Moving headlong into the depths of middle age, my initial idea was to buy a sleek, phallic-nosed sports car, a later model Nissan 350Z being the main candidate.
Then I saw an article about the Hyundai i30 N, a car I'd heard about but on which I didn't know much. It had won an award for best affordable sports car two years running so I figured there must be something to it.
Checking the specs and countless reviews, I could see it was one of the best of its affordable hot hatch type and a performance match for the 350Z. As a bonus, it also offered four-door, four-seat practicality. As a new or near-new car, another advantage was that there would hopefully be no maintenance or reliability issues and risk of inheriting a thrashed or molested example.
Another unusual advantage was that the i30 N had low-key styling, especially compared to its more out-there competition. There was no way I wanted to be seen driving something like the Civic Type R at my age. In addition, I, initially at least, planned to park the car in our front garden and had been concerned that a flashier-looking car would attract too much attention. The i30 N solved that problem somewhat in that most people would pass by our house without the slightest realisation of the performance vehicle hidden amongst the hydrangeas and geraniums. In an age when cars are being stolen by having the keys burgled from inside the house, it may have been a bit different if there had been a well-polished 350Z parked outside. Even now, most people don't know what an i30 N is, which is not necessarily a bad thing.
Before long I had located, purchased and picked up a low-mileage, second hand example. Stabbing the 'N-mode' button, the car came alive, helping me believe that I had made the right choice.
Over the course of a year, the i30 N proved to be a reliable, economical and, when called upon, fun car. Reconciling the good fuel economy with the horsepower on tap is a revelation, especially when you consider the i30 N has more power than most retro Aussie V8s and sports cars from the past more generally.
This is even more amazing when you consider the practicality of four doors and four full-sized seats. The i30 N doesn't necessarily offer limousine-sized comfort, but it's pretty good, aided by an adjustable steering column. The boot is also capacious, sufficient to carry a full-sized mower on a number of occasions, with fold-down rear seats to increase luggage-carrying potential further.
Nor does the performance mean that you will suffer a rock-hard ride. The suspension is definitely harder and jerkier in N-mode, but I spent some time driving the i30 N on unmade country roads and it was fine, with no increase in the number of punctures or other issues. Obviously a conservative approach is going to help in these conditions. Nevertheless, the car is lower-slung than similar conventional hatchbacks, so it's inevitable that you will graze the underside, especially under the front spoiler, on occasion. This can happen as much with the odd branch getting caught under the car in the country as it can going too quickly over a speed hump or up a steep driveway in the city. The good aspect is that the front lip is designed so that any scrapes can't be seen unless you get right under the car. Expect such scratches even with low-mileage used examples.
Pleasingly, the car performs crisply, with a neutral character and a precise feel. N-mode creates a nice burble, with exhaust popping and a much more urgent feel all round. The main detractor is a slightly notchy gear shift, especially from first to second.
Electronically, the i30 N provides the usual full range of services unimagined only a few years ago, most noticeably a customisable range of adjustments to major vehicle performance settings, available on the large touchscreen.
Overall, particularly when compared to rival companies that have been making such sporty little vehicles for a lot longer, the i30 N is a competent package, without obvious flaws, showing that Hyundai has put in a big effort into a car that works well but generally manages to fly under the radar. Made in the Czech Republic, the quality seems decent too. Many people will be pleased to give the company a go as a less common, underdog choice.
Of course the i30 N does have drawbacks, but even some of these have less to do with the car itself than with broader issues. I ended up selling mine after a year, partly as the opportunities to use its performance were limited, without the time for track days and travel to somewhere worthwhile, where the performance could be best exploited. Truthfully, driving sportily in everyday traffic is asking for trouble these days, particularly as speed limits decline.
In addition to that, I found that the Jekyll and Hyde character of the car a little excessive. Sure, at the press of a steering-wheel paddle you could enter go-fast mode but in its normal setting it drove for all the world like a regular i30, particularly in regular city traffic or even at a steady 100km/h on the highway. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but not what you pay quite a lot of extra money for. The satisfyingly thick steering wheel notwithstanding, the extra performance is where most of the extra money goes, so if you aren't using that, you're simply clocking up kilometres and devaluing the car. And while the i30 N will please the more cerebral enthusiasts, you cannot say the four-cylinder donk has what it takes to match the ultra-aggressive growl of a V8 Mustang or similar. In the end I sold the car and reaped a COVID premium, moving to an older, more pedestrian Hyundai that suited my real needs a bit better.
What adds to this is the i30 N's styling, both inside and out, which, while crisply contemporary, doesn't follow the sensually sleek lines of traditional sports cars. So when you're not going fast or are stationary, there's not as much to admire as with the 350Z (just my opinion) I was going to get in the first place. Then again, you're not as likely to be accused of suffering from a mid-life crisis either...
A final consideration is that, in common with many or most cars on the road these days, the i30 N has a space-saver spare tyre. This might be fine in town but won't work for extensive country or highway driving as you will be restricted to a very awkward 80km/h until you get the main tyre fixed. To rectify this, you will also need to source a bulky aftermarket full-size spare of the right dimensions, as the factory wheels are horrendously expensive (park carefully to avoid 'curb rash').
Overall, the i30 N is a very competent enthusiast's choice, from a company that is obviously trying hard, but you will need to assess your real needs before paying an additional and rising amount of money compared to a vehicle that may more realistically meet your needs.