Trivial sublime: Hyundai's loud, chopped i30 Fastback N tested
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2020 Hyundai i30 Fastback N
• Appearance is a big point of difference at this price
• Fabulous to drive
• High spec for the price
• Compromised headroom next to the hatch
• Rear visibility
• Slightly deceiving 0–100km/h claims
The road to New Zealand getting Hyundai's all singing, all dancing, all perspective altering i30 N hot hatch wasn't exactly a smooth one.
Huge sales in Europe no doubt produced plenty of grins across the engineering teams in Korea and Germany, but it meant us Kiwis at the bottom of the world would get the N rather late compared to everyone else. And, it seemed like we'd miss out on the Fastback variant, too. Back in August 2018, Hyundai NZ told Driven that the Fastback variant of the i30 N was unlikely to come here due to "global demand on all of the N product".
But here we are in early 2020, staring the Fastback in the face and obsessively toying with its throttle pedal. It's here.
A quick refresher is probably in order at this point. The i30 N is Hyundai's first tilt at making a hot hatch, and from the get go everyone was excited. This wasn't just because it was a new David preparing to take on a range of performance Goliaths, but because it appeared that Hyundai had done all its homework.
It had recruited former BMW M Division brainiac Albert Biermann, it came into the project with established form (and know-how) in the World Rally Championship on it's side, and the illustrious Nürburgring Nordschleife would form a big part of its development program.
The performance hatch that emerged out the other side wasn't the fastest or the most spectacular to look at among its peers. But, it stuck out against an opposition largely comprised of super serious track monsters for being much more lighthearted and approachable. And when it popped up as a podium-getter at our 2018 AA Driven New Zealand Car of the Year showdown, none of us were surprised.
In lopping off the 'hatch' component of its much loved hot hatch, Hyundai hasn't exactly reinvented the wheel here. The Fastback N retains a lot of the dimensions, tech, and spec that we're familiar with from the standard i30 N. At its heart sits the same turbocharged T-GDI 2.0-litre four cylinder making 202kW at 6000rpm and 353Nm at between 1450–4700rpm, and when drivers hit peak torque, it triggers an overboost function that dumps another 25Nm into the equation. Connected to that engine is the same relatively slick 6-speed manual, with rev matching capabilities that can be switched off with the push of a button on the steering wheel.
And there's nothing wrong with any of these familiar factors. The i30 N is — regardless of whether you're wielding a model with an erected hatch or a windswept back — a total peach to drive. The amount of communication through its steering should be a point of jealousy for the bulk of its rivals, as should the gravelly, bubbly slew of explosions and gurgles that emit from the exhaust on overrun and during hard driving.
The N walks a tight line between providing enough grip through its 235/35 Pirelli P Zeros to be seriously quick through a craggy back road, while simultaneously feeding a slight taste of torque steer and grip limitation to keep the driver on their toes.
Trivial little details like wisps of torque steer might sound unimportant, but there presence is indicative of a balance that less cars in this segment are particularly keen to tackle these days — a sign of a gradual shift in philosophy towards smashing out fleeting Nürburgring lap records and away from simply delivering genuine driver's car engagement. But the i30 N deals with it exceptionally well; more like an experienced old hand than a segment rookie.
Perhaps the best example of the i30 N's customer fun over lap-times philosophy is the amount of customisation that's available in its drive settings. Some hot hatches (Honda Civic Type R, I'm looking at you) put the driver in a box with each change in drive mode. The Civic's canyon-carving 'R-Mode' sharpens the hatch in every aspect, but it also locks the car into a rigid set of parameters. Want the booming engine performance but want to tone down the steering weight and suspension firmness? Sorry ... can't be done. It's all or nothing.
Such customisation is no such issue in the i30 N. The ride quality in its rortiest setting ('N-Mode') is a crashy mess on most Kiwi roads, but it doesn't have to be that way. Each facet of its set-up, from suspension and engine punchiness to the electronic limited-slip diff and the variable exhaust valve — can be altered through a set of simple on-board menus. What makes it all even more accessible is the placement of the chequered flag N-Mode button on the steering wheel. Hit once for full milk, no compromise N-Mode, and hit a second time to trigger customs settings.
An easy solution that makes you wonder why barely anyone else formats their mode adjustment like this. Apart from BMW's M cars of course, which definitely weren't the inspiration for Hyundai and Mr. Biermann's decision. Not at all ...
Back to the present day, where I'm forced to concede that the Fastback N is a rather smart thing to look at. Coupe-flavoured sedans like these often look a little squashed and disproportionate to my eye, but Hyundai has managed to massage this out of the Fastback via a shortened roof line and a neatly executed boot spoiler embedded into the bodywork. It's a handsome car that attracted a healthy amount of double takes from passersby (although the frequent flurry of bangs from the exhaust might've had something to do with this).
On the surface, one might assume that since the engine, electronically controlled suspension, in-house brake package, and more are were all unchanged during the Fastback-ization of the i30 N that there are no performance benefits to be had. But, at least technically, those people would be wrong.
Its slick sedan shape is more aerodynamically efficient than that of the hatchback. It's overall height of 1419mm is 28mm lower than standard, with the lack of height and the swooping rear end resulting in a net 7.0 per cent reduction in drag over its square-bottomed counterpart. Hyundai claims that the difference helps shade a tenth of a second off its 0–100km/h time — from 6.2 seconds down to 6.1.
However, it's worth noting that Driven historically has always struggled to break the seven-second barrier when testing the i30 N's pace off the line. Thus, any performance gains that the Fastback makes over the hatch are at best hard to locate and, at worst, barely legible.
It also doesn't help that the Fastback is some 11kg heavier than the hatch (1441kg minimum kerb weight versus 1429kg), with most of that extra weight packed well above its centre of gravity. Nevertheless, having driven the Fastback and hatch in back-to-back weeks, it's very difficult to find tangible differences in how they drive on real roads.
A healthy portion of that 11kg access is perhaps from the Fastback's sunroof — a standard feature in all models destined for New Zealand which you won't find on the hatchback. It's a welcome feature for those seeking some premium brownie points, but simultaneously it also takes a big bite out of front and rear headroom. The latter is almost always a sore point when it comes to small sedans with coupe-like rear ends. And, in the case of the i30 Fastback, the compromised rear headroom is compounded by difficult ingress and egress.
This is largely typical of the segment, though. You'll find similar troubles when hopping in and out of an Audi S3 sedan, too. And after all, these are meant to be driver's cars with a side of practicality — not the other way around.
Speaking of practicality, the Fastback unsurprisingly features a more commodious boot than the hatch. With the back seats up capacity sits at 436L, growing to 1337L when the seats are down (compared to the 381L/1287L of the hatch). The 'lip' at the rear of the compartment is quite high, making lugging heavy loads out of the boot a particular chore. The rear strut brace also gets in the way when you're wanting to make use of the full space, although it is apparently removable.
Neither of these things is ideal but, again, it's worth remembering that we're talking about a compact performance car here — not a minivan.
The rest of the cabin is largely familiar. The baby blue highlights in the hatch are traded for drizzles of neon red on the air conditioning vents, seats, and stitching (as seen in the interior of the i30 N-Line we tested last October). Thanks to a few iffy plastic panels, the i30 N's interior doesn't perhaps feel as special of that of a Type R — let alone the more premium Volkswagen Golf GTI. Occupants in the front get comfy i30 N-branded suede and leather bucket pews, as well as an excellent 8in touchscreen featuring Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity. Again, we'll note that the N is surprisingly well optioned for the hot hatch class. Heated 10-way adjustable electric front seats are standard, as is a heated steering wheel and a wireless phone charger.
This interior tech is supported by a bevy of safety features, including autonomous emergency braking, lane-keep assist, Driver Attention Alert, blind spot monitoring, and rear cross traffic monitoring. My only wish (apart from more headroom) is for less iffy plastics and a greater diversity of colours and materials. This is what holds the i30 N's cabin back from feeling quite as special as the Type R; let alone the more premium Volkswagen Golf GTI.
Pricing on the small allocation of i30 Fastback Ns heading to New Zealand starts at $59,990 — the same price as the aforementioned Type R and $5000 more than the standard model. In a rational sense it's a significant premium to pay for a dab more boot space, a sunroof, and immeasurable real-world performance gains. And that's especially true when you factor that over in Australia the Fastback is just AU$1500 more than its hatchback counterpart.
At the same time, the i30 Fastback N is also going to one day be an extremely rare, mightily obscure oddity. At this stage just a handful are coming to our shores, and with numerous i30 N hatch owners trading their cars in for them they're guaranteed to not hang around too long.
It may not be perfect, but don't let the trivial get in the way of one of the most rewarding, laugh-a-minute driver's cars on the market.