If you haven’t already heard about the Hyundai i30 N, don’t worry, you will, soon enough.
It’s the first ever attempt at a proper Euro-rivalling hot-hatch from the powerhouse South Korean carmaker, and we’re in Italy to drive the final production version.
It’s been a remarkable journey, whirlwind, even, given it's taken Hyundai less than four years from go-to-whoa, when some of its competitors have been honing their weapons of war in this segment for more than 40 years.
But this was a different kind of project, driven, not by the usual numbers and sales game, but by pure passion and ingenuity from the very outset. Its sole intent, to deliver a world-class rival on par with any one of the established marques. A world-beater, even, first time out, too, and the first of many, we’re told.
It’s all part of Hyundai’s new high-performance vehicle division, known as ‘N’ for ‘Namyang to Nurburgring’, and the man leading it is 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.
If you’re into motor sport, specifically the WRC (World Championship Rally), then that ‘N’ moniker will be familiar, as it’s been a prominent feature on Hyundai’s i20 WRC livery for several years.
Hyundai hired Biermann in 2014, after convincing him of the considerable opportunities available, specifically, to build an entirely new performance sub-brand from the ground up. And from what we have learned of Biermann over the last twelve months, he’s highly motivated and a veritable genius when it comes to engineering and performance car set-up.
This is a guy who wrote the book on chassis dynamics at BMW, but now, he lives in Korea, where he oversees every facet of the Hyundai’s emerging go-fast operation, and he’s taking no chances with his first creation. None, whatsoever.
We know that first hand, because we've been following the company down its fast-track to hot-hatch glory, from the camo-cloaked prototype we drove in Australia this year, to the recent unveiling of a static display in Düsseldorf, and now, here at Vallelunga – a proper, full-bore race track near Rome, as well as some of the most challenging B-roads we’ve ever seen, which surround this facility.
There’s also the thousands of hours testing at the famed Nordschleife in Germany, where every bush, bolt and part, has been exhaustively tested, tweaked and enhanced for maximum performance and durability, according to Biermann and his tightknit team of mechanical wizards.
Final specifications and pricing won’t be finalised until closer to the local launch in February or March next year, but two versions will likely be offered in Australia from first-quarter 2018: the standard 184kW/353Nm i30 N and the full-strength 202kW/353Nm Performance version. Both cars run the same in-house-designed 2.0-litre turbo petrol engine that boasts 378Nm of peak torque thanks to a seven- to eight-second overboost function when the driver keeps the throttle pinned.
It’s designed in-house, and used in several other models across Hyundai and Kia’s global ranges like the upcoming Genesis G70, Sonata Turbo and all-new Kia Stinger, but the i30 N Performance also benefits from larger 19-inch wheels, bigger brakes, as well as an electronically-controlled mechanical limited-slip differential.
It’s also the car that’s likely to capture the hearts and minds of more buyers, and the car we spent the bulk of our time in during the launch program. Right from the outset, this is the version that clearly delivers the most bang for those behind the wheel, though even the standard car feels significantly more potent than the standard Golf GTI, at least in the same manual guise.
Funny thing is, usually there’s a choice of colours at these events, mainly for photographic purposes, but not this time; it was Performance Blue or Performance Blue – and that was it. However, buyers will be able to choose between some very cool colours (six in total), but given the motorsport heritage from where this race-inspired, baby-blue paint emerges, it’s the perfect fit in our book.
As hot-hatches go, Hyundai’s i30 N is relatively subtle in its styling, (just like the GTI), but even so, you’ll have no trouble picking it out as a souped-up version of the regular model. From almost any angle, there are signs all over the car pointing to the genuine article that this thing surely is.
Around back, it’s the can-size dual exhaust tips and rear diffuser that give off a factory-tuned vibe. There’s also a proper aerodynamic rear spoiler and triangular brake light that point to its motor sport legacy, as well as black side skirts and deeper front and rear bumpers with bigger air intakes. Importantly, it also sits 8mm lower than its regular cousins, and the wheel arches have pushed out to take in the 19-inch alloys and low profile rubber.
That’s all well and good, but it’s under the skin where the N-car differs most from its regular road-going siblings. The front sub-frame has been reinforced for greater torsional rigidity and the three (only) engine mounts have been beefed up, as have the transmission mounting points.
There’s also some industrial size rear cross-bracing, too, for enhanced lateral stiffness for the kind of driving we’ll be doing later on the Autodromo Vallelunga. You’ll find that in the boot, as an optional extra we’re told, though, it can be removed for normal driving duties.
And that aero I mentioned, above, it’s not just for show, either. Biermann talked to us about the i30 N’s high-speed stability earlier in the year, but it’s only now that we’ll get to properly test it for real on a clear stretch of pristine Italian Autostrada.
The moment of reckoning has come, and I don’t mind telling you guys, I’m genuinely excited to be here with a production model for the very first time. And I’ll be honest, my expectations are as high as a kite, given how we well I thought the prototype drove back in Australia.
Better, still, Biermann also vowed to tweak the car further after taking in all the feedback from journalists across the globe, if he thought it would improve the driving experience. Our one and only criticism was the length of the throws between the lower gears, but honestly, that amounted to nit-picking, but at least he was interested in what we had to say.
When we last spoke with Biermann at the static unveiling in Germany, he told us, "It’s almost there, just some fine-tuning of the ESC, and we might shorten the shift throws".
Better still, Biermann tells us the shift travel has been shortened by five per cent for faster throws, while the shift itself is more precise and with greater refinement and durability, thanks to carbon synchro rings and a double layer facing clutch. He’s a humble man, but he can’t hide his passion for this car. It’s genuinely infectious.
We could go on-an-on explaining each and every improvement made on the N car, but that would take forever, and we’re itching to fire this up and see if Hyundai has gone one better than its well-honed rivals, as well as make some proper noise.
And noise it makes, especially once you hit the N button on the right-hand side of the steering wheel. Press once, and it sends all the major settings into ballistic mode, but it’s the hard-core exhaust note that produces the early-morning grin on this driver’s face, first and foremost.
It’s a good sound, meatier than I remember back home. I haven’t driven the Focus RS or the Civic Type-R, but this is as big-a-sound I’ve ever heard from an affordable hot hatch in this class. The best bit is the overrun, best heard when dropping down from third to second. It’s very pronounced, race car-like, even, and if you’re like me, you’ll be doing a lot of that downshifting in the i30 N.
202kW of power and 378Nm of torque puts this car at the pointy end of this segment, and frankly, I’d forgotten how quick this thing gets going out of the gate. There’s no V-box on site, but I’ll swear blind this thing is quicker to 100km/h than its 6.1 second claim, and that’s with a six-speed manual ’box. It seems like we’ll be waiting a year or two for a dual-clutch option, but in the meantime, this will do just fine.
People need to drive a car like this, just to be reminded of how much fun manual cars can be, and that doesn’t mean you’ll need to be any kind of ‘heel-and-toe’ master, either, because this thing has a rev-matching function that is just about the best thing since sliced bread. Trust me, it took them nearly three years to perfect, but has effectively relegated heel-and-toe shifting to the history books – it’s that good.
It just doesn’t feel quick, either, it feels positively potent, because there’s bugger-all lag, even from low revs. Throttle response is immediate, and that’s something Biermann’s team worked tirelessly on. Mind, you can still feel the boost come on, but the whole process is just so seamless, as to virtually eliminate torque steer, even under full throttle and with an armful of lock on.
Keep it pinned, and you’ll be rewarded with some serious mid-range punch that simply doesn’t let up. Seriously, it feels like its operating on an entirely different level to the Golf GTI, it’s far more focused – one for the genuine enthusiast, but dead easy to push.
All that stuff matters, too, because what I remember Biermann saying so clearly, was that he wanted this car to be “approachable, forgiving, and you should be able to explore the limits of the vehicle without any scary moments”, and that’s precisely what he has delivered with his first N car.
A big part of this car’s broad usability comes down the chassis; specifically, the continuously variable dampers, which not only help keep the car flat through corners, but the breadth of ride comfort afforded at the touch of a button, which allows drivers to scroll through various ride settings at will.
Regardless of the busted-up roads, we found ourselves in N mode much of the time, and while that’s fine for a launch blast or two, the ride is very firm. Rock-hard is a bit harsh of a description, but it isn’t far off, though it only crashed once, and that was a massive pothole, large enough to dismember one of those cute Piaggio utes, so prevalent in these parts.
But, there’s also a Custom setting that allows the driver to individualise each of the settings, including the dampers, which we reluctantly set to Normal, while leaving all others in Sport +, and that seemed to work a treat, soaking up the bumps while keeping it thoroughly poised through the bends.
Grip from the specially developed Pirelli tyres is fantastic. You tend to keep upping the aggression level on turn-in, and still no understeer, even on the track where we got to thrash the i30 N over multiple laps. Plenty of abuse, then.
And those brakes!
I mean, they’re not Brembos, and they’re not Alcons, they’re bloody off-the-shelf numbers, and they’re getting the job done around here – brilliantly. They’re floating calipers with specially developed brake pads that provide big stopping power, without any noisy sound effects.
The steering is quick, just 2.2 turns lock to lock, though, I can’t say there’s a ton of feedback through the tiller. But, I reckon the weighting is just right, even though it’s a variable ratio type – it still feels relatively natural.
But, it’s more than that, it’s the balance, the way the car feels under these extreme loads – everything seems to be in perfect sync, as we blast out of a tricky left-hander. That’ll be the electronically-controlled mechanical limited-slip diff – doing exactly what it should, getting us out of these turns with my right foot – flat.
And, it’s not just a great driver’s car, either, it’s a great place to spend some time in, given the level of standard equipment we can expect when the car arrives next year. Standard kit will include a large-size infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, electric sports seats with plenty of bolster and suede inserts to hold you in place, as well as all the latest active safety systems.
There's so much to like about this car and so very little not to like, except for the fact that we'll have to wait a couple of years for a dual-clutch transmission.
The other thing that simply must be said is that this does not feel like a first-time effort – on the contrary, it feels like an expertly honed bit of kit more than ready for a class A battle with any one of the Euro contenders.
And the next time we drive this – the steering wheel I'll be on the right-hand side and we'll be carving up our favourite B-road down under – until then, I’m off for another crack at those road loops.
Click on the Gallery tab for more images of the Hyundai i30 N.