‘All-rounder’ is a bit of a dirty term in the automotive industry, as far as I’m concerned. It usually points towards a car that is trying so hard to be everything, that it lacks the focus to make it feel really special. I’m yet to experience a car that can simultaneously be a luxury car and a track-focussed weapon, and I find that 99 per cent of ‘enthusiast’ cars fall somewhere on this scale, not knowing what genre to commit to in an attempt to appeal to the biggest audience; regardless of how many ‘track’ or ‘sport+’ settings there are to fiddle with.
Imagine, then, my genuine and unbridled joy when just five minutes into the first drive of the Hyundai i20 N long-termer; it was as uncomfortable and bouncy as my M3 on track-friendly coilovers, causing my dad to request to be swiftly dropped home citing feeling car sick in the passenger seat. The car feels like it’s begrudgingly driving at the pace of normal traffic, rattling you around as if in protest.
The suspicions were confirmed by an alert popping onto the instrument cluster moments later, saying: ‘S-Bend ahead’. Maybe some form of safety system telling you to slow down because it knows the road up ahead, I thought. In fact, the purpose is revealed moments later with the message ‘Press OK for N mode’. The car is asking to be put into a different mode when it sees an enjoyable road up ahead. Click ‘OK’, and in return, you’ll be greeted with more noise pumped into the cabin, an overrun that crackles and pops at you no matter how gingerly you move through the revs, a dialled-back ESP, heavier steering and a tad sharper throttle response. I don’t think I’ve ever been in a car that pushes you to be up to no good in a way the i20 N does.
If you look around the cabin, there are further signs that the i20 N is dead set on being nothing but a lout. The first thing your eyes are drawn to on the steering wheel is a big red button marked ‘REV’, almost reminiscent of the red ‘N20’ nitrous buttons from ‘The Fast and the Furious’ cars of the early 2000s, yet somehow even less subtle. Pressing it enables the car’s auto rev match function when shifting through the six-speed manual gearbox. Disliking auto rev-matching is a hill that I will die on, but I will give the i20 N immeasurable points back for doing it in the most infantile way possible. It blips the throttle with a colossal amount of revs, causing everyone around to look in confusion as to why someone is rev-matching up to a red light. By no means efficient, but smile-inducing every single time.
Once you oblige the i20 N’s childish requests to be driven hard on every road possible, you realise that’s where it thrives. The traction is truly baffling, and I’m certain that there isn’t a road in the UK that could embarrass the i20 N when driven properly. Regardless of how hot you enter a corner, the mechanical limited-slip differential will shove you in and pull you straight back out without a hint of understeer. On the other hand, when the conditions are poorer, the chassis lovingly accepts all the lift-off oversteer you can throw at it before a sharp stab at the steering wheel puts you instantly straight the moment things are getting a little too real for you. It only tips the scales at 1190kg, which allows the car to be incredibly reactive, while the relatively wide track width makes the car feel planted in all settings.
The car sounds much chunkier than you’d expect, but at times you’d be forgiven for forgetting that the N’s 1.6-litre inline-four is turbocharged. There’s very little audibly to tell the driver what the turbo is doing, which is something I think would add healthily to the i20 N’s defiant attitude. On the move, a small feeling of lag is notable, but it rarely leaves you feeling out of pocket. More often than not you’re above 4000rpm, at which point lag is no longer a concern. This allows you to modulate the throttle more like how you’d drive a naturally aspirated car with big jabs at the throttle resulting in near-instantaneous effects. The 202bhp figure arrives only at 5500rpm, while far more impressively, 203lb ft of torque is available from just 1750rpm. This makes the car surge forward through the gears in a very satisfying way, making you feel like you’re making progress quickly.
The one hold-up on the driving experience is the rev hang during shifts. The i20 N is unfortunately cursed with what seems to be a slow-moving electric throttle body, which makes fast shifting a precise art that more often than not makes you look like a 17-year-old getting to grips with your first manual car. Worse though than that is during mid corner lift off where the throttle body can momentarily surge and upset the balance that the car works so hard to perfect in every other area.
A Fiesta ST still feels a cut above the i20 N, but I think my money would still end up sitting in the till of the local Hyundai dealer. The ST looks and feels too serious for its own good in 2022. The spirit of a silly little hot hatch seems to have been lost in favour of smart efficiency. The i20 N on the other hand not only presents as an unruly teenager hellbent on doing whatever it wants at any time, it encourages you to act the same too; which to me, is absolutely priceless.
I noted that during our A90 Toyota Supra long-term review, a car that I truly loved, I’d still find myself walking past it and getting in my old Clio 182 for a backroad blast. It came down to the fact that the Supra was so good at being an everyday sports car, that it didn’t feel vastly different when you let it out of its proverbial cage. On the flip side, the Hyundai is such a different car when you’re on a good road with some space ahead, that I often find myself conflicted as to whether I want to take the i20 N or my E46 BMW M3 out for a drive. That’s the mark of a truly fun car.
To test this theory, however, we’ll soon pit the i20 N against a more classic hot-hatch flavour to see if it can really be a sequel to the ‘simple and fun’ mantra that hot hatches seem to be losing touch of in recent years.