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N-thusiast cars: Hyundai’s hot hatches

Want enthusiasts to take notice of your brand? Best build the i20 N and i30 N – a pair of killer hot hatches.

Hyundai might hold some kind of record for the fastest turnaround of a brand’s reputation in history. In a few short years, it’s gone from building also-rans, to worthy but largely forgettable A-to-B transportation, to producing cars that have made people sit up and pay attention. Lots of attention.

Some of this is down to a range of EVs with designs that are unafraid of challenging conventions. Lots of it, though, is thanks to these two: the N hot hatches.

N, in this instance, stands for both Namyang, Hyundai’s massive R&D facility in South Korea, and Nürburgring, a place that needs no introduction. It’s also, conveniently enough, the letter that comes after ‘M’. It won’t have escaped your attention that that’s the name of BMW’s performance division, from which Hyundai poached Albert Biermann in 2014 to become the (now-retired) chief chassis wizard of the N cars. Coincidence? You decide.

The N brand launched in 2017 with the car pictured here in its signature Performance Blue colour – the i30 N. Originally, it was available exclusively as a manual five-door hatchback in either 247bhp or 271bhp Performance guise. The range expanded in 2019 with a sloping Fastback variant that’s since been deleted from the UK lineup. The non-Performance 247bhp was also taken off UK sale a couple of years ago, leaving just the Performance hatchback model with an optional DCT automatic gearbox, introduced with a 2021 facelift.

There were some questions around the i30 N’s prospects as a serious hot hatch when Hyundai announced it. In Europe, the firm’s only dalliances with anything approaching performance cars were the Coupé, erm… coupé, an adequate if not exactly game-changing Toyota Celica competitor, and the quirky but largely forgotten Veloster.

It soon shut the critics up when it arrived. It took the established hot hatch ingredients of a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder driving the front-wheels through a crisp manual ‘box, and nailed them. Its brilliance was not in chasing raw numbers like the Civic Type R, serious track-worthiness like the Megane RS or Teutonic refinement like the Golf GTI, but pursuing fun.

There’s more than a hint of Max Power boy racer-ness about its crackly exhaust, red flashes on the exterior and mobile rear end. It might not appeal to everyone but it certainly puts a smile on the face of many.

The interior turns this up even further. There are all sorts of wacky graphics on the digital display that turn from blue to red as you cycle up through the drive modes, and the N badges set into the seat backs light up. Gimmicky? Probably. But it shouts about a sense of fun in a hot hatch game that’s suddenly found itself taking lots of things seriously.

The i30’s little brother, the i20 N, amps up this vibe even more. The exterior is all mad angles, spoilers and vents, like a downsized Civic Type R, and the little 1.6-litre turbocharged motor makes all kinds of amusingly fruity noises.

It produces a comparatively meagre 201bhp, but in some ways is a more serious driver’s prospect than the bigger, more powerful i30. For example, it features a proper mechanical limited-slip diff rather than the electronically-controlled unit in the i30, and retains a six-speed manual as its sole gearbox option.

It also shows that Hyundai is willing, in their pursuit of fun, to put faith in a market segment – the small hot hatch – that so many others are abandoning. The Renault Clio RS and Peugeot 208 GTI are long gone, the Fiesta ST’s lifespan is measurable in literal weeks as we write this, the Polo GTI can’t really cut the mustard and the bespoke-bodied, four-wheel drive Toyota GR Yaris is a different proposition altogether. If you want a rapid, raucous new supermini in 2023, it’s this or the MINI JCW.

This dedication to good, clean fun is deeply refreshing in a performance car landscape that’s got a bit caught up in chasing the next big, crowd-pleasing number. We’ve been out and about in deepest Wales finding out just how fun this duo is – watch this space.

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