Who would have thought even five years ago that Hyundai would be an equal to Renaultsport? The expanding N division is also now a threat to VW’s GTI models.

Hyundai Motor has been building the latest generation i30 since the end of 2016. It’s a good car, deserving of the success which it enjoys. Not exactly a stand-out model though. Like the Nissan Pulsar, it’s difficult to picture in your mind even though there is no doubting its appeal in other ways. 

The seven-year warranty and the general competence of the cars isn’t the only reason why Kia is more successful in certain countries than its owner, the UK being one of these. Kias all have a certain look. As do Volkswagens. Not just on the outside either. 

Hyundai does well in Britain, even if last month (14th position, 2,689): its sales were again behind those for Kia (12th and 3,552). Year to date, Hyundai has sold 59,696 cars, which keeps it well ahead of next placed Peugeot (54,516) but not Kia (62,427). At a European level, Hyundai is stronger than its subsidiary though.

Expanding the N sub-brand

The company finally seems to understand that to make people want its cars, they must stand out, albeit in a positive way. Which is why the expanding range of N models is vital. 

For the moment, N and N Performance vehicles are restricted to the global C or Compact segment; a sensible place to start.

The i30 N, which comes only as a five-door hatchback, was revealed to the media in July 2017 and the Fastback N will be at the Paris motor show in October. The first deliveries of the Fastback, which is being marketed as a five-door coupé, will start by year-end.

Power: 250PS or 275PS

There are two versions of the same 1,998cc Theta series four-cylinder turbocharged engine for these front-wheel drive cars. The base one produces 250PS in the N or 275PS in the i30 N Performance. Torque, at 353Nm, is the same for both. They also share a six-speed manual gearbox, an electronic limited slip differential, electronic controlled suspension, rev-matching, launch control and a lap timer.

The third piece in the N puzzle is the Veloster, production of which has just commenced, the car having been a world premiere at the Detroit show in January. For the moment at least, this is the only N model available in the US.

It isn’t hard to imagine HMC giving the N treatment to the little i20, creating an alternative to the Polo GTI and next year’s Renaultsport Clio replacement.

How about N versions of SUVs? Hyundai isn’t ruling this out and there have even been suggestions that some time in the future a Kona Electric might be added as a low volume model. Partially electrified powertrains will probably also be offered for certain N next generation models in Europe, North America, China and South Korea.

Facelift for i30 but not for N

The N and N Performance are the only two variants not to have been updated with the revised front end and engine tweaks announced by Hyundai Motor Europe for the i30 range earlier this month.

The changes are timed to coincide with the introduction of engines compliant with the EC’s Euro 6d Temp emissions norms. The only exterior difference is a new grille which makes the front end of all i30 hatchbacks and estates identical to that of the Fastback.

The N and N Performance retaining their existing look helps them stand out a little more. There should be another facelift in 2020 and at that time, the N cars are likely to be given further unique styling touches. 

As good as a Golf GTI?

Expectations for Hyundai coming up with a proper alternative to the Golf GTI were mixed. Many wondered if the car would end up being as outlandish in its appearance as the Civic Type R or as hard-riding as the Renaultsport Megane. In the event, the N is pretty much right on target. The looks are understated and Hyundai has even gone for a different, less arresting palette of colours as a statement of how it sees N models. The test model’s pale blue is unusual and the black interior features patternless, subtle seat fabric with feint pin stripes instead of leather everywhere.

The alterations to the dashboard are just enough to make the N feel a bit special. There are coloured buttons on the steering wheel which can be pressed to switch from Eco to Normal to sport modes. There are touches of glossy black plastic but mostly it’s a matte finish. Not as suggestive of being expensive as what you’ll find in a Golf GTI but not too far off it.

The gearbox has a quick and short throw and the steering, while accurate in all other i30s, is on another level here. There is very little play in it but that doesn’t mean twitchiness, just a satisfying directness. Hardly any fight is felt through the wheel even when traction control is turned off (to do this, press and hold the steering wheel button with a picture of a chequered flag).

Just as good is the sound that the tailpipes emit when the engine is extended through the rev range. You almost cannot believe this is a Hyundai unit – normally the default is bland noise not sparkle. Not as musical as a Civic Type R but of course it’s way down on power compared to that car.

Hyundai may well have got the i30 N exactly right. The chassis feels as though it could easily cope with more than the 250PS on offer (I haven’t yet tried the N Performance), and even 300PS through the front tyres likely wouldn’t be too much. This is probably also the most character I’ve ever found in one of the brand’s models. It’s a car you look forward to driving.

As a first try as matching the all round excellence of the more powerful Golf GTI, the i30 N impresses.

Life cycle and replacement

Certain Hyundai models have moved to a seven-year life cycle but it isn’t yet known if the i30 will be one of these. It could instead be replaced after six years, as was the case for the previous car. So Europe’s i30 N should remain being manufactured at Nosovice in the Czech Republic until the fourth quarter of 2022.

The i30 N reaches 100km/h in a claimed 6.4 seconds, has a top speed of 250km/h, Combined consumption of 40.4mpg and CO2 is 176g/km. Pricing starts at GBP25,760.