202bhp Hyundai i20 N Prototype Driven: Can It Beat The Fiesta ST?

We've had a go in an early prototype for the i20 N, and the early signs are very promising indeed

The funny thing about the Ford Fiesta ST is for all its world-class handling traits, the hot hatch doesn’t have an abundance of rivals to lord it over. There’s the VW Polo GTI, which is competent but not hugely thrilling, and the fun but pricey Mini JCW. That is, quite literally, it.

Finally, though, there’s a challenger which stands a decent chance of knocking the Fiesta off its largely uncontested perch. And it comes from, of all companies, Hyundai.

A few years ago, that would have seemed like a preposterous concept, but the i30 N proves that Hyundai - largely thanks to BMW M man Albert Biermann and the ‘N’ team he’s built - can build a world-beater. So, can the new i20 N do what its bigger sibling did a few years ago?

Hyundai - 202bhp Hyundai i20 N Prototype Driven: Can It Beat The Fiesta ST? - Features

We can’t give a definitive answer on that just yet, but after a brief but insightful stint in a very early prototype i20 N on the Nurburgring GP circuit and the surrounding roads, we have a good idea of how the production car might shape up. And importantly, we now know most of the mechanical setup.

Up front, there’s a 1.6-litre ‘T-GDi’ inline-four turbo petrol lump, good for 202bhp and 203lb ft of torque. 0-62mph takes 6.7 seconds, two tenths slower than the Fiesta ST. The only gearbox option is a six-speed manual, which feeds the front wheels via a mechanical limited-slip differential, as opposed to the bespoke electronically-controlled diff in the i30 N. We’re expecting the LSD to be fitted as standard in the UK.

Hyundai - 202bhp Hyundai i20 N Prototype Driven: Can It Beat The Fiesta ST? - Features

That engine can’t match the character nor the soundtrack of the ST’s fizzy inline-three, but there’s no arguing with its punchy, smooth delivery over 2500rpm. It doesn’t feel as boosty, either, which is either a good or bad thing depending on your point of view.

The differential isn’t as effective as the ST’s, but it’s not as grabby either - you don’t find yourself fighting with the steering when planting the throttle on the way out of a corner. With the steering uncorrupted, you can appreciate its consistent and well-judged weight.

Hyundai - 202bhp Hyundai i20 N Prototype Driven: Can It Beat The Fiesta ST? - Features

For the suspension, N engineers blessed the i20 with new knuckles, springs and dampers. It’s a passive setup, but that’s just fine by us - the i30 N’s adaptive system tended to be too firm on most roads in all but the softest setting. The i20 N seems to be more sensibly tuned - there are some diabolical road surfaces in the vicinity of the ‘Ring, but the car handled them confidently, giving a decent amount of feedback without crashing over the imperfections.

The manual gear shift is decent, but not remarkable - we’d ideally want a little more weight. There’s a slick auto rev-matching feature, but if you’d prefer, it’s easy enough to turn off. As is the ESP, whose off setting is - Hyundai assures us - properly off. A few mid-corner lifts during our drive on the circuit served as proof - doing so triggers small but entertaining oversteer moments.

Hyundai - 202bhp Hyundai i20 N Prototype Driven: Can It Beat The Fiesta ST? - Features

It’s all looking quite promising, then, but the real kicker will be the price. We’ve good news there too, with the i20 N expected to be around £20,000. The Fiesta ST’s price has crept up since the car’s launch, with the cheapest now starting at £22,275. The recently revealed ST Edition is a whopping £27,075.

Judging by the i30 N, the i20 N is also likely to be well equipped as standard, with a spartan options list making it difficult to inflate the price. So, it should be able to compete dynamically, while significantly undercutting its rival. It’s taken long enough, but at last, that Fiesta has a reason to be worried.