2018 Hyundai i30 N Performance First Drive Review


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“Wow!” That was the first thing written in the notebook after getting out from behind the wheel of the 2018 Hyundai i30 N Performance. So let’s cut to the chase: The i30 N Performance is not just seriously good for a Hyundai. It’s seriously good, period. It might not have quite the surgical precision of Honda’s dazzling Civic Type R, but it’s one of the best hot hatches in the business, a quick yet coolly composed car that makes Ford’s Focus RS feel a little crude and klutzy.

The bad news? The i30 N Performance won’t be sold the U.S. The good news? The guys at Hyundai’s new N division, working under the direction of former BMW M engineering chief Albert Biermann, are using exactly the same engine, transmission, and suspension hardware to create an N Performance version of the Veloster that will be coming to the States next year.

N comes after M, but the nomenclature has nothing do with Biermann’s shock 2014 move from a plum job at BMW to become Hyundai’s vice president of performance development and head of the company’s new High Performance Vehicle Division. N, says Hyundai, stands for Namyang—the company’s global R&D center in Korea where the performance hardware is engineered—and for the Nürburgring Nordschleife, where the hardware’s honed to perfection. Also, the N logo looks like a chicane. Okay, we get it …

Americans know the i30 as the Elantra, and they’d recognize the N Performance as a variant of the Elantra GT Sport hatchback, a car that’s already impressed us with its Golf GTI-lite chops. The N Performance version turns everything up to 11, however. Insiders say Biermann was given a green light by Hyundai bosses to make whatever changes he felt necessary for this, the first ever Hyundai N model.

In place of the Elantra GT Sport’s 201-hp, 195-lb-ft, 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine, the i30 N Performance is powered by a 2.0-liter turbo-four that develops 271 hp at 6,000 rpm, with 260 lb-ft of torque on tap from 1,500 rpm through 4,700 rpm and another 18 lb-ft available via an 18-second full-throttle overboost function. The engine drives the front wheels through a beefed-up version of Hyundai’s own six-speed manual transmission and an electronically controlled limited slip differential. (There is an entry-level N version available that makes do with 247 hp, plus smaller wheels, tires, and brakes and misses out on the Performance model’s trick-e-diff, among other things.)

The suspension layout is the same as the Elantra GT but features heavy-duty components such as redesigned steering knuckles, plus new springs and electronically controlled shocks, and the ride height has been lowered. The Elantra GT’s EPS system has been replaced by a more robust setup with the e-motor mounted on the rack rather than the steering column to improve response and sensitivity. Other changes include the adoption of bigger brakes, with 13.6-inch rotors up front and 12.4-inch units at the rear, and 19-inch alloy wheels fitted with 235/35 P Zero tires developed specifically by Pirelli for the i30 N Performance.

N Performance prototypes underwent 6,000 miles of durability testing on the Nürburgring Norschleife—equivalent to almost 120,000 miles of hard, real-world road driving, says Hyundai—and twice competed in the grueling 24-Hour race on the Green Hell. That level of experience is reflected in detail touches such as the bar across the body behind the rear seats to improve body rigidity and the large vents in the redesigned front bumper to help cool the brakes. So confident is Hyundai of the car’s durability that Hyundai UK is promising to honor its regular five-year, unlimited mileage mechanical warranty even if you take the i30 N Performance on the track.

The N Performance offers five drive modes accessed via paddles mounted on the front side of the steering wheel. The left-hand paddle toggles between the Normal, Sport, and Eco modes that are familiar fare across the current Hyundai range. The right-hand paddle is the fun one, allowing you to access N mode, which dials the powertrain and chassis settings to the max, or Custom mode, which allows you to mix and match settings across seven individual functions: engine response, rev matching, e-diff, exhaust sound, shock rates, steering, and stability control. The menu is easily accessed via the 8.0-inch infotainment touchscreen at the center of the dash.

N mode was the hot setup on the track section of the drive program, held on the challenging 2.2-mile Cadwell Park circuit in rural Lincolnshire, England, not the least because it switches the stability control to Sport mode. You can turn stability control all the way off in Custom mode, but Cadwell Park’s white-knuckle array of corners hidden over blind crests combined with the damp British climate suggested discretion might be the better part of valor.

The engine delivers a smooth, linear surge of acceleration through the gears. It’s not a high-revving powerplant—everything’s done and dusted by 6,200 rpm—but it doesn’t need to be because you can luxuriate in that broad swathe of midrange torque. Hyundai claims the i30 N Performance will accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in about 6.0 seconds, en route to a top speed of 155 mph. For perspective, that 0-60 time is right on a PDK-equipped, 210-hp Golf GTI, still in many ways the segment benchmark. The 306-hp Civic Type R, the best front-drive hot hatch in the world right now, is a mere two-tenths of a second quicker to 60 mph and 13 mph faster.

The little Hyundai arrives at braking points carrying more speed than you expect. Fortunately, the brake pedal is firm, with nice feel. What’s more impressive, though, is how much of that speed the car is able to maintain through the corners. The front end is astonishingly consistent, responding the instant you pull the steering wheel off center and delivering a ton of grip on corner entry. The e-diff means you can get on the gas much earlier than expected, and the rear axle tracks faithfully all the way.

The i30 N Performance carved through Cadwell Park’s roller-coaster rush of crests and corners with delightful precision and poise, the bespoke Pirelli P Zeros working beautifully in concert with the powertrain and the chassis. Everything—engine, shifter, steering—feels a touch more deliberate, more measured than in the Civic Type R. A big midcorner lift off the gas will get the chassis to rotate, but the transients are calm, composed, and easily controllable. This Hyundai never feels like it’s going to surprise you. Then you look down at the speedometer and see just how fast you’re going …

All that traction and torque comes in handy out on the road, punching the little hatchback hard out of corners and telescoping overtaking distances. The hot setup for fast road driving is to switch into Custom mode and toggle everything but the suspension to the same settings as N mode. The suspension? Set it in Normal or maybe, if the road’s hyper-smooth, Sport,. As the default setting for N mode, Sport + is great on the track, keeping a very tight rein on body motions without any of the weird pogoing through fast sweepers we experienced in the Focus RS, but it’s a little too stiff for everyday road use. The Normal setting takes enough of an edge off the vertical inputs to deliver decent ride quality without compromising handling.

With 271 hp and up to 278 lb-ft all going through the front wheels, you will get a little torque steer on less-than-perfect tarmac if you nail the gas, but it’s more like a squirming sensation through the steering wheel than any real shift in vehicle trajectory. The Sport + steering setting is one of the few that actually delivers more feel instead of merely more torque resistance at the steering wheel, and it is perfectly acceptable even at low speeds.

Hyundai also offers Normal, Sport, and Sport + settings for the rev-matching system. As these things go, it’s one of the best, but if you’re used to old school, DIY, heel-and-toe downshifts, you’ll probably prefer to switch it off for fast road driving. The rifle-crack ricochets from the exhaust system’s Sport and Sport + modes are a little theatrical, but you can switch it to Normal if you want to indulge in a little stealth running.

If the N Performance version of the Veloster drives anything like this i30 when it arrives Stateside next year, it will be as much of a perception changer for the Hyundai brand in America as the original Genesis sedan was in 2008. Hyundai has proven it can build quality mainstream cars and SUVs and credible luxury cars. Now it’s about to show it can build genuine performance cars, too. The i30 N Performance, which comes standard with leather seats, climate control air, and Hyundai’s full suite of active safety systems, sells in Britain for a 19 percent premium over a loaded i30 hatch. That suggests the Veloster N Performance could hit the market for around $30,000. Bang for your buck? Oh, yes.

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