings.

We kicked off in the standard-spec N, though, let’s hope the marketing chiefs at Hyundai’s HQ in Korea come up with a more appropriate nomenclature for the entry model, because there’s nothing ordinary about this car - except perhaps the smaller infotainment screen and manual key start, both of which are likely to be scrapped for this market.

Even at idle, it’s got more soul that most of its rivals. It’s a deeper, more race car-like tune and quite different from the GTI.

The driving position is nice and low, and the heavily bolstered sports seats are upholstered with a blend of stitched leather and Alcantara for excellent comfort.

Thankfully, we know this facility well, so it doesn’t take long to get up to speed in the entry-level N car.

We’re in N-mode (exclusively) and the shift is short, sharp, sweet and effortless. Biermann told us much of the initial work centred around shift linkages, steering feel and pedal placement, and it shows. This thing is just so communicative. And it might be a heavy-duty clutch, but I’m not feeling that. It’s just too easy to ever be considered such.

We’re in the afternoon session, so both cars have been mercilessly spanked all morning. The tyres aren’t fresh, but again, I’m not feeling any of that on the track.

There’s also a ton of grip available all-round, so after each lap, you’re encouraged to push even harder, while getting back on the throttle earlier on corner exits. And I can’t fault the Michelins.

There were rumours of torque-steer floating around, but I’m either having too much fun – or there isn’t enough to give it a second thought.

Power delivery is about as linear as it gets, too, at least for a 2.0-litre turbo four. You can feel the boost come on, but it’s just so wonderfully measured and refined, as to be purely in the background.

It doesn’t feel like the ‘junior’ N car. It’s quick, for sure, but in no way is it intimidating. Rather, it simply begs to be driven at the limit – all the time.

There’s loads of torque available, seemingly right through the rev range, so where I’d normally knock it down to second in other makes, the i30 N is able to hold third on entry and exit - by far the quicker option at this facility.

Both cars also have a rev-matching function, which you’re able to turn off (are you listening BMW), but this system is so perfectly calibrated, you’re better off forgetting about heel and toe shifting in the i30N. Seriously.

You’d assume the brakes have been punished all morning, too, and while all this the praise is starting to sound repetitive, there’s simply no fade to speak of, even as we bury the middle pedal and after a full-throttle run down the back straight – time-after-time.

Body-control is sound, too, and the car feels predictable and nicely balanced – just as Biermann said it would. He’s got the steering tuned just right, too. Not too quick to be annoying, but still very accurate and neatly weighted, at least in N-mode.

Hopping into the working-title 'Performance' version brings no surprises, whatsoever: just more pace, fun, and a bigger grin.

You can feel the e-LSD at work. It's quicker and cleaner in the corners, and even less fuss - not that there’s much of that in either version. It’s still dead easy to drive at the limit and it’s not a car you ever need to muscle.

It’s hard to believe these two N cars are the result of a first-time effort by a Korean carmaker that effectively started work on the project just a few years ago.

This isn’t just a tremendous effort, it’s bloody brilliant. Hyundai is now a bona-fide member of the real-deal hot-hatch club, no question.

But more than that, these two turbo twins are also remarkably well thought-out and engineered cars. They tick all the right boxes and make all the right noises, and then some.

European manufacturers are about to receive a lot more than just a shot over their bow. This is going to be all-out war.

Pricing and spec for the Australian market are a while away yet, but expect the regular N car to come in just under the new GTI and (if we get both variants initially) the Performance version to sit slightly above.

Either way, we can’t wait to try the final production version after its reveal at this year’s Frankfurt motor show in September.

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