Dethroning a king is never easy.
Historically, even knifing a king in the back is a dangerous business, let alone removing one as publicly as we have done this week. You’ll see, through our comprehensive comparisons, Hyundai’s i30 N has ended the Volkswagen Golf GTI’s reign as the quintessential hot hatch.
It took a long time for the GTI to be overthrown, and a lot of hot-hatch fans won’t be happy, but the verdict is in – and it’s by no means the result of just one judge’s view, either.
If you read Jez Spinks’s two-car shootout piece, you’ll see that we first set the GTI in five-door guise against the i30 N. Why? Because we wanted to compare an apple with an apple regardless of the two-grand price difference. That is, we pitted a five-door GTI with a manual transmission and adaptive suspension, against a five-door i30 N with a manual transmission and adaptive suspension.
Later this week, you’ll see that we’ve also put a three-door GTI Original up against the i30 N, as well as set the two head-to-head on the dragstrip (watch the video on Facebook, or here on YouTube). The three-door versus five-door test ethos differed slightly from the five-door versus five-door comparison, in that the focus was more on cost of entry. That is, the two most affordable variants from Hyundai and Volkswagen duking it out.
The result, as you’ll see, was unanimous.
Back to my initial point: dethroning a king is never easy, and as such, we committed more resources than normal to the testing. Over two days, myself, Rob Margeit and Jez Spinks assessed, reassessed, and agonised over the hard-to-pinpoint formula that defines a hot hatch. Rob and Jez have extensive experience with numerous GTI variants, and I’ve been lucky enough to drive every version from Mk1 to the current generation.
In Melbourne, Kez Casey, Curt Dupriez and Mike Costello swung into the road testing, while Paul Maric joined the fray for the video. Curt and Kez also spent bulk time with the i30 N as part of the hot-hatch megatest that involved Golf R. In fact, outside of a megatest, we’ve never directed so many CarAdvice resources to one editorial project, but there’s good reason we did it here.
COMPARISON: i30 N v GOLF GTI
We’ve all had tremendous respect for the GTI formula, the VW execution of same, and the Golf’s broad all-round capabilities over the decades. Let’s be honest: the GTI hasn’t been the fastest, sharpest, most engaging or best track weapon in the hot-hatch segment for some time. It has, however, been the consummate all-rounder.
It’s the hatch we’d all previously recommend to buyers looking for the best all-purpose hot hatch if you could only own one vehicle. The reality that few buyers, if any, ever take their brand new hatch to a regular track day meant it genuinely didn’t matter that the GTI wasn’t the fastest. You have to live with the car every day, after all – even if you do go to the track occasionally.
It’s not all about numbers, either, even though the i30 N punches hard on the numbers alone: $39,990 plays $41,990. 202kW trumps 169kW, and 353Nm (without the 378Nm available for a short burst on overboost) beats 350Nm. 6.2 seconds against 6.4 in the sprint to 100km/h and a standard LSD rounds out the stats win for the i30 N.
Hyundai was bold when it set about commencing the engineering process that culminated with the i30 N, too – especially Albert Biermann. He effectively claimed that Hyundai’s first serious attempt at a performance car would better the Golf GTI and be faster, with more performance potential. That Hyundai has delivered on that bold prediction is a mark of how far this company has come in such a short time.
Superlatives aside, the i30N is a stunning piece of affordable hot-hatch engineering. $39,990 as tested before on-road costs for the base model is affordable to anyone shopping in this segment, and the N doesn’t feel like a cheap car. It’s fast, sharp, well balanced, predictable, and capable of being driven as hard as you dare, without ever seeming to reach the end of its capability. The driver will reach their talent limit well before the chassis does. In other words, it’s exactly what a hot-hatch should be.
There are areas where the GTI still trumps the N, though. The cabin feels more premium, the switchgear and its layout is more tactfully executed, we love the infotainment screen that is angled toward the driver, and the infotainment system itself is more elegant, more premium. It has a better turning circle too, which is a factor around town. Everywhere else, though, the N has the GTI’s measure.
For me, the hot-hatch brief dictates that you must be able to drive to work every day without needing a kidney belt and mouthguard for every expansion joint, you need to be able to toss your bags and groceries in the luggage area, carry two or three passengers in relative comfort, and then head to a twisty road on a weekend and drive out the other end grinning like a loon.
The i30N delivers on those expectations in impressive fashion. The braking, steering, balance and grip are all exceptional. I found the i30 N liveable, comfortable, rapid when I wanted it to be and perhaps most crucially, a little mischievous – a bit like the GTI used to be.
It’s for those reasons we’ve given it the nod ahead of the GTI across our broad comparison offerings, thus recommending a different brand of hot hatch as our pick for the first time in a very long time.
If you disagree, that’s fine. You likely haven’t driven an i30 N yet, and I’d be willing to bet that if you do drive the two back-to-back, you’d find exactly what we found.
The best news for consumers must surely come in the form of the next-generation of Golf GTI, though. Can you see Volkswagen, which has been making incremental changes to a tried-and-true formula for decades now, is going to sit back and watch an upstart like Hyundai steal its crown and do nothing about it?
This is a segment that VW just about created, after all. If nothing else, the Golf GTI has long been a byword for the hot hatch concept.
So, let the battle begin.