After nearly 4 years with the 2015 Golf R, it was time for a change. I happened to let a friend know that I was looking for a replacement, and little did I know that the i30N would be the one.
My criteria were simple; a lot simpler than I had originally thought. I needed a car to easily fit a dog, which would be comfortable, modern, and fun to drive. All for the price of a Golf R, or perhaps a bit less.
I'd honestly never considered Hyundai. What springs to mind? An SUV driven by an elderly chap, perhaps doing 15 mph under the speed limit on a dry, sunny day? Yes, me too.
Naturally, I went to BMW, and Mercedes, and Audi, to begin my search. I didn't want another Golf R, and the Audi S3 is so very similar that it was quickly out of the running. The Mercedes A45 is far beyond the price range, which left the BMW M240i.
It's a solid hit on paper: a 2-series with a 3-litre straight six delivering 335 bhp. Through the rear wheels. It has to be a fun car, right? We'll come back to the Beemer.
Hyundai's new game
Turning up at a Hyundai dealership couldn't have been a lot different from a BMW dealership. The BMW dealership is full of racy, exciting cars, with shiny floors and perfectly dressed salespeople. Everything is so clean you could eat your dinner off it, and the place oozes class.
The Hyundai dealership is a more modest affair. A bit drab, not a lot of parking, no glossy big screens advertising the latest models. It's aimed at the average buyer: a middle-to-late aged family man or woman who wants an affordable Korean car that works fine, and never excites.
We're all human; we're all taken in by the glitz and the glamour. Car advertising is never about the car; it's the lifestyle. Step into a BMW dealership and that jet-set anything-goes lifestyle is thrust in front of you. But what are you buying here? A car, or a dealership?
Hyundai are new to all this, of course. The i30N buyer is not the average Hyundai customer in any way. They will need time to adjust their image, through the dealerships, to reflect this change of direction. In the meanwhile, the car speaks for itself.
Depending on who you are, looks matter. This is not an ugly car. It's a beefed up i30, which, let's face it, was never the most exciting car in the world to look at, but it just goes to show: you can put makeup on a pig.
The default look is clean. It's understated. There's nothing wrong with it, but does it make you move inside? Or do you feel like you're an ostensibly happy family on the way to Butlin's?
Hyundai have taken great efforts to refine the look without changing the underlying platform. It is more aggressive, more pronounced, more angular. Yet, to the untrained eye, could easily pass as a family hatch.
Those wheels are standard 19" Hyundai alloys with 235/35 Pirelli P-Zeros. The paint is dubbed "Performance Blue" and while unusual on a "sports" car, it's one of those colours people have a hard time objecting over. (It's also available in very dark grey.)
From the other end, it's pretty much the same: here's an i30, plain and simple. But wait... those are... big exhausts for a family hatch. Is that a spoiler?
There are plenty of options if you want in-your-face no-holds-barred aesthetics. The Focus RS is all sorts of angst let loose in car form, and the Civic Type-R borders on ludicrous. Even the Leon Cupra looks distinctly different from its tame, sensible counterpart.
The designers at Hyundai have shied away from this approach, perhaps wisely, because they know that there are plenty of wannabe-supercars in the hot hatch category already, and it's not a competition they can win.
Instead, they offer a car you could be forgiven for thinking was normal in every way, except when you look closer. The N in the i30 isn't even pronounced. It appears once on the rear, once on the front, and, with the performance model, it appears on the brake calipers. For some reason.
This is not a car that screams, "get me to a track day" as much as it's one that you might agreeably take along, just to satisfy its inner demons, every once in a while.
There's no denying it: you're in a Hyundai. You get Hyundai build and material quality all round. There's no wood or carbon fibre in here. Just plain old plastic. But it's got design in mind, and what it lacks in quality, it makes up for in common sense.
You get two cup holders. They actually grip cups. You get dual climate control. You get normal air vents, since every air vent attachment is made to fit normal vents, not the arguably pointless reinvented ones you seem to find in "high end" models these days.
The touch screen is mounted out of the way, high enough that you have air flow, and low enough that you're not constantly looking at it instead of the road. It is responsive to the touch as well, unlike some previous versions (I'm looking at you, VW) where you have to jab your finger at the display like you're trying to wake a sedated rhino before it registers anything.
The seats are easy to get in and out of. This is something I really loved over the Golf R, where the seats made the simple task of getting in and out incredibly awkward. If it's a supercar, it comes with the territory. If it's a Golf with a big turbo, I'm thinking I'd prefer the convenience.
You get two 12V cigarette power outlets in the front, as well as a USB port and a cubby hole that is comfortably able to fit even the largest phones.
The dash is clear, and well lit. You got your revs, you got your speed. In the middle, there's a full colour display with an impressive resolution, and the choice of instrumentation here is truly impressive.
It's what I'd describe as "no-nonsense on steroids". Clarity and function over form, but let's make it the best clarity and the best function. This kind of attitude is a winner for me.
Space in the boot is impressive. This is a front wheel drive car, so the floor is low enough thanks to the absence of a rear differential. It's also very long, offering a considerable amount more practical space than the Golf.
The car features a torsion bar that spans the width of the chassis at the rear, between the rear seats and the cargo space. Thankfully this has minimal impact on boot space, but, if you were to fold the rear seats, you do have this massive bar going across the car's cargo space, so this might be an issue.
You'd think that with all the space in the back, rear legroom would suffer, but this isn't the case. It's a hatchback, so it's never going to win legroom awards, but there's easily enough space for a grown adult back there.
Following my previous remarks about Hyundai's no-nonsense approach, the touch screen is very simple and easy to use. It has its own digital radio system, and you can plug in a USB media stick or an SD card, or use bluetooth, as you'd expect.
Where it shines is the Android Auto integration. This is a feature notably lacking from BMW's models, but it's invaluable. It's also quick, and "just works". Plugging a phone into the USB data port in the bottom of the centre console immediately brings up the Android Auto system on the display. This is something lacking on the 2015 Golf R, where this connection was slow to start, and shaky: sometimes it just wouldn't connect, for no apparent reason.
I don't feel I need to justify Android Auto at this point. It, along with Apple CarPlay, should be the standard going forwards for all vehicles, for a good reason: car manufacturers are terrible at making software. I mean awful. So why bother? Just let people use their phones via the car's touchscreen, and it's one less thing to worry about.
Everything as standard
There was a notable point in my discussion with the very friendly Hyundai dealer. It happened when he was discussing how this model had Android Auto, a reversing camera, electric seats, tilting mirrors... you know what salespeople are like.
I then asked the obvious and pertinent question: how much will this all cost me? His reply was more refreshing than an ice cold beer in the Sahara: it's all standard.
There's no options with this car. There's nothing to consider, to weigh up, to frantically check the bank balance again and again over. The price of the car is the price of the car, and that's such a great idea that I can't praise Hyundai enough for doing this.
Strictly speaking, there are some optional extras that could be chosen, but nothing the average buyer would need, such as luggage racks and the like.
When looking at the base price of any car, in the past, I've always needed to split out the extras into the "essential" pile, and the "meh" pile. Do I need heated mirrors? Do I need that special cable that can connect the X to the Y but only if Z?
Here, there's nothing to think about. You pay the price for the base model, and it is already the best model you can get. Revolutionary.
Not everything is available, despite the glowing praise I've heaped on this car so far. Notably, cruise control is not adaptive. It will hold a given speed, but, unlike adaptive cruise, which is common across a wide range of modern cars, there is no front radar to keep the distance between you and the car in front.
For those chugging down the motorway for thousands of miles a year, this might well be a deal-breaker, but thinking of the aims for this car, it's not a surprise. It's a 90s throwback updated for the modern era, designed for cornering at speed and in comfort, not for endless straight driving at 70mph (or "70mph" as most people would put it).
My one major gripe is the lack of space for the right foot when on cruise control. There is a nice platform on which you can plant your left when kicking into cruise, but your right foot? Have fun either dangling it awkwardly over the accelerator, or resting it flat on the floor in front. It's mindlessly uncomfortable, and is no doubt a holdover from the underlying chassis design, but that does nothing to quell the frustration.
There are more powerful cars available in the same price range; that much is for sure. The N Performance model clocks in at 275 bhp, and you can shave a few thousand off the dealer price by opting for the standard N model, at 250 bhp.
Compared with the Golf R or the Audi S3, which, these days, are over 300 bhp, or the Civic Type R or Focus RS, and you're a good number of horses short.
For your money, then, you're not going to be within touching distance of a 5-second 0-60 time. You won't be bombing it off the line in a time to match older supercars. Instead, you'll be at 60mph within a satisfying, but nonetheless modest, 5.9 seconds. It's nothing to be sniffed at, and you can certainly savour a wry smile while being outpaced by the guy in the Golf R, thinking of all the money he spent on those extras that you got included.
Bear in mind, you're driving, as standard, on 19", 35-profile Pirelli P Zero tyres. It's less of a tyre and more of a rubbery afterthought encircling those Hyundai alloys. On a nice smooth surface like a racetrack, this is probably exactly what you want. On British roads, well... you know the story.
It's positively bone-jarring on "sport" suspension mode, and every tiny pothole is like an explosion that rocks your whole torso. Speed humps? Good luck with those, unless you slow to a crawl and creep over them like they're land mines.
I found that the best compromise is the "comfort" suspension mode. Although this is the default setting in the "eco" driving setting, Hyundai have given the driver complete customisation over the various choices on offer, so, regardless of your preference on the other settings, those without a steel skeleton will be choosing comfort suspension for their entire drive.
Bear in mind, you're driving a straight 4 cylinder turbo. These are times of environmental activism and high fuel prices. Gone are the days of affordable V engines and the rasp of a plethora of pistons shaking you forward.
Still, this is, without a doubt, the single best exhaust sound from an unmodified car in this configuration, and it's going to put a smile on your face every single time.
In eco mode, it's just your run-of-the-mill, average 2-litre. It chugs along quite happily and modestly, like every other car on the road. But, hit the "chequered flag" button on the steering wheel, and give it some right foot, and it's an overwhelming cacophony.
The exhaust bubbles and crackles like nothing else in this class. There's some magic at work between the manifold and the tailpipe, and it's yours at the press of a single button.
Combine that with the noticeably altered gear ratios, where first and second are much longer than in similar cars, and you have every excuse to delay that gear change a little later into the rev range. It's a rare delight every time the rev limit lights pop up above the dashboard, and as you slam it into the next gear, the built up exhaust pressure results in a huge explosion out of the back and an even bigger grin on your face.
At your disposal is 275 hp of pure raucous determination: this car loves corners more than spiders, and it wants to show you. I had some concerns, naturally, with a front wheel drive machine when compared to its all wheel drive rivals, and there's some consequences by shifting all that power exclusively to the front, but none that will diminish your time through the twistier parts of the country.
As mentioned before, this is a large turbo on a small(er) engine, and it's geared quite long, especially down the gearbox. Turbochargers these days suffer a lot less lag than in days gone by, and the i30N is no exception. That said, try to floor it at 1500 RPM and you're going to need a cup of tea to pass the time.
However, in that 40-60mph range that is well-suited to the curvier British A or B roads, you're going to find the car encouraging you to be making lower gear selections than you might be used to. 3rd is no problem all the way up to 60, leaving you with plenty of torque at your disposal, and, in a front wheel drive machine, this is more important than ever for keeping your foot planted through a corner.
Some rear-end turning momentum is lost in having the rears freewheeling like this, but the magicians in Hyundai engineering have kindly supplied a torque vectoring system to the front wheels to help out somewhat.
There's just no avoiding it: at some point, you're going to push hard enough that you're going to get that front wheel drive understeer. It's not ever a problem unless you're willingly pushing the car, and it's infinitely better than having the back of the car overtake the front, but it will no doubt be off-putting to the "rear wheel drive enthusiast" out there.
That torsion bar behind the rear seats is going to come in handy, keeping the car super rigid and eliminating the worst of the chassis flex, but this really only serves to help straighten the car, in a case of severe lift-off oversteer, rather than magically granting extra grip through the rubber at the front.
Notably, in "race" mode, the electronic stability is minimised, but not completely disabled. Like most similar cars, you will have to hold your grubby fingers on the controls to fully disable electronic assists, although you'll be taking more care than usual even with the limited functionality in race mode, because this isn't the kind of car that is going to help you out when you get into trouble.
On the limit
You're at the red light, and your right foot has kept itself entertained blipping the throttle in race mode, with the optimistic pops and crackles from the exhaust.
When you do get going, even with the electronic traction control, this car has far too much power through two wheels to grant you an automatic clean getaway, so you're going to be feathering the throttle a little, but it's still a kick in the lower back, off the line.
Earlier I mentioned torque vectoring, but, assuming you get away cleanly, that's not the end of it: you will be fighting the car for the right to drive in a straight line as you churn through the gears, and you'll be fighting the throttle to prevent wheelspin, on a dry road, all the way through second gear, assuming you're revving to the red line.
It's at this point, if you're even a modest petrolhead, that you're having the time of your life, despite the constant bickering between you and the steering wheel, because you didn't buy this car for it to do everything for you. You wanted the fight, and the i30N never disappoints.
You aren't buying a car like this for economy, but, having said that, if you were getting 5 miles to the gallon, you might think twice. Luckily, as with a lot of small-engine-large-turbo cars, unless you're nailing it for your entire journey, you're going to be in for a treat.
The official combined MPG is 34, but it's very straightforward to put the engine in "eco" mode, slap on the cruise control at 70 on the motorway, and come out at the other end with a fuel economy figure that tops 40.
The best part? The engine is fine with 95 octane. That's the regular stuff at the pumps; none of this costly super unleaded, which is often the manufacturer's recommendation for higher-performance engines, even in cars like this.
But, unlike the potential risk of filling up with regular unleaded in car that demands super, and then finding that the engine wear isn't covered, Hyundai are explicitly instructing you to put regular ol' 95 octane in the i30N, so you can rest easy each time you visit the pumps.
Five years of warranty on everything that's likely to cost an arm and a leg, so you're going to be covered for most unexpected things here. I've already had a vacuum pump failure, and it was replaced in the space of two days, including collection, and delivery of a courtesy car (albeit a woefully incomparable one, but that's a nitpick), so I didn't have a lot to worry about really.
If you were thinking of picking up a used model, you should know that the vacuum pumps in the brake system have had a manufacturer recall, so you should check that they have been replaced under the recall before you part with your cash, or make enquiries about that, at the very least.
I mentioned that the average Hyundai driver is usually at or above retirement age, and Hyundai have gone out of their way to distinguish themselves with the i30N, in a form of manufacturing and design extremism not seen since the excessive turbo hatch era of the 1990s.
As a result, they've identified and exploited a gap in the market, albeit one that is always going to be somewhat limited in scope: the thirty-or-forty-something who remembers "the good old days". The kind of person who used to blast around in an XR3i or an Uno Turbo, and wants that feeling back, without the added hassle of oil leaks and random electrical failures.
If you're going to be making a lot of everyday trips, as an everyday member of British society, taking your kids to the zoo, or ferrying your elderly mother to the shops, the i30N is wasted on you. Likewise, if you're looking for a cost-effective but comfortable and bordering-on-mindless way to get to and from work, look elsewhere.
This car is born and bred for the driver: it wants to be driven; wants to be told which way to be pointing and how sideways, and wants you to reserve 5th and 6th gear for special occasions. It's not going to help you out with these things, unless you're in "eco" mode, at which point, you might as well have bought a regular i30, pocketed the extra cash, and driven it to a campsite with your kids.
There's a lot of "but only if..." and "while this is true..." in the words above. Honestly, it's as close to the perfect car as possible for someone like me. But (I warned you!) it's clear not everyone is a someone like me.
Get in this car, drive this car, badger Hyundai or a used car dealer about giving it a shot. On your own, or with the dealer, you will love every inch of it, and it will put a huge smile on your face. But, whether it fits into the cold, hard reality of everyday life, and all that it requires of a car? It's going to depend on your individual circumstance, and that's going to determine your predisposition towards a purchase.
If you see my i30N at the lights though, exhaust burbling like a happy turbocharged toddler, you know I'm going to have a huge grin on my face.