By Sandy Myhre
The Back Story:
There’s no question that Hyundai is investing much time and effort into research and development and shaping its future through electric cars and hydrogen fuel cell technology. That’s just for starters.
The company is also into motor sport through their World Rally Championship participation and New Zealand had a hand in that with Haydon Paddon until he was replaced by Sebastien Loeb.
The company showed how serious it is when they called on ex-Audi designer, Peter Schreyer, to develop both Kia and Hyundai road cars. He’s been chief design officer since 2006 and is one of three presidents of the company.
Next came a spin-off from the motor sport ‘brand’ through a sub-brand called the N division. The N Division’s vehicle development chief is ex-BMW engineer, Albert Biermann, who for 20 years headed BMW’s famous M Division.
His brief was to create a high-performance sub-brand through a ‘halo’ car, one that acts as a significant draw-card to all other models.
The N stands for Namyang which is Hyundai’s global R & D Centre and for Nürburgring, the famous and exacting German track that doubles as a road test-bed for numerous car and tyre companies. New Zealand’s Denny Hulme won there in a Brabham in 1967 on his way to winning the Formula One world title.
But back to Albert Biermann who began his brief with the Hyundai i30N, a hot hatch purpose-built to seriously take on the likes of Subaru WRX, Ford Focus St and VW’s Golf GTi.
Hot and Tasty:
Given this is Hyundai’s first stab at upgrading a road car to performance levels, and given Ford, VW and Subaru have had years of experience in this department, the Korean company has done a remarkable job.
Style-wise it is more subtle than some competitors that scream ‘race me’ and that’s an attraction. Not everyone wants flaming obvious clues as to latent grunt. With this car you glimpse the bigger alloy wheels, the lower profile tyres, the enlarged brakes, the distinguishing grille, so you know there’s something a little out of the ordinary lurking there.
You certainly won’t see the electronically controlled suspension or the optional drive mode buttons mounted on the steering wheel unless you’re sitting in it, or the rear stiffness bar unless you open the tailgate. For those of us who prefer the indirect look it’s sufficient to know the 2.0 litre turbo inside the cute little body can deliver what’s required when needed.
There’s another subtle clue that the i30N is more than your average hatch and it comes through the exhaust system. It’s officially called an active variable system and what it does is pop and crackle, a bit like rice bubbles when you pour milk on top, but with a far more throaty resonance. What fun!
There is restraint on the inside, too. Neither the dash layout nor the choice of furnishings scream out loudly at inhabitants as some race-bred cars seem to want to do and that, too, is a welcome aspect to the overall ambience of this hot little hatch.
The race-look manual gear stick, though, is a little giveaway and what a pleasure to be able to use a manual shift after the seemingly endless autos that proliferate in New Zealand – quite unlike UK and much of Europe where they do, in fact, prefer DIY gear changes.
Storage, including the boot space, is adequate. It’s a hatch not a sedan after all. The touch screen information centre is very easily operated. You don’t have to sit and play for ages before you can figure out the sequence of signals.
The i30N is certainly suited to New Zealand’s bendy and hilly road structure. George May, who looks after new cars at Hyundai Northland, must have known this when he recommended the back road from Russell to Whangarei. It’s the coastal road that allows you to avoid Fuller’s expensive car ferries between Opua and Okiato.
What a pleasure to be able to drive this road in a car designed for purpose. It’s balanced, it sits flat, it grips as it glides robustly around corners and perhaps best of all the electronics don’t want to take over, they seemed programmed to let the driver do just that – drive.
The seats are body-hugging as you’d expect and unlike too many road cars, there’s ample padding. It seats five but, realistically, that might be a bit of a squeeze for the back-seat passengers and in any event, if you have to take an extra body you’d prefer a qualified rally navigator to sit alongside you, like my Aussie friend and fellow scribe, Lizzie.
It’s a shame she wasn’t here to relish the Hyundai i30N when it was my turn to test it. She would have loved it as much as I did and that firmly puts to bed the notion that girls don’t like to drive what is a very competent sport hatch, change gears manually, enjoy the driving experience and have cracking fun at the same time.
There is only one specification model i30N available for New Zealand, the ‘Power Pack’ version. At $54,990 it’s priced competitively with rivals like the Ford Focus ST and Volkswagen’s GTI.