They are the letters that speak a thousand words.
Sometimes just a single character, sometimes two or three, but the intent is usually the same – separating the good from the great; signifying the sharpest and most powerful machines in a car maker’s lineup.
For German uber-marque BMW, it’s M. For Audi, it’s S – or RS depending on the size or your budget. Mercedes-Benz uses the AMG branding of its offsite hot-rod division.
Lexus favours F – in honour of Japan’s famous Fuji racetrack – to identify its performance-enhanced models. Perhaps most popular is the letter R – favoured by Honda and Volkswagen, among others.
And now you can add another letter to that list, with the arrival of Korean maker Hyundai’s new i30N. A hot hatch that lifts the brand to new levels of credibility and respect.
And yes, the N does have some significance. It evokes Namyang – the company’s global home of research and development – and birthplace of this very engaging little machine.
The i30N is not the first “rocket” from the Korean Peninsula – that honour belongs to the equally impressive Kia Stinger launched earlier this year. But just like the Stinger, the i30N will change the way many view these two ambitious, corporately-linked Korean brands.
The N has evolved from Hyundai’s involvement with the World Rally Championship – for decades a prime breeding ground for hot hatches from European and Japanese makers.
As with many cars with such a pedigree, we liked the i30N. A lot.
It’s one of the few cars that brings together performance, practicality and quality to rival the long-time favourite in this category, VW’s iconic Golf GTI. In fact it matches the Golf in just about every category but one – performance. The Hyundai blows the GTI into the weeds when it comes to sheer exhilaration.
With its 202 kilowatts it delivers acceleration more like that of the GTI’s fully-blown high-performance sibling, the Golf R (yes, another of those letters).
That it’s even being spoken about in the same breath as those two VW legends speaks volumes for the i30N. As with the third-generation i30 upon which it is based, the N feels more advanced, more sophisticated and more confident than any model to have preceded it.
With a starting price just below $40,000, it’s twice as expensive as the entry-level i30 model – yet it’s an absolute bargain.
It’s generously kitted out – with standard features including an active variable exhaust system, electronic adaptive suspension, advanced electro-mechanical slip differential and even a launch control function, not to mention autonomous braking.
It looks the part, yet the Koreans deserve praise for the restraint they’ve shown in styling this car. Yes, there’s a sporty body kit and noticeably hunkered down stance. There’s wafer-thin Pirelli rubber wrapped around lovely 19-inch in alloys. There’s also a fairly modest wing at the top of the rear window to help the aerodynamics. It looks purposeful and athletic, no doubt – but in no way is it over the top.
Inside you’ll find sports seats and alloy pedals and an enhanced N computer and instrumentation setup, including shift lights on the tachometer.
But more overt is the way it accelerates, brakes and handles.
The i30 offers a choice of driving moods – a reasonably sedate personality in general driving mode and a Jeckyll-and-Hyde transformation when you press the “N” button on the chunky little sports steering wheel.
That produces an instant response – the exhaust gets louder, suspension gets stiffer and the response from beneath the bonnet gets very sharp indeed. It will reach the speed limit in just over six seconds – but in full cry seems substantially quicker.
The i30N will initially be offered only with a six-speed manual transmission – good for the boy racers but I’m looking forward to sampling it with a promised eight-speed dual-clutch auto once that becomes part of the range next year.
The manual box is a decent one if not class-leading – the clutch is light and progressive but the highly-tuned engine does tend to stall if you’re a little clumsy on your take-offs. On the upside there’s an electronically-governed blip on the throttle with every downshift.
The Hyundai engineers have done a really outstanding job with the way the N handles and rides – compliant enough to be a competent urban machine during the week, but grippy and stiff enough to make it incredibly good fun on the twisty stuff when the weekend rolls around.
Its sticks to the road like a cat to carpet in a manner that’s a rung or two above the benchmark Golf GTI. In fact it’s hard to believe that this is their first crack at a high-performance variant, given the quality of what Hyundai has produced.
The N gets a full suite of electronics as you might expect from the most expensive, flagship version of the i30. Some functions it could do without – like the trigger-happy lane departure warning that chirps away every time you venture close to line markings. Hardly a deal-breaker, but a touch annoying on something that is a true driver’s car like this one.
That chassis stiffness is enhanced by a lateral support beam that cuts through the rear cargo area from one side to the other – slightly reducing the available load space and creating a barrier when the rear seats are folded forward. Yet impressively the i30 is still roomy enough for a set of golf clubs – or two if you remove a couple of the longer clubs from the bag.
With all 202 kilowatts driving through the front wheels it gives rise to a bit of torque-steer when under heavy acceleration, although this is mitigated by a suite of electronics that helps keep this very well balanced little hatch pointing in the right direction.
There was a time when a week in any Korean car was seen as a bit of a chore. That’s not the case these days. In fact, a scheduling blip meant we spent almost two weeks with the i30n in our driveway, which was no chore at all.
It’s a bona fide performance machine that, dollar-for-dollar and pound-for-pound, makes a case against just about anything on the market.
Fast, focused and fabulous, this is a car designed to bring new lustre and cache to the ever-improving Korean stable. It certainly does that. To the letter.
HOW BIG? Based on the third-generation i30 hatch, it’s impressively roomy and with decent cargo space for a car in this category.
HOW FAST? Seriously, with a top speed of 250km/h and a 0-100km/h sprint of just over six seconds. It feels even more feisty than that in real life, though.
HOW THIRSTY? Squeezing more than 200kW out of a four-cylinder turbo engine has to mean some compromise – and the i30N’s 8L/100km average consumption is it.
HOW MUCH? Starting at $39,990 plus on road costs, it delivers technology, performance and standard equipment to embarrass its rivals. It’s an absolute steal.