Featuring more bells and whistles than a shopping car ought to, the latest hot hatch from Hyundai enthuses Iain Robertson with its cocktail of automotive Molotov components to raise pulses, boost excitement and wet knickers beyond mere moistness.
Hyundai calls its current rally car a ‘coupe’. It is not really. It is a hatchback. A fairly rudimentary hatchback. Yet, it has been developed to win rallies, which is what it does in the World Rally Championship with some aplomb, its drivers arms flailing, setting rocks flying and with frequent self-destructive flair. Of course, the i20N rally car is heavily ‘steroided’, with boxy wheel-arch extensions, remarkable suspension travel and a banshee exhaust system glowing as orange as the car’s overworked brake discs in the white heat of competition.
While Hyundai may be the waking giant that is only recently daring to challenge the mightier car brands vying for domination in the motorsporting arena, it is making a flipping good job of it, having already relegated the precursor Ford Fiesta into an also-ran role, causing its closest rival Toyota into furrowed brow mode and ensuring that Citroen and Skoda work the less relevant WRC2 sub-championship, while it holds reigning champion status. Hyundai is in a great place, even in a Covid-complicated series.
While it does appear that Hyundai has come from ‘nowhere’ into dominance, while its corporate acceleration may be somewhat boosted, it is a company on a mission. In fact, in a blink-and-you-may-have-missed-it exercise, the South Korean player has already delivered the homologation package on a previous occasion, with the slightly larger i30N road car version of its former rally and race champion. Homologation is a legal term that demands a carmaker produces enough versions of a certain model to allow it to go racing, or rallying, with specific modifications.
Intriguingly, you may even recall my test of another car, Toyota Yaris GRMN, in July 2018 (it is in the archive), which was the first ‘knicker-wetter’ to come from a car manufacturer in several years and was the last example of an ‘homologation special’ that thrilled me to extremes. No carmaker prior had dared to road replicate as closely to its competition brethren as Toyota. Ford’s RSs were always softened and nannyingly anodyne. Citroen and Peugeot relied on colourful appliques but no noise enhancement. Back in the day, Fiat and Lancia did the replica task with modest levity, accompanied by steep price tags. However, Toyota provided ‘flat-shift’ on its GRMN, by which a revs-matching upshift could be completed without dipping the clutch pedal…pure competition; pure magic! Now, Hyundai is doing the same thing, with bells on.
Of course, it is strictly mental. We live in strange times. Unwittingly, in some cases, we are being prepared for a fall into electrification. Motorcar excitement and enticement is being stashed away judiciously, out of reach, in case we harm ourselves. Hang on though, because you are going to need asbestos gloves for the Hyundai i20N, which may attend to the rules in some areas but breaks them wilfully in others.
I mentioned the Toyota’s ‘flat-shift’ mechanism, well, the i20N has it and more. Thanks to a programmable chassis setting, the engine torque curve has been optimised about as far as its 1.6-litre turbocharged capacity will allow, rev-matching synchronises the motor to the output shaft and enables launch control, while there is even left foot braking calibration (an art I learnt from the original Stig Blomquist, in a Finnish quarry, driving a Saab Turbo rally car…forty years ago!) and a variable exhaust note. Wow!
No single element of the i20N has been left to pure marketing and it is abundantly clear that Hyundai’s marginally nutty motorsport engineers have exercised a lot more than mere say about the appearance of the car. Yes, it features the GRIN factor stability, traction and gearshift controls already experienced in the i30N but there is a slightly loopier intent with the i20N. The Tomato Red accents link the front and rear of the car, as they do on the rally example but those 18.0-inch diameter graphite alloy wheels, clad in bespoke Pirelli P-Zero (HN-marked) super-sticky tyres highlight that this is a car built without cost-cutting compromises. It is almost as if Hyundai ensured that its accountants never gained sight of the final offering.
While it is based more on the rally car than its road car equivalent, to legitimise its production, a full complement of ADAS driving aids is included. However, the i20N also features a Performance Driving Data System to monitor and improve the driver’s track skills. This feature saves and displays driving data, including information on power, torque and turbo boost. It also comes with a lap and acceleration timer, not that you would be tempted to use them.
Its optional 10.25-inch LCD touchscreen navigation system, with dedicated N content, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is also available with the latest version of Bluelink, Hyundai’s state-of-the-art connected car services, such as Hyundai LIVE Services, Connected Routing and Last Mile Navigation, as well as remote features via the smartphone app (Bluelink comes with a free five-year subscription).
Tipping the scales at a modest 1.19-tonnes, the 1.6-litre turbo-petrol power unit develops a moderate 201bhp and around 208lbs ft of torque, which is enough to whisk the i20N from 0-60mph in around 6.4s and onwards to a top speed of not quite 140mph. In direct comparison with some of its fleet of foot rivals, these figures come across as merely average for the limited class but I shall defy you not to believe that they are anything less than involvingly thrilling, accompanied by all the ‘can do’ cacophony that a road-going version of a rally weapon can muster. Pricing and deliveries will be announced in the New Year, as the first UK examples are not set to land until next spring but I reckon you will not receive much change from £27,000.
Conclusion: Hyundai is playing a very clever game, be under no illusion. The brand will not take over the world, that is not within its gift, but it is going to make a major impression, not that it is not making one right now.