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launch-review

2021 Hyundai i30 N review: 8-speed auto prototype

Australian first drive

Behind the mask is the updated Hyundai i30 N, now with more power, bigger brakes, and the option of an eight-speed auto for the first time.
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The 2021 Hyundai i30 N hot hatch facelift is in the final stages of development, and initial deliveries are due in Australian showrooms in the first half of next year.

As is the case with today’s model, there will be two body styles – a five-door hatchback, and a five-door coupe dubbed Fastback – with two levels of equipment: standard and luxury.

Prices will be announced closer to showroom arrival; however, today's model ranges from $45,500 to $50,500 drive-away across both body styles.

The update coincides with a facelift to the rest of the Hyundai i30 range.

Facelifted versions of regular Hyundai i30 models should begin arriving in showrooms within weeks, while the performance variants should begin to filter through from April 2021.

Hyundai Australia was sent two early prototype i30 N Fastbacks for validation work, and to fine-tune a local setting for the active suspension.

The Hyundai i30 N largely adopts global suspension settings, rather than a specific set-up for Australia, as is the case on most other Hyundai models. However, Hyundai’s Australian chassis team has input into the global requirements for the i30 N, and there is a unique setting for the electronically controlled dampers, though no hardware changes.

The two prototypes sent to Australia – each wearing various stages of camouflage because they’ve been on the road since before the final styling was revealed – are registered for engineering use only, so can’t be driven by outsiders on public roads.

Which is how we found ourselves at Wakefield Park Raceway, about 200km south-west of Sydney.

The tight and twisty track is too compact for V8 Supercars, but the circuit is popular with club racers and track-day enthusiasts. In other words, it’s a likely habitat for the Hyundai i30 N for truly passionate owners who want to take speed off the street.

The Hyundai i30 N has already carved a sizeable niche in the hot hatch market, despite the limited appeal of a manual transmission. Figures show the number of licence holders able to operate a manual transmission is declining each year.

Now, three years after it went on sale, the Hyundai i30 N finally has the option of an automatic transmission for the first time.

It may not seem like a big deal at a glance, but this gearbox has the potential to broaden the appeal – and more than double sales – of Hyundai’s first genuine hot hatch.

Automatic hot hatches were once derided, but as technology improved – in particular with fast-acting twin-clutch autos – buyers quickly figured out they are faster both in a straight line and around a track, because you’re not losing valuable fractions of a second engaging the clutch and grabbing another gear. The acceleration is seamless.

It’s one of the reasons hot-hatch kings Volkswagen and Renault have embraced twin-clutch automatics for their halo models. So while a manual transmission is still regarded as a purist’s choice, in many regards, the absence of a Hyundai i30 N automatic was conspicuous.

And so here we are, after a very long wait, with the Hyundai i30 N hot hatch with an eight-speed auto.

It’s a wet-clutch design (as they all are in this price range and with this level of performance), and the gearbox can be left to its own devices, or ratios can be manually selected via the gear lever or paddles on the steering wheel.

As before, there are numerous driving modes including comfort, sport and race. However, in the automatic, the software takes on a new dimension – and a new responsibility. The electronics are so clever they can detect when the car is being driven on a racetrack. Hyundai aptly calls it "grin mode". That particular button wasn’t active on the car we tested, but Hyundai set it up to reflect grin mode using the custom function settings.

MORE: 2021 i30 N REVEALED

Throttle-position sensors and G-force sensors signal when the car is being driven hard – such as on a racetrack – and the transmission responds by changing at the optimum moment, up or down gears.

Brake deep and hard into a corner, and the gearbox quickly and seamlessly shifts down into the most appropriate ratio for a hasty exit.

Unlike early twin-clutch gearboxes that could be slow to react and wouldn’t shift down to a low ratio fast enough, the i30 N auto is a revelation. It never said ‘no’ when I wanted to downshift into the lowest gear allowed by engine revs. It was also in the right ratio by the time the throttle needed to be squeezed back on.

On a track, it felt as easy to drive as a dodgem car. In fact, it did everything so effortlessly I don’t want to say it was boring, but it was less involving at first. What the transmission does do is allow you to focus on everything else: namely steering, braking and accelerating.

Once you build confidence and learn to trust that the gearbox won’t put a foot wrong, you can drive deeper and deeper into corners, and smoother on the exits.

This may sound odd, but the extremely intuitive 'auto pilot' nature of the automatic gearshifts takes some getting used to. It was quite surreal. It was like having an invisible robot in the passenger seat working the gearstick while I took care of the steering, accelerator and brakes.

The front discs are now larger (growing from 345mm in diameter to 360mm) and are as powerful as ever, but have a slightly better feel.

Although I couldn’t feel the extra couple of kilowatts (from to 202kW to 206kW), torque from the turbo 2.0-litre four-cylinder has had a major boost from 353Nm (or up to 378Nm on overboost) to a natural peak of 392Nm.

The torque curve is now flatter and more mumbo is available from lower revs, helping the i30 N climb out of corners aided, of course, by the electronically controlled mechanical limited-slip front differential.

Finally, all the ingredients are coming together. It’s as if the Hyundai i30 N has gone to finishing school. There is no doubt the eight-speed automatic transforms the Hyundai i30 N to a new dimension on a racetrack.

However, we don’t know what it’s like in the bump and grind of daily traffic, how fussy it is when making a three-point turn, or reverse parking on a steep hill, all of which are typical bugbears of dual-clutch autos. So, we’ll reserve final judgment until then.

We will assess those elements more thoroughly when the showroom versions arrive. But if the prototype is a guide, the early signs are good.

EDITOR'S NOTE: As a prototype vehicle test, we have left this review unscored. For our assessment of the existing manual-only i30 N range, see our links below – and stay tuned for our full review of the market-ready i30 N manual and DCT automatic models.