(Pocket-lint) - We come screeching around the a corner of a track, warm rubber cutting the sidelines and barely keeping out of the gravel, before firing off down the straight in sixth gear and then quickly adjusting down to third for a tight cone-crafted chicane. In a Hyundai.
Yes, you read that correctly: Hyundai has created its first ever hot hatchback in the i30 N. In setting the tone of the all-new N performance brand, the i30 N isn't cutting any corners (that was our accidental job while on lap four, oops) in giving the Korean maker a true Volkswagen Golf GTi competitor.
So how did Hyundai end up here? Well, the former BMW M-series boss was poached by the Korean brand and his focus seems clearly asserted. But by adding a German behind the scenes, does Hyundai stand a chance of getting you to put your money into the i30 N rather than handing it (almost ironically) to the German competition?
How is the i30 N different to the standard model?
First impressions would suggest the answer to that question is yes. Sure, the i30 N doesn't look as aggy as a scowling Golf GTi, but dressed in the exclusive Performance Blue of our review model, it's got its own air of attractiveness. It walks that fine line between everyday car and fun hot hatch, both in aesthetic and functionality terms.
Half the point of a hot hatch is, of course, to look hot. Hyundai's attention to detail gives the N-branded i30 small touches compared to its standard sibling. There are larger air intakes on the bumpers, the headlamps have a black bezel trim, the blue colour is offset with a red character line to the front and rear (the brake callipers are a fetching red, too, including "N" logo), while dual muffler exhausts and 18- or 19-inch wheels give that hot hatch touch.
It's not all cosmetic adjustments, however, with the standard i30 body being reworked in its N Performance form. There's multi-link rear suspension (adjustable via Drive modes, more on that later), electronic slip differential, plus extra strengthening of the chassis for a sportier ride. It's invisible to the eye - well, unless you're underneath the car and know what you're looking for - but is a big point of difference in the drive.
Despite these tweaks and changes, Hyundai has stuck to its sales model in avoiding the i30 N having a gazillion options packs that could raise its price. Instead, it's a two-fold choice, both with a 2.0-litre turbocharged engine: pick the £25,000 250hp model, or pay an extra £3,000 for the 275hp model (which adds that slip-dif, larger wheels, brake callipers, plus a larger in-car infotainment screen). It's rather good value.
What comes in the i30 N as standard?
Limited options mean there's not much personalisation, however. Sat behind the seat of the i30 N and the interior feels fine, but not particularly special. It's got all the functional points of interest ticked, but you won't find any high-end materials. Maybe that won't matter when your eyes are fixed on the road ahead, foot to the floor.
That said, every i30 N does come with a stack of tech and safety on board as standard - which works as one of its key strengths. There's no extra cost for Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Qi wireless charging and USB charging ports are on board. All models have at least a 5-inch centre infotainment screen (it's 8-inch in the upgraded Performance model) with sat nav. There's even a stack of safety features, from high beam assist, to collision and driver attention warnings, lane-keep assist, plus camera-assisted speed limit warning.
That's all well and good, but in a car such as this the lack of any stereo system upgrade, as one example, is a major sore point. In particular, because the standard - and indeed only one - is really weak, which half undoes the benefit of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. We get that going "all inclusive" can have huge appeal, but the higher-end market's custom options and packs also hold lots of appeal, despite the cost potential, for those wanting extra special touches - and, for the N range, is something we think Hyundai is failing to explore.
How well does the i30 N drive?
The tech aspect of the i30 N better represents itself in its Drive modes. As the car features an N steering wheel, it comes with quick-touch buttons for Drive mode on the left side of the wheel - which allows for adjustment between Normal, Eco, Sport modes - while an N button sits to the right of the wheel, used to adjust between N and Custom driver modes (read that as "really wild" or "track" mode).
In many brands such modes tend to mean a subtle adjustment to the feel of the car. Not so the i30 N. In Normal it can adsorb road bumps and feel like a casual, daily drive kind of car. Stick it into N mode when on bumpy roads and, well, you'll feel absolutely everything resonate through your body as it stiffens the multi-link suspension so much... which, as we found, was perfect for a track day. In that sense, the i30 N is truly versatile, whether for a run to the shops, or a run around a local track.
It's also here that 8-inch touchscreen comes in particular use, as that's where the multi-coloured Normal/Eco/Sports/N/Custom modes are presented. Not only are the graphics distinctive, there are also options to adjust the engine response, rev matching, the slip-dif, and exhaust sound.
Being a performance model we couldn't help but pop the exhaust sound into "Sport+" for the most burble and pop from those dual rear pipes. The i30 N isn't obnoxiously loud, however, not touching the perpetual hum on an Audi RS3, say, but then this hot hatch is a whole different deal. And, actually, that makes the Hyundai quite manageable on a day-to-day basis, as your neighbours won't totally hate you (yay).
We haven't harped on too much about the i30 N's engine options, as eagle-eyed hot hatch fans will be fully aware that the Hyundai figures can't quite match all its competition (more in the Alternatives section at the end). They're only numbers, boys and gals, as we can confirm the i30 N certainly flies along, has assertive gear changes, yet, isn't the very fastest hatch in a straight line. But it's a whisker's difference and, honestly, we don't think it matters in the real world.
Didn't see that coming, did you? A Hyundai hot hatch that's a genuine competitor for the well-established elite. It enters the performance market as a genuine option for day-to-day driving with a bit of added fun.
Sure, it might not look as aggy as a Golf GTi, there's not a great deal of personalisation, but it's that second point that keeps things rather simple when it comes to buying an i30 N. And, as a result, it's feature-packed and good value for money in terms of tech and safety features. That said, we'd like some additional custom options - a decent stereo upgrade being one at the very least - and other brands might squeeze Hyundai here.
On paper the i30 N might not be as fast as its German competition, but with the former BMW M boss now at the helm of this Hyundai performance project, the i30 N delivers spiritual German in its ways: it's functional, effective and feels like it's adsorbed years of experience in the process.
As a car that's the first of its kind from the Korean maker, it's mighty impressive. But then so is the VW Golf GTi, Honda Civic Type R, and even Ford Focus RS - all of which fall into a similar price range.
Alternatives to consider
Volkswagen Golf GTi
Remains the ever-green hot hatch choice. Like the Hyundai, it comes in two power options - 230hp and 245hp - which places it below the Hyundai in raw power terms. It costs more, too, starting at £28k for a 3-door, but the Golf feels distinctly classier than the i30 N with a better interior, more premium materials and the ability to add options like a better stereo. The performance pack version also nets you a mechanical differential (the Hyundai's is electronic) which makes it just that bit sharper to drive if you like to press on.
Read the full article: VW Golf first drive
Peugeot 308 GTi
Like the Hyundai, the Peugeot splits the difference between the regular hot hatches (Golf GTi / Focus ST) and the hyper-hatches (Golf R / Focus RS). It comes with 270hp, extracted from a tiny 1.6-litre engine, and the chassis, which developed by Peugeot Sport, is a real masterpiece. The cabin quality feels higher than the Hyundai's, but the touchscreen interface is harder to use, and space in the back seat is tight.
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Read the full article: Peugeot 308 GTi review
Seat Leon Cupra
An obvious rival for the Hyundai, the Leon has a strong following as a better value version of the VW Golf (a car it shares it underpinnings with). The recent upgrade sports 300hp, too. As bang for your buck goes, the Seat is where it's at, and it does the day-to-day, fade-into-the-background-and-not-annoy-you thing rather well. On a dry road, it's also capable of upping its game and being quite fun to throw around, but it lacks a certain something, and front-wheel drive only can make it a handful of wheelspin in the wrong conditions.
Read the full article: Seat Leon Cupra review
Honda Civic Type R
One of the Hyundai's big plays is value... but if you're shopping for a new hot hatch, it'd be hard to ignore the recently revised Type R. Ok, so starts from a far pricier £31,000, its looks are an acquired taste, and it's on the garish side all-round, but the Civic's trump card is the excitement it delivers on the road. It has mind-bending cornering ability and an amazing new turbo-charged engine which really shows where your extra £3K goes. Infotainment usability isn't a strong point, but equipment is, and it's one of the most spacious cars in the sector, too.
Read the full article: Honda Civic Type R review