Driven: Hyundai i30 N has the heart of M, spirit of Seoul

By Pritesh Ruthun Time of article published Feb 21, 2020

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Cape Town - Five years ago, Hyundai made a bold move by making a decision to jump into the high performance road car segment in a serious way. 

They hired Albert Biermann, a former BMW M division executive, to take the helm of Korea’s own “M” division, aptly named “N”. 

They say the N badge isn’t to poke fun at BMW, but a nod to the company’s roots in Namyang in South Korea, and its research and development commitment on the Nordschleife in Germany. It’s challenging, however, to avoid noticing the BMW elements in the i30 N hatchback that was launched in South Africa last week. 

Is it a GTI Lite?

No, it’s not. There’s been a lot written about the i30 N, as it’s been on sale for at least three years in other parts of the world. It’s been run hard against (and beaten) the standard VW Golf GTI in tests in the UK, and thumped the Renault Megane RS on a track in other tests. 

In the right hands it can even hang on to the mighty Civic Type R’s rear spoiler from a dig. 

The Hyundai i30 N isn’t about numbers and stopwatch times, although it’s pretty good at that. It’s more about enjoying the feel of handling, braking, in-gear tractability and carrying speed through-the-corners. 

We took the launch cars to the rural, tarmac circuit at the Franschhoek Motor Museum for a day to see what all the UK papers have been raving about. 

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After the first few laps, running through the heat cycles for brakes and tyres, we got to open the taps a little and really chuck it into the corners.

The i30 N is powered by a 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine with 202kW and 353Nm (from as low as 1500rpm). Power is sent to the front wheels via an electronically actuated differential, similar to what Ferrari, yes, Ferrari, use in its cars.

There are several driving modes; Eco, Normal and Sport, but it’s the button on the steering (did I mention the BMW feel to it yet?) that activates N mode that turns it from a city-friendly runabout to a tarmac biting terrier.

In N mode, everything is dialled into the sharpest setting, from the steering weight and sensitivity to the magnetic-ride shocks. You also get this wonderful snap and pop action from the exhaust system when you lift off the accelerator in N mode, as the engine retards timing and allows a few drops of fuel to be vaporised for your aural pleasure. 

Driving the car in N mode on a smooth racetrack highlighted just how well the e-diff and chassis is set up to sustain consistent high-speed nonsense. This is a road car, but the way it bit, turned, stopped and refused to overheat, you’d think it were a cup car. On the road, when driving behind it, you can see the purpose in the chassis, as the rear wheels offer a hint of negative camber. 

While on the subject of the road, it’s best to leave the car in Normal mode, as this offers a good supple ride over bumpy surfaces. In N mode, I found the ride to crash just a little too much, sort of in the way the Seat Leon Cupra and Opel Astra OPC did many years ago. Don’t get me wrong, for the odd exploit where traffic and the laws permit, N mode is hilariously fun, but it’s suited to track work more than anything else. 

More than meets the eye

While I ramble on about the modes, let me just say there is an Individual driving programme that enables you to set the car up just the way you like it; for instance you can have a relaxed ride and steering, but keep the exhausts wide open for those winter morning start-ups. It’s a high-technology masterpiece underneath and although there is a sense of datedness to its cabin architecture and digital readouts, there’s no denying that this car is M-inspired. 

Before the BMW lawyers send us the love letter, let me just point out three things that lead me to believe this: 

The rev-counter is variable, meaning when the car is cold upon start-up, the yellow zone sits at around 4 000rpm and then moves to 6 000rpm once operating temps have been reached. Er, hello M3, M4, M5; 

There’s a set of shift lights in the central cluster that glow red hot when you reach the engine’s optimum shift point like you get in an M parts catalogue; and...

The third thing that reminds me that there’s a BMW soul in this athletic body is that it comes with a six-speed manual gearbox only. 

Yes, much like the manic Civic Type R you can only have the i30 N with a “stick”, so you better dust that left calf off if you plan on jumping into one soon. It’s not jut the fact that it’s a manual. There’s this slickness to the throw and the weight of the gears (and the clutch) that reminds me of the AP2 Honda S2000 and FN2 Civic Type R. 

Is it a one-trick pony?

There’s more to the i30 N than raising heart beats and attracting stares, as it’s still a genuine Hyundai hatchback under it all, which means a decent boot, enough space for baby seats and the ability to serve as a coast-to-coast holiday car for the family if the need arises. 

There’s a decent audio system too with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay support, and it comes with a large glass roof, and it has sporty seats and a space-saver spare. There’s a raft of safety features, and airbags and good lights for night-time driving. In fact, if it were an SUV, it would already be sold out. 

Should you buy one?

If you want a proper (front-wheel) driving experience, and don’t mind a bit of a hard plastic-overkill interior, then this is the car of the moment, and it will certainly hang onto you mate’s Type R on the road from point-to-point. 

It’s not as refined as a Golf 7 GTI or R, though, and compared to an Audi S3 it’s not as solid when you open and shut the doors and boot lid, for example. I mention this because the Hyundai i30 N costs R679 900. Yes, that’s Civic Type R money, or S3 money, or you can save a whole of money and get a Megane RS type of money; you get the picture. 

Nevertheless, there’s this compelling character in the i30 N that makes it a worthy buy for the enthusiast. 

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