I KEEP telling myself I’m not a fan of hot hatches, and then I drive a really good one and it ends up leaving quite an impression on me. The Hyundai i20 N falls neatly into that category.
The relatively innocuous little i20 on which this pocket powerhouse is based seems a fairly dull basis for what has become known as one of the most exciting cars on the market but, then, some of the best hot hatches are spawned from some of the most humble beginnings.
So straight off the bat, it’s a winning formula. The i20 is a nice, practical car with a stylish interior, a pleasant exterior and plenty of modern touches. Giving it the N treatment, though, transforms it from credible shopping run-about to absolute hooligan.
Let’s start with the exterior. The standard i20 is distinctive enough, but with the N plumage bolted on, and especially in the striking “Performance Blue” colour, it looks absolutely bonkers. Arguably a bit fussy at the back, but it’s quite the head-turner, nevertheless.
The N spec adds in LED headlamps, a 10mm suspension drop, a roof spoiler, and 18-inch wheels wrapped in super sticky tyres.
The performance upgrades include uprated brakes and a huge range of configurable driving modes, which can be accessed through two steering-wheel mounted preset buttons.
It’s powered by a 1.6-litre engine with a huge turbo and intercooler bolted on that helps it serve up 201bhp and 203lb ft, all through the front wheels via a manual gearbox and a limited-slip differential.
What the engine lacks in flexibility it makes up for in sheer theatre, with a tuneful exhaust that rumbles away on over-run and between gearchanges.
The chassis is very stiff and the bespoke suspension setup feels unforgiving, and with everything turned up a notch it feels like a race car – but then the i20N is at its best on a track.
On the road, you soon forget about the firm suspension when you chuck it into a corner. It grips incredibly well, and there’s barely a hint of torque steer as you hurl yourself out of the bends.
This is a car that wants to be driven hard. For instance, during one B-road blast I had slowed down while following a lorry and the sat nav detected an “S Bend” ahead, so a message popped up on the digital instrument display inviting me to put it into the “N” mode, which stiffens things up and sharpens the responses. It’s a proper little nutter.
And while it is at its best on the limit, it does feel like a car you can use every day. Slip it into Eco mode and it’s fairly comfortable, easy to drive, and the equipment levels are very generous.
But then, this is a £25,000 car. And for that money you can have a top-spec Fiesta ST, widely considered to be the hot hatch hero. But while the ST feels perhaps a bit more accomplished and lively, the i20N feels more exciting somehow. It’s a bit lighter, and looks so much more ostentatious.
So if you’re in the market for a hot hatch, this is one of the best. Sadly, it’s a market that’s on the wane, as everyone convinces themselves they suddenly need an SUV.
But it’s great to know there’s still life in the sector. And it’s still offering up fantastic future classics like the i20N.