Remember when Guardians of the Galaxy came out? To all but hardcore Marvel nerds, the idea of bringing together a little known band of comic book heroes including a walking tree and a talking racoon seemed like a bizarre idea. And yet, the end result was brilliant.
Fast forward a few years, and Guardians of the Galaxy 2 comes out. Unlike the first one, it has to carry the burden of expectation. People were assuming it was going to be good. The element of surprise was gone. In the end, it didn’t seem quite as special, and perhaps a big reason is because of what came before.
Similarly in the world of affordable performance cars, Hyundai shocked us all by bringing out the i30 N, which ended up being so good we considered it the best all-round hot hatch you could buy new up until very recently. And again, a few years on we have what’s effectively the follow-up: the i20 N.
Yes, we’ve already had the Veloster N, but that’s pretty much identical to the i30 N, and in any case, we don’t get that one here. This go-faster i20 is the first time we’ve seen the N treatment massaged onto something properly new, and to make matters worse for the little scamp, it has to go against the Ford Fiesta ST and at a push the more expensive Toyota GR Yaris. To stick with the comic book references, that’s like a newly-established superhero immediately being tasked with kicking the shit out of Iron Man and Thor.
All the right ingredients appear to be here, though. There’s a 1.6-litre inline-four turbo engine up front developing 202bhp from 5500 to 6000rpm, while peak torque of 203lb ft is felt as low as 1750rpm. All of that is lobbed to the front wheels via a six-speed manual gearbox and what Hyundai cringingly calls an ‘N Corner Carving Differential’. Despite sharing a name with the electronically-controlled locking diff in the i30 N, this one’s a simpler mechanical LSD from Torsen.
It’s a smidge lighter than the Fiesta at 1190kg, giving a respectable 0-62mph time of 6.7 seconds when using launch control. That’s a couple of tenths down on the Ford, while the top speed is 1mph lower at 143mph. Not that you should give one single fudge about performance figures for a car like this - much more important is how it drives.
To suss that out, we have a morning with what’s described as a “very late pre-production prototype”. Precious little will change between this car and the i20 Ns soon to be rolling off the production line. It’s fired up via a stop/start button that’s awkwardly obscured by the steering wheel, awaking with significantly less fanfare than the earlier i30 Ns. Like more recent examples, the i20 N has a particulate filter (OPF) sapping its exhaust noise potential.
It sounds nice and muscular on the move (partly thanks to some augmentation), though, and very quick. There’s a little bit of lag, but nothing significant. The 1.6 pulls nicely from as low as 2000rpm, becoming especially punchy above 4000. As the engine speeds climb, the outer ring of the digital rev counter neatly flashes orange, then red. There’s even, praise be, a hard rev limiter when you reach the top end.
Once you’re there and changing gear, the shift of the six-speed manual reveals itself to be one of the i20 N’s best points. The throw isn’t too long, it slots into each ratio beautifully, and there’s a certain feeling of mechanical heft to it. Lovely.
What’s less lovely? The rev hang during the shift - the i20 N’s electronic throttle body closes painfully slowly, even with the engine in Sport+ mode. It’s even more annoying when you lift mid-corner and there’s an unpleasant little surge as the throttle shuts at its leisurely pace.
If instead, you keep it nailed through the corner, the front end bites magnificently, tightening your line even when you’re sure you’ve been an arse and gone in a tad too quickly. Understeer on the road is very, very hard to come by. The power’s put down with little fuss, too, with little wheelspin and not much in the way of torque steer. Even in ESP Sport, though, you might find the stability control having a little hissy fit just after shifting into second after doing a hard launch.
Thankfully, it’s easy enough to switch it off, and it’s also simple to fiddle with all sorts of parameters. Maybe too many. Does there really need to be three settings for the rev-matching? That said, having the option to switch it on and off independently of the traction control is a real boon. Apparently, that’s too much to ask in something like a £100,000 Porsche 911 Carrera S, but in the i20 N, there’s even a big red shortcut button for rev-matching on the steering wheel.
The i20 N’s various settings can be saved in two custom profiles called ‘N1’ and ‘N2’, accessible via shortcut keys on the steering wheel. A lot like what BMW does with ‘M1’ and ‘M2’ modes, in other words. At this point, it’s worth remembering [who developed Hyundai’s N division and where he used to work].
What you can’t fiddle with is suspension modes - unlike the i30 N, the i20 N gets passive dampers. It’s a conspicuously firm setup that struggles over rougher ground, bouncing you around and making the car feel nervous. We don’t want to judge it too harshly on that front as some of the Oxfordshire roads on our test loop had all the smoothness of the surface of the moon, but it might even be a tad stiffer than the lowered Ford Fiesta ST Edition. Even with a little more give in the springs and dampers, this thing isn’t going to roll much at all.
The M car allusions don’t end with the programmable N modes - the i20 N also gets weirdly heavy steering in the sportier modes. It’s nicely quick, though, and much nicer-feeling in Comfort, if lacking much in the way of real feedback. The brakes, meanwhile need a damn good stab to actually do anything significant, but that’s a nice change from some of the horribly over-servoed setups out there at the moment.
Drive over, it’s time to answer the two most pressing questions. Does it live up to those heavily inflated expectations, and is it as good as a Ford Fiesta ST? The answer, on both counts, is no - not quite.
It isn’t quite the surprise world-beater the i30 N was when it arrived a few years ago, and that’s not just because our expectations are a little higher this time around. It’s also not as playful and feedback-laden as the Fiesta, which just wants to tripod and lift-off oversteer its way around every corner.
The i20 N is a lot more tied down and doesn’t give quite as firm a connection to the machine as the Ford manages. It is, however, very good. The Fiesta sets an enormously high bar, and to come close to that mark is an achievement in itself. The Hyundai is also nicer inside, even if it too suffers from some drab and cheap-feeling interior trim choices.
It’s also worth remembering how few options there are out there like this car. The world of B-segment hot hatches occupied by the i20 N is much smaller than the C-segment of the i30 N and its rivals, particularly with the likes of Peugeot and Renault, once masters of this sort of thing, unceremoniously buggering off.
The fact that there’s a new one which is, save for a few foibles, a wicked little performance car, is cause for celebration. Price-wise, we reckon it’ll be about £25,000, firmly in the territory of the Fiesta ST-3, the version of the Ford most buyers go for. Out of the two, the Hyundai wouldn’t be our first choice, but if you go down that route, you won’t be disappointed by thinking out of the box.