Balls. Let’s be honest, that’s what Hyundai has for making the i30 N. It has zero experience when it comes to performance cars of pretty much any kind, let alone a hot hatchback. And some gladiatorial kinda stuff is going down in the hot hatch arena right now.
As we discussed after first driving the i30 N in Italy earlier this year, the newbie has to fend off a bunch of very well-established rivals, from the no-holds-barred Honda Civic Type R right down to the more sedate VW Golf GTI. The Type R showdown is a battle for another time, but with a Phantom Black i30 N and ‘our’ Golf GTI longtermer sharing a driveway…well, it’d be rude not to, right?
It is worth pointing out that the GTI in one corner of our ‘ring’ does not have the ‘Performance Pack’, which adds an electronically controlled ‘VAQ’ locking differential, bigger brakes and a smidge more power. The i30 N on the other hand does have something Hyundai also calls the Performance Pack, also bringing with it an electronically-controlled mechanical differential (of Hyundai’s own design, no less), plus bigger brakes and more power.
So, it’s an unfair contest, then? Not quite. For starters, this is expected to be how most buyers will opt for each - the majority of i30 N customers will go for the Performance Pack cars, while over in GTI land most (just) did without the PP for the pre-facelift version. Plus, the Hyundai with the Pack weighs in at £27,995 (the less powerful, ‘standard’ version is £24,995), near enough the same as a manual, non-Performance GTI with smaller wheels. Spec a Golf with a differential, adaptive dampers and all the other gubbins Hyundai will give you on an i30 N performance, and you’re looking at nearly £33,000. Ouch.
You know what else Hyundai gives you that VW doesn’t? Anger. Pure, raging, ”if you keep staring at me I’ll punch you in the face” anger. It’s not just the surprisingly loud exhaust that lets out machine gun volleys of pops and bangs from its twin tail pipes: it’s the boosty, muscular mid-range that makes you want to call BS on Hyunda’s official 6.1sec 0-62mph time for this thing. It’s about on the money, given the wheel spin the 271bhp, 2.0-litre engine puts the i30 N’s bespoke 235/40/19 Pirelli P Zeros through off the line, but there’s no question that this car feels faster than you’d expect.
It has the legs on the Golf in the corners, too. Even with the dampers set to ‘Normal’ it doesn’t seem to roll as much as the Golf, and while the GTI tries its best to imitate the actions of a front locking diff with little brake applications via its ‘XDS Plus’ system, it’s an easy car to push into understeer. In the Hyundai meanwhile, it takes tremendous commitment and force to unstick that front end. It’s not as grippy as the Honda Civic Type R, but it’s really not that far off.
There’s an elephant in the room, however. Well, not so much an elephant as a white Golf GTI that I simply can’t shake from my rear-view mirror. It may lose speed in the corners thanks to that understeer-prone front end, but there’s still not a huge amount in it. And once it powers out the other side, it’s certainly not left for dead. It’s partly down to the torque - the 2.0-litre TSI may be down by 43bhp on the Hyundai’s unit, but when it comes to twist, the Golf is just 2lb ft away from what the N brings to the party. The six-speed DSG automatic gearbox fitted to ours helps, too.
So the Golf doesn’t give away as much to the i30 N in terms of pace as you’d expect, and its when sliding back into those iconic tartan bucket seats that the VW starts to claw it back. As with any Golf, there’s a sense of rightness to the way everything’s laid out and the way everything works, even if I’m not a huge fan of the new digital instrument binnacle. Hyundai has come a long way from its bargain basement roots, but it still hasn’t quite managed that whole premium feel thing VW has going on in most of its models. The infotainment’s a bit clunky and a bit naff in the i30 N, too.
The simplicity of the Golf is also a breath of fresh air. You can choose between between Eco, Normal and Sport modes, with some limited customisation available via an ‘Individual’ setting, but you don’t need to fiddle. It feels great in Normal, and ever so slightly nicer in Sport. In the i30 N on the other hand, Hyundai seems to be keen to boast about there being over 4000 different combinations. We can only assume the preposterous amount of choice - along with the overly heavy Sport+ steering and the temperature-dependent rev counter LEDs - are a result of Hyundai’s performance boss Albert Bierman’s many years at BMW M Division.
Happily, it hasn’t taken me long to suss out my ideal settings. Everything turned up to the max, with the steering left in Sport and the suspension turned down to ’Normal’ - go for Sport or Sport+, and the ride’s punishingly firm even on smoother roads.
Do that, and you have what’s quite possibly the best driving hot hatchback on sale right now. There’s an extra level of excitement to it that the GTI just can’t quite match, not to mention a steering setup and chassis that gives you much more feedback.
My love for the GTI is strong after living with two different versions for the best part of a year, and it is far better at being a ‘normal car’ than the i30 N. The buyer crossover isn’t going to be massive here - the majority of prospective GTI owners are already after something a little more subdued, after all. But if you’re one of the few picking between the two, even if it’s a GTI Performance, we feel compelled to nudge you toward the Hyundai. And that’s not something I ever thought I’d say at the end of a performance car twin test.