Caffeine&Machine cultofmachine Chasing the Cult of Machine A Hyundai fun day in the Elan Valley

A Hyundai fun day in the Elan Valley

What do you do if you’ve got two of the best hot hatches on the market at your disposal for the day? Get out and drive them, obviously.

The Elan Valley looks the way it does because of Birmingham. A growing, heavily industrialised city’s need for a clean drinking water supply in the late 19th century led to the creation of a series of dams and reservoirs around 70 miles to the west in a remote, bucolic area of mid-Wales.

Between 1893 and 1952, four reservoirs were built, flooding the valleys with nearly 100,000 megalitres of water (an incomprehensibly massive number when you learn that one megalitre is one million litres). It covered a surface area of almost 1,500 acres and more than 100 people could do nothing but stand and watch, many without any compensation, as their communities were demolished or flooded.

It raises all sorts of complex questions about humanity and its relationship with the natural world, but frankly, these are all a little highbrow for us. We’re just here for the roads.

Twisting along watersides and ducking between towering evergreens, where dappled light illuminates browning needles shed on the roadside, this is hot-hatch country. Thankfully, we’ve arrived with two of the best around – the Hyundai i20 N and i30 N.

We’ve already taken a deep dive into this pairing and their fun-focused remit. Now it’s time to take them in search of adventure, running part of the route that our 313 members will have the opportunity to experience on our Elan Valley drive out not long after.

The day starts at Caffeine&Machine HQ in Warwickshire, with a vicious chill in the air and a pair of iced-over windscreens as the sun starts to bathe the Yard in early winter light. After a hasty scraping, we’re on the move, the orange lights lining the i30’s rev counter gradually extinguishing as the engine warms itself through.

Much of the drive west takes us along the A44, itself a road of varied character. Through the Malvern Hills, it takes on a serpentine form, climbing and dropping across the landscape and passing through pretty villages and market towns.

Over the border, the road opens up and flows along valley floors, frost clearing as the mid-morning sun crawls up the hillsides. Out here, the i30 N is in its element, at least when the surface isn’t too broken for its remarkably firm standard suspension. It pulls effortlessly through the gears, the steering and gearbox perfectly weighted. Lifting off, artificial, juvenile but still smile-inducing crackles emit from the back end.

The little market town of Rhayader marks the gateway to the Elan Valley, and the perfect place to fuel up the cars at an attended petrol station (when did you last see one of those?). Doubling up as a trials and motocross bike dealer, the cheery attendant regales us with stories of Damon Hill and Colin McRae using the stop as a base for their two-wheeled exploits.

Cars sorted, we fuel ourselves up a few miles down the road at the Elan Valley Visitor Centre – the start of the drive proper. The Garreg Ddu Dam separates the dual reservoirs of Caban-coch and Garreg-ddu, and is the first of these monolithic structures we cross.

It’s desperately pretty round here. The steep-sided hills reflect in the reservoir’s perfectly calm surface, drawing the eye toward a vantage point where the water suddenly stops and drops away at the Caban Coch Dam, as if the horizon’s been shrunk. It’s easy to get completely lost in the beauty, but there’s a small red hatchback parked nearby with an angry expression its little face that says “drive me.” So we do.

The i20 N is about all the car you’d ever want on roads like this. Its 201bhp is fully exploitable, its diminutive dimensions make it easy to place on the narrower bits of road, and the limited-slip diff means it’s not left scrabbling for grip on the tighter, damper corners, instead digging into the road and clawing its way around.

We run alongside a perfectly clear stream before spearing right and climbing the valley side to reach the top of the towering Claerwen Dam. Completed in 1952 and sitting at 56 metres tall, it’s the largest and newest of the Elan dams, and the most famous thanks to the Top Gear film that saw a Series 1 Land Rover get winched up the dam with a terrified Richard Hammond on board. The vastness becomes apparent from the top, staring down at the cluster of toytown farm buildings below.

Once again, there’s not much time for hanging around. We head back across to Garreg Ddu, then turn north toward the upper reaches of the reservoir system. This road has everything – first-gear hairpins, unruly crests and dips, and open stretches across empty moorland, with the mighty reservoirs, craftily disguised as perfectly natural-looking bodies of water, ever visible through the side window.

There are sections that allow the more powerful i30 to stretch its legs, and places where the more agile i20 can tuck into a corner and playfully lift a rear wheel as you power out. At the northern tip, where the River Elan widens out to become the Craig Goch Reservoir, a short, winding climb up a hillside leads to an astonishing viewpoint.

We can see the road we’ve just tackled emerge from behind a hillside some two miles away, bucking and winding its way along the banks of the reservoir before sharply climbing to meet us. Anyone stood here minutes before would have seen two specs, one red and one baby blue, getting gradually bigger, angry four-pot rasps and exhaust crackles occasionally punctuating the otherwise otherworldly quiet of the spot.

You’d be able to have a good time on this road in just about anything, but it plays very well to the unique set of talents of a good hot hatch. And be in no doubt that these Hyundais are very good hot hatches. Yes, the noises are a bit artificial, the interior materials could use work in some areas, and the i30 rides too firmly. But none of this matters when all the fundamentals – the chassis, the steering, the manual ‘box, the power delivery – are done so well, and the right stretch of tarmac unfurls in front of you.

Far be it from C&M’s remit to be a font of consumer journalism, but here’s our opinion: unless you absolutely need the extra space offered up by the i30, save yourself some £9k and have the i20. It has just as much kit, it’s never overwhelmed by its more modest power output, and in many ways it’s the more serious driver’s prospect. If you’re reading this having just picked up a brand new i30 N, though, don’t feel short-changed – it’s still a cracker.

The light is fading, and a petrol station dinner is calling, so we take backroads back to Rhayader and point the Hyundais eastward.

The drive has ultimately proven a couple of things. One: the UK is absolutely chock full of incredible driving roads. All of this and more is easily doable within a day from our neck of the woods in the West Midlands. Secondly, cars like this comfortably disprove any lingering notions that front-wheel drive can’t be fun – chuck the i20 N into a tight, well-sighted corner and we defy you to not come out of the other side with a smile on your face.

Thirdly, our 313 members are in for a proper treat, a day of phenomenal roads and some of the best scenery anywhere in the UK. Want to get involved for future drive-outs? Just follow the link.

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