Hyundai is poised to expand its hot-hatch range with a pocket rocket.
The 2021 Hyundai i20 N is a new rival to the Ford Fiesta ST and Volkswagen Polo GTI and is due in Australian showrooms in the first half of next year.
Ahead of its arrival, Hyundai Australia received a prototype development vehicle for final validation work before it goes into production in Turkey early next year (the Hyundai i30 N comes from the Czech Republic).
Design elements of the Hyundai i20 N have been teased for months, however it is not due to be revealed in all its glory for another week or so.
While 'city hatchbacks' are disappearing from local showrooms because modern mainstream models are too expensive for Australian tastes, some brands are hanging in there with performance variants.
In the same way Ford Australia now only offers the ST in the new Fiesta line-up, Hyundai Australia has elected to offer only the N version of the new i20. (We missed out on the previous i20 all together.)
As a hot hatch, a familiar formula applies: install a powerful engine in a small and lightweight package.
Early estimates pegged an output of about 150kW/280Nm. However, official figures released as this article was published revealed an output of 150kW/275Nm.
By comparison, a Ford Fiesta ST has an output of 147kW/290Nm from its 1.5-litre three-cylinder, while the VW Polo GTI has an output of 147kW/320Nm from its 2.0-litre four-cylinder.
We haven’t calculated power-to-weight ratios because we don’t yet know the Hyundai i20 N figure, though early estimates say it will tip the scales at about 1250kg.
This compares to 1285kg for the VW Polo GTI and 1191kg (tare weights) for the Ford Fiesta ST.
The Hyundai i20 N is only available with a six-speed manual, even though a seven-speed twin-clutch auto is paired to the 1.6-litre turbo in other Hyundai cars – and an eight-speed auto is about to become available on the updated Hyundai i30 N. (Read our i30 N automatic review.)
Hyundai says there are no plans for an automatic i20 N, but enthusiasts are hopeful it could follow a few years from now – as the company did with the i30 N, staggering its introduction to spread out engineering resources.
The i20 N development program was led by Hyundai in Europe – by the same team responsible for the i30 N – and, as with its bigger brother, this car was honed on Germany’s Nurburgring.
It’s fair to say Wakefield Park Raceway is a long way from the Nurburgring – geographically and philosophically – however both circuits have one thing in common. They are popular among weekend racers who want to test their skills and take their car to the limits, and off the streets.
Although the prototype vehicle is registered as an engineering development vehicle, it cannot be driven on public roads by anyone outside the company, so Hyundai let media loose on a race track. No complaints here.
The car is close to final production, but its hand-built prototype status means there is, understandably, some unfinished surfaces and some unfinished business.
The key ingredients, though, are close to final spec. The seating position is comfortable and has ample adjustment.
A welcome surprise, the instrument cluster is a widescreen digital display, similar to that found in the Volkswagen Polo GTI. The i20 N prototype was also equipped with a large 10.25-inch digital infotainment screen (versus 8.0-inch screens in the Ford and VW hot hatches).
The steering wheel is the same as the one from the i30 N, with meaty hand grips and buttons for the various drive modes.
The suspension is not adjustable in the i20 N, but there is still scope to personalise throttle response, steering feel, and exhaust note.
In the boot is a space-saver spare and a two-tier floor. The back seats have two ISOFIX child-seat mounting points and three top tethers, in case you need to get this over the line as a family car.
Other handy touches for the daily grind: front and rear parking sensors, a rear-view camera, LED headlights, tyre pressure monitors, a sensor key with push button start, and wireless phone charging (with a mat large enough for a big smartphone in a bulky case, such as mine).
Only the driver’s window on the Hyundai i20 N has one-touch auto up and down functionality; the Ford Fiesta ST and VW Polo GTI have one-touch switches (up and down) on all four windows.
Now, back to the more interesting stuff.
The 18-inch charcoal alloy wheels are wrapped in 215/40 R18 Pirelli P Zero tyres developed specifically for this car.
There is a single exhaust outlet, though the muffler is bi-modal, so you’re able to drive the car in quiet mode or make a racket. Even at full noise, the sound is a little muted. You can hear exhaust gases thundering around in the muffler between gear changes, but it’s not as loud or as crisp as some enthusiasts might like.
The clutch pedal and the six-speed manual shift action are light and easy.
And with that, we were off on the first series of hot laps. To look after the tyres we were allowed a one-lap warm up, two laps in anger, plus a cool-down lap.
Road tyres tend to turn to blubber after two or three laps on a race track. That said, this track test demonstrated that the performance Pirelli P Zero tyres custom made for the i20 N are quite remarkable and weren’t rolling their edges as I was expecting.
Driving modestly on the out lap and staying low in the engine’s rev range, the Hyundai i20 N felt perky and responsive. The steering felt light and direct.
After trying to show I was being well-behaved for the warm-up lap, it was time to cut loose.
Having done countless laps around here in a Ford Fiesta ST, it was quickly apparent how close Hyundai has modelled the i20 N on the Ford, including the torsion-beam rear end and the tendency to cock a rear wheel in tight turns (see our gallery).
The gear ratios felt almost identical to the Ford; third gear is used pretty much everywhere except when grabbing fourth on the main straight, and before the turn onto the main straight. Second is also handy for a good run onto the main straight, but you can also stay in third there if you’re so inclined.
At this point you’re probably saying “blah blah who cares about gears”. All you need to know is the engine and gearing are matched effectively the same as the Ford Fiesta ST.
That means, I’m guessing, it will feel perky in the daily grind in the same way the Ford Fiesta ST does – but we won’t know this for certain until we can sample a production car on real roads.
After a couple of hot laps, the Hyundai i20 N felt at home. The 320mm front brake discs (clamped by floating calipers) felt like they had more braking power and less fade than the Fiesta ST (278mm front discs also clamped by floating calipers).
As good as the brakes are – and they would likely be more than enough for daily driving – they can never be big enough on a track car. The good news, kids, is the new 360mm front discs from the Hyundai i30 N (up from 345mm) apparently bolt straight on, with the same offset and five-stud pattern as the i20 N.
We’ve asked Hyundai to ask the chief engineer if there are any negative side effects of doing this. It would be cheaper than continually throwing brake pads at (as I did with my Ford Fiesta ST until, one day, I went metal to metal. Lesson learned).
Although this was by no means a back-to-back test, the Hyundai i20 N felt like it had a little more traction than the Fiesta ST out of tight turns, in part due to the mechanical limited-slip front differential (which the Fiesta ST also has), but also due to grippy tyres and more torque from lower revs.
The latest Ford Fiesta ST (290Nm) has more peak torque than what has been estimated for the Hyundai i20 N (270Nm or 280Nm). However you really need to stir the Ford’s three-cylinder to reach its power band, whereas the Hyundai seems to have more in reserve at lower revs, which makes it easier to climb out of corners when squeezing on the throttle. The Hyundai i20 N feels, in many ways, like the previous WZ Ford Fiesta ST (which also had 1.6-litre power).
The Hyundai i20 N prototype was such a blast I greedily asked for another ride on the rollercoaster.
While other guests weren’t looking I was allowed another warm up lap, two hot laps, and a cool down.
“Right,” I acknowledged. “One warm up, three hot laps and a cool down,” as the man with the clipboard rolled his eyes.
With each lap I established more trust in the car and braked deeper into each corner. This car was leading me astray and I wanted to push harder still – then I remembered it wasn’t my car, and I’m not a race driver.
I may have done more laps than allowed in the end. I seriously contemplated staying out until they waved me in – or decided to create a road block out of hay, just like in the Dukes of Hazzard.
But I didn’t want to exceed my limits, or the car’s.
I have no idea how the i20 N handles the daily grind, but if the suspension doesn’t feel like a billy-cart on bumpy roads, Hyundai might be onto a winner.
There is rightly a lot of hype about the all-wheel-drive Toyota GR Yaris pocket rocket, which is in a different price and performance league to the Hyundai i20 N.
But, if Hyundai can under-price and over-deliver with the i20 N versus its hot hatch peers, we could be witnessing a new cult car in the making.
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.