VW Golf GTI. VW Golf R. Seat Leon Cupra. Honda Civic Type R. Ford Focus ST. Ford Focus RS. Skoda Octavia vRS. Peugeot 308 GTI. Oh, and soon, the Megane Renault Sport. Quite a list of cars, no? And yet these are the C-segment offerings that Hyundai - a company with no road-going performance car pedigree to speak of - is expecting you to pass over in favour of its all-new i30 N.
It can’t just be an also-ran, then: it needs to make an impression. It has to give the Honda Civic Type R a sucker punch to its angular, over-styled chops. It must make the RS Focus’ trick four-wheel drive system look like a needless gimmick. And it has no choice but to make the VW Golf GTI look boring.
I had my doubts that a total newcomer to the performance car scene could do any of this, particularly with phrases like “cornering rascal” uttered in the tech presentation before our drive at Vallelunga circuit near Rome. But here’s the good news: Hyundai has nailed it. The firm’s new N performance sub brand (N stands for Namyang, home of Hyundai’s R&D centre) has done the impossible, coming out of nowhere with what’s possibly the most compelling offering in this viciously contested class.
Front-end grip might not quite approach the level of stubbornness displayed by the Civic Type R, but it’s really not far off, and the limited-slip differential has a satisfyingly smooth, progressive operating window. It’s not grabby like a Torsen can be, nor as conspicuous in its operation as VW Group’s VAQ diff that isn’t really a diff. In fact its only on the track you really notice what it’s doing - on the road it’s subtle enough to quietly reside in the background of the driving experience.
It’s normally at this point that we talk about the suspension and throw out a tired caveat about having to try the car on crappy UK roads to make sure the ride is up to scratch, but we don’t need to: the roads around Vallelunga are probably the worst I’ve ever come across in terms of surface. An hour in a firm hot hatch on roads like these should leave you bed-ridden for a week, jacked up on strong painkillers and unable to do anything other than binge-watch Downton Abbey, but that’s not the outcome of driving the Hyundai, even when left in the track-friendly ‘N’ setting.
Yes it’s firm, but it settles down remarkably quickly after you hit a bunch of pot holes that can only be described as ‘craters’. It doesn’t ever feel nervous, yet is more than stiff and composed enough to stave off any noticeable body roll.
The engine isn’t a standout part of the driving experience, but it delivers the goods convincingly, pulling keenly from 2000rpm and up and making a burly din as it does so. In the Performance Pack model it puts out 271bhp and 260b ft of torque, ensuring it eagerly smashes the 0-62mph sprint in 6.1 seconds, going on to the usual 155mph electronically-limited top speed. You get some wicked machine gun fire from the twin exit exhaust (the kind of noise you’d never expect a Hyundai to make in a million years), and while there is a little synthesised engine note fakery going on in the cabin, it’s certainly not unpleasant.
Chuck all that together, and you have something that sits much closer to the Civic Type R on the hot hatch scale of lunacy than the reserved Golf GTI at the other end of it. It has me in mind of the short-lived Golf GTI Clubsport, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s high praise. The fast and well-weighted steering can sometimes feel a little artificial and over-assisted and the six-speed manual gearbox isn’t the slickest, but those are the only real foibles I can think of.
So how the hell has Hyundai pulled this off? Through doing things properly, is the answer: there are no half measures here. Take the differential: it must have been tempting just to fit an existing LSD from someone like Torsen. Honda and Peugeot do the same, after all, but Hyundai went to the bother of developing a whole new unit just for this car.
Technically it’s not a diff at all, it’s something much more clever. It uses steering angle, G and yaw rate sensors to decide how to distribute torque across the front axle, something it does using a mutli-plate clutch pack. To improve grip and traction further, the Performance has a set of P Zeros specifically developed for the N, and if you want, your friendly neighbourhood Hyundai dealer will even fit OZ rims with Trofeo Rs. They really aren’t mucking about here.
There are independent adaptive dampers fitted as standard on both the entry level version and the Performance, and the whole suspension setup has been radically reworked with the roll centre, caster, scrub radius and much more besides.
The aero kit even includes a spoiler on the exhaust box, and there’s a launch control feature that’ll let you choose the revs you’d like to hold the engine at before being fired off into the horizon. Yes, all of this. On. A. Hyundai. It just doesn’t compute, and there’s so much engineering and tech going on that we might have to run a separate piece just to cover it all.
"There'd be no reason to regret buying a Hyundai i30 N"
As if Hyundai hadn’t already pulled off enough miracles, here’s one last one: the entry-level car costs £24,995, and the Performance Pack - the one you want, given that it has 271bhp instead of 247, bigger brakes, a shoutier exhaust and that kinda sorta differential - is just £27,995. In other words, about the same as the simpler, considerably less interesting Golf GTI. It’s perhaps not so plush inside, but I don’t give a damn, and neither should you.
Unlike each of the hot hatchbacks I mentioned at the beginning of this review, I don’t think there’s anything you’d regret when buying one of these - it’s a mega, incredibly well-rounded piece of kit. A cornering rascal? It bloody well is. Fair play, Hyundai.