FIRST DRIVE | Is the 2020 Hyundai i30 N really worth the money?
On any given day, the circuit at L’Ormarins Estate sees automobiles from the highest tier of pedigree stretching their legs. It is, after all, an essential part of the Franschhoek Motor Museum – with its astounding catalogue of machines spanning the entire breadth of the motoring spectrum.
Curator Wayne Harley has the rather enviable job of tending to the fleet, comprising, quite literally, every covetable specimen you could care to name. It is merely one portfolio in the empire chaired by the richest man in all nine provinces, Johann Rupert. Maybe you recall the name from a book entitled The Stellenbosch Mafia: Inside the Billionaire's Club authored by South African journalist Pieter du Toit.
What does any of this have to do with the Hyundai i30 N? Well, last week the manufacturer released their first bona fide production performance model, using the exclusive Western Cape facility as its venue. This was likely the first time a South Korean hatchback had ever laid rubber on the fast, sweeping curves of the on-site track.
The last launch we attended here was the Mercedes-Benz X-Class in 2017, before that, the Lexus LC 500 and even before that, the BMW M2. Those associations give you a sense of the upward trajectory Hyundai is aiming for with its N division. By now, you know that the i30 N is not entirely new. It was first launched nearly three years ago. Exchange rates and priorities with supply were cited as some of the reasons for its tardy arrival.
Still, it comes on the back of a string of global awards. The British deemed it their Best Hot Hatch in the 2018 UK Car of the Year Awards. In Australia that year, it clinched the Best Sports Car title in its price category at the country’s Best Cars competition. But such accolades are irrelevant. This is SA.
Our consumers have their own set of metrics, in addition to fierce allegiances underpinned by decades of brand loyalty. Consider the Volkswagen Golf GTI for example: the first among equals, the go-to choice in the arena. Since the eighth generation of the model is imminent, sales of the current version are in the run-out phase. Hyundai says this will give them a good chance – for now.
There are still other formidable contenders to survey: such as the Honda Civic Type R and Renault Mégane RS. In the more premium echelon the Audi S3 (and its Golf R relative), as well as the BMW M135i do battle. Nor can we forget the Mercedes-AMG A35. Left-field appeal is what the i30 N holds. Dynamically, it brings the right ingredients for swift, stable negotiation of a challenging layout.
The electronically-controlled limited-slip differential, suspension with adaptive damping and Pirelli P-Zero rubber (235/35R19 front and rear) delivered effective adhesion on the track and through Du Toitskloof pass. Under hard, straight-line acceleration the i30 N demonstrated fidelity in direction, with virtually none of the unwieldiness that often plagues powerful front-driving cars. The conviction afforded by its boosted, four-cylinder, 1998cc petrol unit (202kW and 353Nm) was admirable.
And while it is paired with a six-speed manual, accessibility of its reserves was ensured by a short-throw shift action and a clutch pedal with easy modulation. This gives the i30 N an interactive persona that apologists for hands-on, feet-on, mindful driving are going to appreciate. That said, the lack of a two-pedal, dual-clutch option will stymie mainstream desirability. An additional gearbox choice is on the cards for next year.
It is not news that Albert Biermann, former BMW M GmbH vice-president of engineering, is in charge of development at the N sub-brand. His expertise lends an undeniable air of credence to what Hyundai is trying to achieve. Poring through the technical release, the extent to which the under-the-skin fettling has occurred versus a regular i30 is significant. This was a ground-up job, which you can tell from behind the wheel, particularly with the most-spirited N-mode engaged. Its character is responsive and calculated, with the simulated acoustic theatrics (crackles, pops) that are crucial to the modern hot hatchback experience.
Clearly, when the time came to address the interior, they had already blown the budget on the oily bits that mattered most. They had just enough for a pair of well-bolstered, gripping front seats, but then the ambience flatlines with grey drabness, low-rent plastics and a dated infotainment system.
You also have to wonder if R679,900 was the most competitive price they could have settled on. The firm counters by reminding that it boasts better standard specification than certain peers, in addition to packing that impressive seven-year/200,000km warranty. Which may be the case, but remember that the category operates by a different set of variables.
Even though it does not seem poised to sell in the same volumes as some long-standing rivals, the i30 N is a remarkable first attempt. Who knows? Forty years from now it might even hold garage space at the Franschhoek Motor Museum.