i30 N – vs the North Coast 500: Not one but two i30 Ns tackle the high roads of Scotland’s spectacular NC500, so their drivers can discover why the Hyundai is the perfect fit.
THE NORTH COAST 500 MIGHT SOUND like a classic circuit race, but the route of this loop around the northern point of Scotland was designed to attract tourists to this remote part of Britain. And it worked for us at evo, too – we were drawn here in 2015 to judge our Car of the Year, and as a result we know it is one of the best driving roads in the world, full of spectacular scenery, light on traffic, and offering a great variety of challenges.
Okay, it’s hardly around the corner for most of the world’s population, but it’s still incredible that those of us living in the UK can have a road trip that rivals anything Europe has to offer without leaving our little island. But amazingly, Steve Sutcliffe has never driven the NC500. He’s flown across the world to drive cars, but has never taken the trip up the A1 to sample this amazing route. Adam Towler, meanwhile, has done it twice before – once for eCoty and later in a McLaren Senna. Clearly they were memorable drives, but he wanted to try it again in something a little more… obtainable. There are sections of the NC where a supercar is just too big, or too outrageous.
The perfect car for this type of trip is a hot hatch. They are the right size for the roads we’ll be finding on the NC500, with useable performance, responsive engines and agile handling. A good one will be comfortable on the journey up and won’t bankrupt us with fuel costs. Once we are in Scotland, it won’t be so lairy that it’ll upset the locals either.
So what better test for one of our favourite hot hatches, Hyundai’s i30 N, than a wee road trip north? As you may have already read, the i30 N was developed on and around the Nürburgring in Germany, and many of the sections on the NC500 are remarkably similar – a mix of fast, sweeping main roads and twisty hairpins with bumps and cambers – so the i30 N should work well here, if the engineers have done their homework of course.
Adam and Steve aren’t good passengers, so we have a plan. With a car each, the pair will go their separate ways from their Inverness starting point, with Steve going anticlockwise in a Fastback and Adam heading in the other direction in a hatch. They will meet at the Kylesku Bridge, roughly halfway around and at the top of the country, to compare notes.
For this first half, it’s probably fair to say Adam has got the better deal. Large parts of his route are a mix of quick, challenging A-roads with section of tighter, more technical B-roads providing a further challenge. But that’s one of the big appeals of a hot hatch – the duality it offers and its ability to turn its hand at everything thrown in its way. The i30 N is just fast enough so you can stay legal and still have fun.
It’s when the roads narrow that the first of many ‘wow’ moments is delivered, as Loch Maree heaves into view on the A832. Crest the hill and there it is at the bottom of a valley, at the end of a fast, gently curved road that you want to stop and take in the view of as much as you want to drive it.
But there is even better to come when the Applecross Pass presents itself. It has been called Britain’s most dangerous road because the weather can make its series of hairpins and single tracks treacherous, especially if wintry conditions have washed gravel onto the surface or left gaping potholes. Tighter than the Col de Turini, a hot hatch fits Applecross perfectly. It’s best to get a clear run but you’ll want to do it more than once, if only to stop and drink in the view across to the Isle of Skye. It’s one of the most beautiful sights in Britain. One that leaves Adam feeling guilty he’s given Steve the NC500 short straw.
For the first 150km or so he probably has. Steve is unconvinced so far, his trip more mile munching than awe inspiring, and he’s questioning why they didn’t just pop into Knockhill circuit to get their kicks instead. The roads are pleasant, but not as spectacular as he’d been promised.
All that changes when he reaches Durness and one of the most northerly points of the UK mainland. Suddenly it all makes sense as the road tightens, the landscape opens up and the i30 N Fastback begins to remind our NC500 virgin why he made the journey north.
It’s on roads such as these that driving modes in performance cars come into their own. It’s where sharper throttle responses, tighter diffs and a more tied-down chassis allow for a more expressive character to suit the route ahead. As both Adam and Steve cover more miles along the NC500, their settings become more focused. ‘N’ is too extreme for the road, but there’s a balance to be had via ‘N Custom’ (where over 1900 permutations can be selected), and it’s only when our explorers meet on the iconic Kylesku Bridge that they discover they both settled on near identical set-ups.
A route such as the North Coast 500 is not one to be rushed. It needs to be explored, savoured, run multiple times. And the views, you need time to stop for the views. And the tea shops. Crucially, you need the right car. We took twelve very different evo cars to the NC500 in 2015, from hot hatches to supercars and while the latter were always thrilling, it was the former that felt more at home. Just as these two did today.