It’s a cliché but in the case of the 150kW, $32,490 Hyundai i20 N, good things most certainly come in small packages.
Press launches hosted at racetracks are usually tightly controlled affairs. The gathered journalists are split into groups denoted by coloured dots on their lanyard and there’s plenty of waiting around for your turn to drive the handful of available cars. Then, once it’s your turn behind the wheel, plenty of companies place an instructor beside you or you’re to follow an instructor in a lead car. Most of the time it works out and there’s enough time and freedom to assess a car properly, but sometimes it’s an exercise in micromanagement and frustration – I once spent an entire day at The Bend Motorsport Park in South Australia and completed one flying lap. And no, I’m not that slow.
There was absolutely none of that at the launch of the Hyundai i20 N. The Wakefield Park pitlane opened at just after 10am and didn’t close until 2pm, with no formal break in play for lunch. There were cars for all and no coloured dots. Pro rally driver Brendan Reeves was on hand for hot laps and tips, but wasn’t there to slow you down. That kind of approach suggests total confidence in your product, and well might Hyundai feel that way about the i20 N.
Across the day, I completed eight 6-lap sessions in the same i20 N and a further four 6-lap sessions in two different Kona N SUVs (review of the Kona N will be available on December 3 when the embargo lifts). That’s 72 laps of Wakefield’s 2.2km circuit. The cars and Hyundai’s team were happy for me to keep going, but thanks to lockdown and restrictions, this was my first track session in six months and I’m ashamed to admit that I’m not match fit. But this is all getting ahead of myself.
After the sales and critical success of the i30 N, the entry-level i20 N arrives with a weight of expectation upon its shoulders. Can it match the acclaim of its bigger brother and can it take the fight to the Ford Fiesta ST, the long-time king of the kids? On paper, it certainly has the tools.
The i20 N is powered by a turbocharged 1.6-litre in-line four-cylinder engine that makes 150kW from 5500-6000rpm and 275Nm from 1750-4500rpm. An overboost function provides 304Nm from 2000-4000rpm. With a 75.6mm bore and 89mm stroke, the engine is particularly undersquare suggesting a reluctance to rev, and while it’s no Vtec screamer, the i20 N’s 1.6 is keen to work at 6000rpm and above. A relatively high 10:1 static compression ratio helps throttle response.
The engine drives the front wheels via a six-speed manual gearbox (the only transmission available) and mechanical limited-slip diff. First to fourth are relatively closely stack (two-fourth especially) and fifth and sixth are overdriven, while the final drive isn’t ridiculously aggressive at 3.941:1.
Weighing in at 1210kg in its lightest trim (or 1235kg at its heaviest), the i20 N is a punchy performer, boasting a 124kW/tonne power-to-weight ratio and a 6.2-second 0-100km/h sprint. There’s clear air between the two Hyundai hot hatches (the i30 N has 142kW/tonne and dashes from 0-100km/h in 5.9 seconds) but the i20 N is surprisingly well-matched against the VW Golf GTI – 128kW/tonne and 6.4sec.
The i20 N is suspended by a strut front end and torsion beam under the rear, while brakes are 320mm ventilated rotors up front with 267mm solid rotors at the rear. Calipers are single-pistons all around. If the brakes look a little underdone on paper, not once did they complain or fade during over 100km of track driving and several hundred kilometres of quick road driving.
At 4075mm long and 1775mm wide, the i20 N is a proper supermini, but with a 2580mm wheelbase and wide tracks (1554mm front, 1552mm rear), the 18-inch alloys are pushed out to each corner. The wheels wear 215/40 Pirelli P Zero tyres that were developed specifically for the i20 N.
The i20 N welcomes you with a terrific seating position, setting the tone for what is to come from the driving experience. Too many hot hatches, especially the tiny ones, perch you too high but you can hunker deep down into the i20 N. The steering wheel is probably a fraction too big for my liking, but it extends towards your chest and is perfectly round – no flat-bottomed motorsport affectations here.
It does feature a big-red button for the rev-match function and two programmable N-mode tabs so you can configure the engine response and steering weighting to your preference. With fixed-rate dampers there’s no menu for suspension adjustment.
The front seats are supportive, the pedals are well spaced even for my size-12 shoes and the gear lever falls easily to hand. Perhaps the clutch pedal is overly sprung during the first phase of its travel or perhaps that’s a symptom of me having not driven a manual for months and months.
The 1.6-litre engine doesn’t have the gruff voice of the 2.0-litre four in the i30 N, but it feels strong and pulls through the upper reaches of its rev range with conviction. Beyond getting a feel for the clutch pedal, the i20 N operates around town with all of the ease of any good supermini – hot, lukewarm or tepid. Find an interesting road away from urban centres, however, and the i20 N is a genuine tearaway, plastering a grin across your face with its hunger to devour corners and charge down straights.
Everything feels in sync, with the engine providing the power to exploit the grip, brakes with stamina to arrest the speed and a chassis tune to tie it all together. The steering isn’t a true orator with more weight than feedback but you can lean against the steering and judge the limits of the Pirellis through signals sent to your seat. Ford’s Fiesta ST is probably a fraction livelier on the road with a rear-end more willing to get involved sooner, but the i20 N isn’t far behind.
On some fairly bumpy and broken roads, only very occasionally would the solid rear axle run out of smarts, but generally the i20 N does exactly what you want and when, all the while delivering proper entertainment. It was more of the same on the smooth tarmac at Wakefield Park. Everything felt in harmony, with just the right amount of power and grip. Driven neatly, the i20 N can be placed with impressive accuracy, the mechanical diff pulling the nose into the apex and the tail following obediently. Drive more aggressively and the chassis is happy to indulge with reasonable angles of attack on the way into the corner. Stability control isn’t particularly intrusive in its middle setting but can be switched off entirely, which allows the tail to mobilise further and this is easy to trim with more throttle.
Through the kink at the end of Wakefield’s main straight, the rear activated enough to entertain but not so much that the blood pressure spiked, and the i20 N danced into the tight right-hander at turn two with the inside rear waggling in the breeze. It’s a similar story around the rest of the lap; drivetrain, steering, chassis and brakes all working hard to entertain and engage the driver.
At $32,490, the Hyundai i20 N is $200 dearer than the Ford Fiesta ST and $400 cheaper than the Volkswagen Polo GTI. Only two options are available; premium paint at $495 and a black roof for $1000.
After the surprise of the i30 N, we waited to see if that was a fluke or whether Hyundai could back it up with the smaller i20 N. After our road and track drive, it appears Hyundai’s N division is on a roll.