Hyundai’s high-performance N treatment is set to expand into a bunch of new areas, though not before the release the i20 N – another cracking hot hatch from the maker’s skunkworks
The not-so-secret recipe for building a great hot hatch is make it light, make it quick and make it handle, though without that crucial first ingredient, achieving the other two becomes increasingly difficult.
Thankfully for Hyundai, after already nailing the i30 N on its first attempt, then making it even better over time, the chances of repeating the performance with a cracking junior version was perhaps almost a no-brainer.
Which brings us to the i20 N. Based on the third-generation, Turkish-built i20 hatch that launched in Europe in early last year, the N version is way more than just a tarted-up special with a big donk shoehorned in.
From its strengthened body with underfloor bracing to its completely made-over suspension, steering and drivetrain, this feisty little 150kW tonic is a bantamweight brawler looking for a bar fight – certainly when the road turns twisty.
Offered in one premium spec level for an impressively trim $32,490, and boasting just two options – metallic paint for $495 and a black roof for $1000 – the i20 N follows in the footsteps of its nearest hot-hatch rival (the similarly splendid Ford Fiesta ST) by sticking to a traditional six-speed manual transmission.
Therefore, the sole new-generation i20 we get is also the best i20 there is.
Like we were saying, lightness begets agility, which is only enhanced by ideal sizing. And here, the i20 N scores.
Weighing just 1210kg and measuring a little over four metres long, the i20 N instantly gets right to the heart of what underpins a ripping little driver’s car. Yet it blends this keenness to change direction with a level of planted stability that’s surprisingly grown up for such a playful little machine.
To be honest, the i20 N isn’t really that small. Aside from being nearly 140mm shorter than a Mk6 Golf GTI, the wheel-at-each-corner i20 N virtually matches the decade-old Volksy for wheelbase length, track width and other vital dimensions, which pays dividends when it comes to interior space (as we shall see).
But compared to a something like a Renaultsport Clio 182 Cup – a superb hot-hatch that cost more than the i20 N does today back in 2004 – the hot Hyundai is 263mm longer and 26mm taller, riding on a 95mm-longer wheelbase and with much broader track widths (114mm front, 134mm rear). No wonder it combines playful with planted!
The other key indicator of two decades of progress is that the i20 N weighs 120kg more than a Clio 182 Cup, though that’s not enough to dampen its dynamic spirit, or its overall performance.
Packing a tweaked version of Hyundai’s new-generation ‘Smartstream-G’ 1598cc direct-injected, turbo-petrol four (the old 1.6T’s engine capacity was 1591cc ), the i20 N sees outputs bumped to 150kW at 5500-6000rpm and 275Nm from 1750-4500rpm, with a chunk of chubby overboost available to bolster torque to 304Nm from 2000-4000rpm when conditions allow.
Combined with an active variable exhaust system introduced to add some aural sizzle to the 1.6 turbo’s repertoire and a slick-shifting six-speed manual transmission, the i20 N offers considerable thrust for a ‘light’ segment hot hatch.
Hyundai claims 6.2 seconds to 100km/h and a top speed of 230km/h, which sees it nipping at the heels of an i30 N manual for accelerative punch while approaching it for torque-laden tractability. We just wish the i20 N’s boosted 1.6 offered a little more crackle and pop – something that’s there in abundance in an i30 N.
Where the i20 N really makes its mark, though, is in how it handles. Superb turn-in, tremendous front-end bite and fast-geared, feelsome steering (2.2 turns lock-to-lock) make the hot i20 an effortless car to have a good time in. But it’s the apex-hungry attitude of its torsen-type mechanical limited-slip front differential that elevates the i20 N beyond being just a fun-to-drive hot hatch.
The LSD’s ability to dive towards an apex or rip the i20 N out of a bend without wasteful understeer is fantastic, and when you combine that with the chassis’ overall poise and adjustability, it’s not hard to work out that a tight, challenging road (or racetrack) and an i20 N are made for each other.
Even the 215/40R18 Pirelli P-Zero tyres – developed specifically for the i20 N – seem to enjoy a track-day thrashing, and likewise its uprated brakes (320mm ventilated front discs, 262mm sold rear discs), which showed little sign of weakness during the i20 N’s Wakefield Park adventures.
Only the i20 N’s ride could be a bone of contention. It’s beautifully taut and uncompromising, but also occasionally prone to bashing its front bump stops and lacks the innate delicacy of the finest Renaultsport hot hatches in dispatching poor surfaces via rock-hard suspension.
While some may miss the lack of adaptive cruise control (myself not being one of those people!) the i20 N does cover many of the active-safety basics. As well as blind-spot monitoring, driver attention alert, urban-speed AEB with pedestrian and cyclist detection, auto high-beam and lane-holding assist with steering assist, the i20 N also features front and rear parking sensors, and rear cross-traffic alert.
The beauty of developing the third-generation i20 for Europe is that its category – the B-segment – often serves as family-car transport in many countries, which means this compact little hatch actually does a fabulous job of seating up to five people in comfort, with space for their luggage.
Even more than its excellent sports bucket seats (in stitched cloth and leatherette) and leather-bound sports steering wheel, it’s the i20 N’s utility that shines brightest.
Up front, those aforementioned seats prove to be hugely comfortable, despite offering minimal adjustment (and not a huge amount of lateral backrest support for smaller-framed steerers). And even though the dash and door plastics are rock-hard, there’s an intelligent uniformity to its design – including door bins that will actually take larger bottles! – that makes it feel like a holistic product rather than a cheap one with sporty garnish.
Of particular note up front is its configurable digital instrument display with really impressive graphics in N mode, as well as the considerable N-mode functions on its slick 10.25-inch centre touchscreen (including the mapping for more than 10 Aussie and Kiwi racetracks by some time next year), which is nicely incorporated into the dash and is slightly angled towards the driver.
And then there’s the audio quality through eight Bose speakers, which proves impressively strong for an affordable hatch such as this.
The rear seat, however, is where true praise belongs. Not only is the rear cushion angled properly for excellent under-thigh support, there’s also enough quality cushioning in the centre position to easily seat three smaller humans in comfort, or three adults if they don’t mind being intimate.
Even legroom and foot room are plentiful, not to mention forward vision, and the i20 N backs that up with a terrific multi-level boot. With the movable floor (featuring an in-built cargo net) in the upper position, dropping the 60/40 rear backrests gives a completely flat load area.
And if you take the floor out, there’s a broad and deep 310-litre space big enough to challenge hatches in the next class up, despite packing a space-saver spare beneath.
The official ADR81/02 government combined fuel consumption figure for the six-speed manual i20 N is 6.9L/100km, though we averaged 8.8L/100km over nearly 400km of far-from-leisurely driving.
Recommended servicing for the i20 N is every 12 months or 10,000km, with the five-year service amount totalling $1545.
Hyundai’s warranty is a pretty standard five years/unlimited kilometres.
If the latest-model i30 N wins accolades for being a brilliant all-rounder, then the i20 N deserves praise for slightly different talents.
As a feisty, fun-loving, involving hot hatch, it’s terrific. And as a textbook example of how to package a light hatchback for potential family-car duties, it’s a triumph. For both selfish and pragmatic reasons, then, it’s a bloody good thing.
Potentially the only area where it doesn’t quite max the amusement factor is its engine. For all its flexibility and unburstability, it lacks the sparkle of an i30 N’s donk and the flavour of the barky turbo-triple in the Ford Fiesta ST.
Like the Fiesta, the i20 N is fabulous fun, underpinned by a fabulous price. But is it a better junior hot hatch than the iconic Ford? Only time will tell…
Key specs (as tested)
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