Rapid Korea path

Set to file into the hot-hatch class 40 years late, the i30 N will have to play catch-up. Our proto drive suggests it’s on the fast track...

WORDS NATHAN PONCHARD

I F YOU STARTED at ‘A’ and consecutively assigned letters of the alphabet to the manufacturers most famous for hot hatches, Hyundai would, appropriately as it turns out, fall somewhere around ‘N’. The odd dabble in turbocharging and a likeable (but long-dead) coupe have barely registered in bolstering the 50-year-old South Korean firm’s brand image, so Hyundai has belatedly decided that a proper performance line is in order, starting with the camouflaged hot hatch you see here, the i30 N.

Hyundai’s performance ambition is no secret, seeing its WRC cars have been wearing ‘N’ logos for several years now, but this is our first taste of what ‘N’ will mean to its road-going range. This is just a spoonful, though, because we’re driving a pair of not-quite-ready i30 N prototypes on a private closed road. Many engineering details are yet to be signed off, including final suspension tune, engine outputs, and drive-mode calibration, yet even in an unfinished state, Hyundai’s hot hatch shows real promise. The production versions won’t launch until late this year, closely followed by the i30’s new-generation coupe twin, the Veloster N.

Two versions of the i30 N will be offered – an entry-level car with around 184kW and an up-spec version with 202kW, or thereabouts.

Torque on both Ns is expected to hover around 375Nm, but the Performance Pack version will make that available across a broader rev range.

The 202kW car will also get a lower final-drive ratio for slightly snappier gearing from the only transmission on offer at launch – a six-speed manual, just like its Renault, Ford and Peugeot competition … but not Volkswagen.

Hyundai says an eight-speed dual-clutch transmission is two years away.

In a similar vein to the multiple grades of Renaultsport Megane and Golf GTI and R versions, Hyundai plans to lure buyers with a sharply priced i30 N starter. While its headline power output may not be quite as heroic as the Performance Pack’s (achieved via a slightly different overboost strategy), the base i30 N shares almost everything with its bigger brother. And that means not a whole lot with a bread-and-butter i30.

Beneath the inevitable car bras and camo, the N versions disguise a completely new front suspension set-up, with flared guards to house a broader track. Up front, nothing is shared with the regular i30, or even the warm SR. A new front crossmember, front knuckles, lower control arms, and a new dual-pinion steering rack with rackmounted electric assistance (rather than column-mounted) combine with completely different kinematics (lower roll centre, different king-pin offset) to achieve faster steering and a higher level of traction, while still providing good feedback.

Yet there are some differences between N models. The base car relies on torque vectoring and wheel braking to enhance its traction, whereas the Performance version scores an electronically controlled LSD, as well as larger front brake rotors and 19-inch alloys wearing HN-stamped Pirelli P Zero 235/35R19 tyres (instead of Michelin Pilot Super Sport 225/40R18s).

At the rear, the i30 N’s multi-link arrangement is similar in concept to what’s beneath the SR, though the roll centre has been lowered, a few areas of the body structure have been beefed up and there are two reinforcement struts underneath the floor. But Hyundai’s vehicle testing and high-performance development boss, and former head of BMW’s M Division, Albert Biermann, is adamant the new-gen i30 offers “a fantastic platform to start with – very mature, very solid, good substance car”.

One final feather in the i30 N’s dynamic cap is its damping system – fully adaptive with five modes: Eco, Normal, Sport, N, and Custom. They can be adjusted via two light-blue-coloured flaps mounted beneath each horizontal spoke on the N’s nifty steering wheel. The left scrolls between Eco, Normal and Sport – the damping and steering calibrations of which are yet to be determined by Hyundai’s Aussie engineers for our market – whereas the right activates ‘N’ mode (which ramps everything to its max setting, mainly for racetracks) or Custom, which allows individual configuration of suspension, steering, throttle response, ESC control, LSD control, exhaust sound and rev-matching. This synchronised rev-matching function ramps up its flamboyance as you scale through the drive modes, which is unique in the hot-hatch class or you can turn it off via a button on the wheel.

Finally, some driving. The private test venue is very smooth yet also hilly, meaning it’s quite demanding on brakes and tyres, so I stick to N mode in the Performance Pack version and give it a bootful. There’s enough grunt to break traction in first gear from a standing start but once the 202kW N is moving, its front-end proves surprisingly grippy, capable of channelling the N’s considerable torque. Trailing some brake into the tighter corners, the N adjusts its attitude keenly towards the apex before proving deceptively rapid up some quite serious inclines, even leaving its slick sixspeed shifter in third.

Once the 202kW Performance Pack is moving, its front-end proves surprisingly grippy

DISCLOSURE TIME:

Hyundai’s official reveal of the i30 N in full production trim is tipped to come a fortnight or so after this issue goes on sale, which meant we had to rely of the talents of our resident com-gen artist to create the image you see here and on the cover. Our digital whizz used the shots of the camouflaged car we drove as the basis for the image, and was able to envisage the obscured parts by referring to various spy pics of i30 N mules. The colour scheme, meanwhile, was influenced by the RN30 Concept revealed at the Paris motorshow last year, and we have it on good authority that this will be the hero paint treatment. As you read this you’ll know how close we got to the actual production car, so feel free to contact us on Facebook to applaud or blow raspberries.

IT’S ONLY THE BEGINNING…

There’s plenty to come from Hyundai’s N-badged performance line. Besides an N version of the second-gen Veloster coupe (set to debut the N brand in the US), there’s also a dual-clutch under development, which will be crucial to the i30 N’s sales success. “We’re working on a nice eight-speed wet dual-clutch, but that’s maybe something we can offer in two years or so,” said Hyundai’s high-performance development head, Albert Biermann. But what about an even more hardcore AWD version? “I think first of all we’d need more power – significantly more power – and then AWD I think is needed. And right now, we have no decision to do that.

We have test cars having more power, having AWD, and we’re working on it, but there’s no decision to do such a car.”

The first Hyundai with driver appeal, even in short-lived 2.0-litre four-pot form, though it didn’t sound as fruity as the heavier 2.7-litre V6. Entertaining handling with a bit of rear-end adjustability went some way to making up for the handsome Tiburon’s lack of refinement and finesse.

benchmarks, but a lot of in the i30 N. And surprisingly there seems every product will be a valid Golf GTI. As long that is.

Unexpectedly, there’s a smooth and sweet cohesion to the 202kW N’s demeanour that is almost at odds with its power figure.

Its engine – a development of the allaluminium 2.0-litre ‘Theta II’ turbo donk from the Sonata – cops a new turbo, a vocal new exhaust system, new sensors, and a revised induction system to give it much more high-performance character.

“We worked a lot on the intake system to have a more free airflow in and out; that’s the magic of a good turbo engine”, says Biermann. “We tried to keep it up revving way above 6000rpm … some of the turbo engines die too early and run out of talent, and we tried to avoid that as much as we could because for good driving, you need linearity also from the engine.”

The reality proves it’s a vastly different beast to the Sonata’s smooth but rather characterless unit. In the top i30 N, an active exhaust flap (unique to this version) combines with a sound generator that plumbs induction noise to the firewall to give the i30 a fruity and crackly, yet sweetly refined personality. You can hear the turbo spooling up quickly from 1700rpm, yet this engine will happily stretch to the 6800rpm cut-out if you so desire. That said, 3000- 6000rpm is its pleasure zone, supported by a subtle growl from the engine bay under load – perhaps a bit too subtle for a hot hatch with this level of performance – and a deliciously barky dual exhaust on overrun or between gearchanges.

Three hard laps in the 202kW version reinforces the feeling of chassis cohesion.

Its steering (with just 2.2 turns lock-to-lock) feels well-weighted and brisk, without being too pointy, its chassis is planted (courtesy of extensive suspension tuning at the Nurburgring), its brakes are impressively robust and its gearshift feels well-oiled.

Terrific driving position too, courtesy of new sports seats developed in-house by Hyundai’s WRC team and mounted nice and low, unlike the bar stools in an Elantra SR.

I just wish there was a bit more point from the rear end, a touch more growl from the engine, and more seamless rev-matching if you’re lazy and simply shift down from fourth to third, without touching the brakes.

The 184kW car comes off surprisingly well in the face of its beefier, more featureladen sibling. A dialled down exhaust bark takes little away from its drivetrain sportiness, while the lack of a dedicated LSD only makes itself felt in really hard driving. At six or seven tenths, even in the rain, the 184kW i30 N has no difficulty feeling quick and effortless. In order to enhance the i30 N’s entry point, I think the starter version makes complete sense.

What such a closed environment doesn’t tell you is what the i30 N’s road refinement is like, and nor can we assess its Normal and Sport modes, because both are yet to be tuned for Australia. But the bones are definitely there. The i30 N package feels holistic in its cohesiveness, and that’s with more tuning still to come.

Hopefully on the road, the way Biermann describes the i30 N is what we’ll get: “Our whole story in ‘N’ is about the driving fun, especially focusing on the cornering, so this is what we live for, what we work for. I keep saying ‘we love the corner at N’, and N, it’s the logo of a chicane on the track, and that’s where we put our most effort – making the car go around the corner in a very good way.

“Of course, it has power, it has the brakes, and it’s quite consistent on the track. The whole layout of the car, the choice of tyres, the cooling system, the brake system, even in the base spec.”

A track-honed car that’s also comfortable and involving on the road is the stuff of hothatch dreams. Hyundai has never produced a true performance car, let alone one to challenge class benchmarks, but a lot of energy has been invested in the i30 N. And from our brief taste of this surprisingly sophisticated hot hatch, there seems every chance the finished product will be a valid all-round alternative to a Golf GTI. As long as you want a manual, that is.

The bones are definitely there. The i30 N package feels holistic in its cohesiveness

Model Engine Max Power Max Torque Transmission Weight 0-100km/h Price On sale Hyundai i30 N 1998cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo 202kW @ 6000rpm* 375Nm @ 4000rpm* 6-speed manual 1400kg* 6.2sec* $40,000* Late 2017 *Estimated