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Our Britain’s Best Affordable Driver’s Car winner faces its sternest examination yet

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The hot supermini class that the new Hyundai Hyundai i20 N arrives into – heartland of the ‘pocket rocket’ – moves in cycles of domination.

The Hyundai lands in a class where for years, the Clios from Dieppe were untouchable, as Renault Sport perfected an unapologetic approach. In the mid-noughties, the Mini Cooper S, Suzuki Swift Sport and Ford Fiesta ST were all likeable alternatives, but if you were buying one of these cars for pure driving pleasure, it had to be the French one.

With its squared-off bumper, oval tailpipe and small diffuser, the rear end of the i20 N is clearly intended to echo that of the WRC car, which it just about does, if you squint.

But with the fourth coming of the RS Clio in 2012, the magic had ebbed away, not least because the model was now automatic only. Ford, whose quick Fiestas of the post-millennium era had been fun and rewarding but unable to lay a glove on the RS Clio, picked up the mantle. The Fiesta ST introduced in 2012 had such an innate ability to entertain that even had Renault Sport released another almost perfect Clio, it still may not have been enough.

In the following years, Peugeot found some form with special versions of the Peugeot 208 GTi and Mini occasionally hit the sweet spot with the Cooper S, but it was never enough. Then Ford cemented its rule by decanting its near-perfect Fiesta ST over in the next generation, albeit now with one less cylinder. It’s that three-pot Mk8 Ford Fiesta ST – the one currently in showrooms – that you can’t avoid mentioning when talking about the subject of this week’s road test.

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Before 2017, Hyundai had never so much as dabbled in the art of fast hatchbacks, but the rough-diamond Hyundai i30 N showed us it knew what mattered. The potential was clear. Now, with the Hyundai i20 N, it wants to topple arguably the finest fast supermini of the past decade and itself be the dominant force in the class.

To that end, the i20 N has been engineered with a good degree of single-mindedness and plenty of powertrain configurability, but it also totes plenty of equipment and is practical, too. Hyundai has clearly conceived the hottest model in the i20 range to be the ultimate car of its kind, so has it succeeded?

The i20 line-up at a glance

The Hyundai i20 line-up is kept tight, with the only two engine options being either a mild-hybrid three-cylinder 1.0-litre turbocharged petrol, available with manual or dual-clutch automatic transmission, or the four-cylinder 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol found in the range-topping N, which is only ever paired with the manual.

For N Line models, the smaller unit gets a tweak to take it from 99bhp to 118bhp, though with 201bhp the 1.6-litre is the only engine that offers strong performance.

Trim levels range from SE Connect to Ultimate, except for the full N-spec car, which is a set menu.

 

DESIGN & STYLING

2 Hyundai i20 N 2021 RT tracking side

The Hyundai i20 N is built at the firm's Izmit plant in Turkey, using its own steel. In fact, the ‘built not bought’ catchphrase applies to this car more broadly than relating only to the material used to create the five-door shell, because an outfit of Hyundai’s scale and ambition doesn’t want or need to outsource much.

The engine is designed and built entirely in-house, as is the six-speed manual gearbox, with its reinforced clutch, and the purely mechanical limited-slip differential that sits between the 18in front wheels, which are also made from scratch by Hyundai. The exhaust system and brakes are home-made, although unsurprisingly the tyres – Pirelli P Zeros with an i20 N-specific compound – are brought in from outside.

Proper rear wing marks the i20 N out in an instant. Hyundai claims that it helps the car to maintain stability at high speeds, generating 20kg of downforce at 124mph.

It all adds an extra dimension of intrigue to this wild little Hyundai, because whether they choose to crow about it or not, most cars of this ilk rely on familiar names such as Brembo and Quaife.

The details are encouraging, too. The regular Hyundai Hyundai i20 shell has been reinforced in 12 places and the passive suspension sits the car 10mm closer to the road. The donor car’s MacPherson strut front suspension is carried over, as is the rear torsion beam, although both are uprated. There’s also extra camber at the front, along with a new anti-roll bar, and some additional bracing between the rear wheel arches.

The i20 N weighs 1190kg (exactly the same as the WRC car), which is 100kg heavier than the regular i20, although this is hardly surprising given the additional equipment the N requires and its greater engine displacement. Instead of the 1.0-litre triple used for every other model in the range, the i20 N gets a 1.6-litre four-cylinder T-GDi turbo, good for 201bhp and 203lb ft. It gives the car a power-to-weight ratio of 169bhp per tonne, which shades that of the Ford Fiesta ST, albeit by only 3bhp per tonne.

Finally, you cannot talk about N cars without mentioning their myriad of driving modes. The i20 N has an N mode, which ramps up the character of the exhaust as well as putting the steering and engine in their most aggressive settings, but there’s also an N Custom mode. Here, you can configure all of the above, as well as the ESC leniency and rev- matching ferocity, and there’s even a setting for proper left-foot braking.

INTERIOR

14 Hyundai i20 N 2021 RT cabin

In a class known for its slim profit margins, any extra budget set aside for fruitier derivatives tends to get spent on elements that will improve the dynamics, rather than the cabin ambience. The Ford Fiesta ST, with its bland and plasticky cockpit but superb handling, is an excellent example of this, yet the Hyundai i20 N does noticeably better on the interior front.

Its cabin at first seems smaller than it actually is, mostly because the colour scheme rarely deviates from dark grey, but there are interesting mouldings and a good variety of textures that give the place some personality and polish. Low-rent touchpoints such as the flimsy door handles and scratchy window sills can be forgiven because there’s a sense of relative premium-ness elsewhere that’s underscored by controls for the ventilation and infotainment that are thoughtfully laid out.

Three-spoke wheel features two big blue N buttons: one to put the car directly into N mode and another to switch it into the driver’s preferred settings.

Clear digital displays also sit neatly just below eye level within the instrument binnacle and atop the dashboard, and the car’s short snout and upright driving position give the driver a fine vantage point from which to scope out the road ahead. We call the driving position ‘upright’ but, in fairness, it’s only typical for this class.

The N-specific seats, with their deep bolsters and leather headrests, are also well designed, if not quite as supportive as the Recaros in the Fiesta ST. You also get generous adjustability in the steering column, which allows you to position the wheel close and establish a good and natural triangle between the controls of the steering wheel, pedals and gearshift.

Overall, there’s a fundamental ‘rightness’ to the way this Hyundai feels from within – a sort of supermini pedigree that has little to do with the N-specific blue and bright red switchgear dotted about the place.

Hyundai i20 N infotainment and sat-nav

The i20 N’s theme of configurability extends to the infotainment system, because the interior’s large displays can be set up to show all kinds of information – even g-force and the brake pressure you’re applying.

The graphics are pleasingly crisp, too (especially the ring of fire that blazes around the tacho when you select N mode), although we found that flicking between menus was hampered by latency. The car’s ability to mirror smartphones using either Apple CarPlay or Android Auto remedied this and our experience of using Android Auto was particularly slick. Wireless phone charging comes as standard, as do USB ports for both front and rear occupants.

As for sound quality, the regular six-speaker system is somewhat tinny, although one of the few optional extras available on the i20 N is an eight-speaker Bose system, which in our test car proved noticeably better.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

24 Hyundai i20 N 2021 RT engine

Any doubts that this Hyundai i20 N’s styling is writing cheques the powertrain can’t cash are perceptibly dispelled by a short B-road blast, and then unequivocally so by rigging up the telemetry gear.

On the mile straight at Millbrook Proving Ground, getting the car off the line is a matter of dialling up around 3500rpm and slipping the clutch softly at first but then suddenly as the Pirelli P Zeros hook up. Our quickest time to 60mph was 6.1sec – 0.5sec quicker than the Ford Fiesta ST managed and knocking on the door of the most senior front-driven hot hatches, which, with 300bhp or so, muster 50% more than this Hyundai and tend to slip below the 6.0sec mark.

Jobs for the facelift? Go over the engine map, because it feels like better response could be unlocked.

As for in-gear performance, the i20 N isn’t quite so dominant compared with its Ford nemesis: 40-60mph in third gear takes 2.9sec for both, and 50-70mph in fourth is separated by just three- tenths, albeit in the Hyundai’s favour.

Of course, straight-line speed has never been of critical importance for hot superminis in the same way it is for other types of performance car and, in truth, this 1.6-litre turbo unit doesn’t fizz with the level of energy and response we’d hoped for.

In subjective terms, it’s far from memorable, suffering noticeably from rev-hang, whereby the throttle remains open fractionally longer than necessary after your foot has been lifted off the pedal. The most likely reason the powertrain has been tuned like this is because slamming the throttle shut can momentarily increase NOx emissions, and closing it more slowly can mitigate this, but the result is an engine that doesn’t feel lively enough. It pulls strongly through the rev range and with good linearity, yet it possesses little vivacity and lacks the sharp pick-up of the Ford’s 1.0-litre triple, which makes that car feel quicker than it is.

Under very heavy braking, the Hyundai then squirms a little uncomfortably, but never to the extent that steering correction is required. It also stops sooner from 70mph than any other rival we’ve tested, and the pedal feel is spot on: satisfyingly firm when you want it to be but easy-going around town. The pedals are also reasonably well set up for heel-and-toe shifts, if you really do want to work the brakes, but the big red button on the steering wheel, which initiates a rev-matching programme with varying levels of aggression, is a fine substitute if you’re not in the mood.

RIDE & HANDLING

25 Hyundai i20 N 2021 RT on road front

The most appealing cars of this species combine a nailed-on front axle with a tail that’s happy to play and alter the attitude of the car during cornering. Indeed, they establish a relationship between the two elements, where the latter feeds off the former to entertaining effect.

The Hyundai i20 N certainly has a front end to shout about. The steering – too weighty in the most serious of its three maps but pleasingly light in the most reserved – is not notably quick in its gearing but it is consistent and commands near-total obedience from the front tyres. The car doesn’t feel at all nervous on an undulating, twisting road and this allows the driver to acclimatise to the i20 N’s speed and gait without delay.

It demolishes any corner you put in its path with confidence-building stability and faithful steering. It isn’t as playful as the Fiesta ST but it’s very polished dynamically.

The tuning of the passive suspension helps in this respect: while it can feel too tightly controlled at low speeds, it breathes freely in the 40-60mph window while keeping the body on a determinedly short leash. Crests, troughs and almost any manner of hard cornering don’t faze the i20 N in the way they would other superminis, and in this way it feels more akin to bigger cars such as the Volkswagen Golf GTI.

However, there’s little doubt that to achieve this level of composure, Hyundai has sacrificed something in the way of playfulness. The i20 N doesn’t so much dive in to corners with easy lift-off oversteer, then bound joyfully out of them, as methodically dispatch whatever you and the road might throw at it. It trades some immediacy for stability, and so isn’t quite as easily rewarding as it might have been.

That said, rewards are there if you’re prepared to delve deep enough. A mechanical limited-slip differential that operates far more naturally and predictably than the e-LSD in the larger Hyundai i30 N is endlessly effective and neat in keeping the nose on line, and the car’s general stability allows it to be pitched into bends aggressively, whereupon the rear axle quickly loads up and smudges the tyres across the road in a satisfying manner imperceptible to all but the driver.

There’s real dynamic polish here, and a fine all-weather, any- environment performance car, but we wonder whether the character of the i20 N is more senior hot hatch and less feisty supermini.

The Hyundai i20 N on track

Owners might find that it’s worth signing up for the odd track day with their i20 N. In many ways, this car really comes alive in its handling when you remove the constraints of the public road and can push what is an exceptionally composed chassis right up to and over the limit of adhesion.

Still, that takes some doing, even on Millbrook’s Hill Route. Pirelli P Zero tyres offer up plenty of grip against the i20 N’s relatively low kerb weight, and the quality of the high-speed damping gives the car’s back axle very good composure.

Rather than lurid lift-off oversteer, the Hyundai instead rewards the confident driver who is willing to punt the car’s centre of gravity forward on turn-in into medium-speed corners before quickly getting back on the throttle. The car then indulges you in neat four-wheel slides before the limited-slip diff straightens things out. It’s all very satisfying, and the i20 N’s braking holds up well on track, too.

Comfort and isolation

Nobody expects superminis – especially single-minded ones – to muster much in the way of opulence, but the i20 N might surprise one or two people with its air of ease and composure when you just want to get from A to B.

Granted, it feels stiff about town, but which car of this ilk doesn’t? (The Volkswagen Polo GTI is disqualified, because it simply cannot match the excitement of the Hyundai.) What’s rather more surprising is how at home this car is on the motorway, where beyond a reasonable degree of road roar, it will sit in relaxed fashion all day long. One tester drove the 400 miles from Aviemore to Birmingham and arrived without any reasonable criticism to make of the Hyundai.

It proved comfortable and swift and lacked nothing in terms of amenities. However, it is absolutely true that larger hot hatches are better suited to long journeys, mostly because of their more natural driving positions.

The bottom line is that, despite its pugnacious looks, the i20 N would be very easy to live with and use on a daily basis. It is uncompromising at times, but anybody embarking on ownership with their eyes open and an understanding of the trade- offs necessary to achieve such startling ability on quick roads will experience no unpleasant surprises with this car.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

1 Hyundai i20 N 2021 RT hero front

The biggest barrier to Hyundai i20 N ownership is going to be your perception of the styling.

Unlike the Ford Fiesta ST, whose more aggressive design cues play off against a reasonably elegant overall shape, the Hyundai is clearly trying to channel something of the WRC car. It doesn’t make any concessions, either: the rear wing is a non-negotiable element, as are the red pinstripes and the open-worked grille.

The i20 N looks expensive on paper but is well equipped and should hold its value as well as the top-spec Fiesta ST.

Otherwise, there’s not much to stop you from considering this fine hot supermini. Predicted residual values are strong, practicality is good, and the infotainment array and level of standard kit are excellent. The i20 N comes in only one specification level, but it includes everything from wireless phone charging to parking sensors and a heated steering wheel. Against the backdrop of such a serious mechanical package, we have no reservations in saying this car is fair value for money at £24,995.

Fuel economy is also commendable, our test car having recorded 50.6mpg at a steady 70mph, which would give it a touring range of around 450 miles. That said, the Fiesta ST, with its marginally lower cruising efficiency but two-litre-larger fuel tank, manages about the same.

 

VERDICT

29 Hyundai i20 N 2021 RT static front

When Hyundai introduced the i30 N in 2017 and caught the attention of even those only loosely interested in fast hatchbacks, we were impressed. Impressed, but not overflowing with praise. Hyundai’s take on the Volkswagen Golf GTI was fast and thrilling, but it lacked dynamic finesse and some coherence.

Four years later, the same cannot be said for this new Hyundai i20 N, which builds on its bigger sibling’s sense of engagement but adds the kind of polish and handling precision we longed for first time around. It’s an excellent hot hatch, this WRC-inspired supermini, and delivers a level of composure and maturity that arguably no other cars in this class can match. Certainly, few are quicker point to point, or so adept at absorbing whatever the road ahead might throw at the suspension.

Spec advice? It comes with most equipment as standard, so the main decision is what colour to have. We’d be tempted by Polar White, for the off-duty rally car vibe.

Reservations? We still have a few. The burly four-cylinder engine lacks a distinct personality, and more lively steering might help give the i20 N a more mischievous character when a tight corner beckons.

However, overall this is a fine driver’s car, and one with several layers to its dynamic make-up, which owners will love exploring.

 

Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Hyundai i20 N First drives