Is the Hyundai i20 N as good as the Ford Fiesta ST? Our colleagues in Europe find out ahead of the South Korean hot hatch’s Australian launch.
There should be a metaphor about slaying giants, here, right? Maybe a David and Goliath simile? Hot hatchbacks don’t have arms, though, which would make the slingshot reference quite tricky. Look, it’s the Ford Fiesta ST I’m talking about. Enough said. You don’t need to me to couch its significance in forced melodrama and myths. It’s not just a great car, it’s a trusted friend that has long been the default solution to the ‘what can I get that’s special to drive, fits the family and doesn’t cost a fortune?’ question.
Yet in the new Hyundai i20 N, we have an upstart that could cause a serious upset. After all, Hyundai proved that it’s able to give decades-established elite a proper shock with the brilliant i30 N, and the i20 N looks to be delivering more of the same ‘my first rally car’ experience in a smaller, even feistier-looking package. Check out the fixed rear wing, the diffuser, the chequered-flag grille and the red stripes… It doesn’t get much shoutier than this when it comes to hot hatch styling.
It makes the Fiesta ST look sedate, to say the least – even the special ST Edition version in Azure Blue that we’re testing here. Unfortunately, it is not the same five-door that Australia sells but it is a solid base to pick apart the different character of these two hot hatches.
Interestingly, then, just looking at these two rivals immediately starts to reveal very disparate characters, despite evident on-paper similarities. Both have as-near-as-dammit 150kW going to the front axle, a mechanical limited-slip differential and a stiffly sprung short-wheelbase chassis, and both cost a little over $30,000 before on-roads.
What better place to start picking apart the differences than a glamorous rural lay-by in the UK’s Bedfordshire where these two cars are currently on sale. No, really: this twisty, gnarly stretch of road is the perfect habitat for this duo. It’s exactly the sort of road that we all dream of while we peruse the configurators for something that will provide all of the fun without the frights; and I might as well state right now that you can’t go wrong with either car here if that’s the beginning and end of your criteria.
But it’s not much of a test without a winner, so I’ll start with the challenger here. Complete with a 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbocharged engine, the i20 N sounds rebellious from the very moment you start it up. The central tailpipe buzzes and mutters, telling the world that you’re firing up your hot hatch, regardless of whether it’s in its default Comfort driving mode or otherwise.
On that note, before you even get going in the Hyundai, you have to fathom its settings. Naturally, there are your standard Eco (yeah, right), Comfort and Sport modes. But hit the N Mode symbol on the big touchscreen and you enter a world of options. There are no fewer than three settings each for the engine, steering, traction control, rev-matching system and exhaust. All can be fiddled with individually and then saved to the two N Modes that you access via steering wheel-mounted buttons. On top of that, you can adjust the gearshift light and launch mode parameters.
What’s perhaps most puzzling about Hyundai’s adaptive buffet is that, no matter what you poke in this expansive command bridge, the i20 N is only ever one thing: committed. From the bassy exhaust note to the restless ride and neutral handling, this is a car that’s always ‘on it’ in a big way. It has echoes of the Subaru Impreza STi and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution in its fiercely grippy cornering attitude. I even found myself comparing it to the Nissan GT-R for sheer directional bravado.
Around a tight, not-quite-a-hairpin that’s a deep delight in both cars, the i20 N turns in with quick, darty responses before sticking to your chosen line with shocking neutrality and just getting on with it. It doesn’t frolic joyfully through corners like the Fiesta ST; it chews them up and spits them out with relish. And that’s not a criticism.
The i20 N is one of the most affordable performance cars on sale, and it will do 6.5L/100km at 110kph despite brapping along at 2750rpm. It’s sensible on the pocket by any measure. Yet Hyundai’s World Rally Championship efforts are clearly paying off, because the i20 N also appears to be channelling the spirit of a heroic era of rally-bred cars that died out not least because they became too expensive. Work that one out.
Even just pottering around in Comfort mode, the i20 N feels raw. That’s largely thanks to that lairy exhaust note that never quite quietens down, but the suspension (which is about the only bit that’s not adaptive) has a lot to do with it too. Taut, short-travel springs keep body roll impressively in check and the damping is good enough to stop things from being jarring. But it does bob and fidget endlessly, waiting for the next corner and N Mode moment like a toddler kicking the back of your seat until the next packet of crisps. Hyundai rarely lets you forget that you chose the fast and noisy model, and that might get a bit tiresome for some.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t flaws in the way the i20 N goes down the road, mind you. The clutch is a bit vague and the steering feels too heavy in Sport+ mode. You get a more natural-feeling response in the steering’s mid-setting, and while there’s a good sense of connection to what the front wheels are doing, the Fiesta ST certainly has more delicate, more tactile steering.
In fact, everything about the Ford feels more delicate. While the i20 N tackles corners like they’re territory to be conquered, its electromechanical diff dragging it out with diaphragm-squeezing tenacity, the Fiesta ST goes into a bend like it never wants it to end.
Our test car rode on the factory settings, and I can imagine that very few owners will bother fiddling with them, because they make the ST Edition a touch more comfortable yet even more playful than the standard Fiesta ST and the i20 N alike. There’s firm vertical damper compression, which gives a tautly sprung, bobbing ride comfort over scruffy roads similar to that of the Hyundai, but the bump absorption is smoother and touring comfort and refinement are usefully better.
Sure, the payoff is that the Fiesta ST has a softer turn-in than the i20 N and a bit more body lean, but the way that you can steer it on the throttle, changing your line with little dabs of lift-off oversteer or getting it to cock a wheel through tight corners, is one of the greatest delights of any performance car at any cost. It’s perfection on a good B-road, playful and light-footed next to the Hyundai’s addictively forceful pace and grip.
Talking of pace, both of these engines are fun and flexible, yet neither is the star of the show. The four-pot in the i20 N is raucously noisy but actually needs a few more revs than the Fiesta ST’s triple to find its stride, which it does a heartbeat before 2000rpm, and then you can keep going to well past 5500rpm and on up to the 6750rpm redline if you wish, even if its best is done well before that.
The pedals are also perfectly placed for heel-and-toeing fun (should you wish to shun the very effective rev-matching feature) and there’s a sweet, short-shift action to the gears. Altogether, the i20 N is a surprisingly analogue-feeling car, despite being dominated by digital, adaptive-happy facets.
The Fiesta ST’s engine is also not the reason you buy the car, but it is full of energy. It eggs you on to work it hard, and it’s a little more sensitive on the throttle than the Hyundai if you put it in Race mode, but both of these cars allow for precise metering of the power on offer.
As for the practicality of these cars? Well, how much stuff you can get in your dinky hot hatch is unlikely to be a headline consideration, but real life always demands some concessions, otherwise we would all be driving Porsche 911 GT3s. So if you do have kids to worry about, the Hyundai has a bit more space for people in the back and things in the boot. Indeed, it’s actually one of the most practical small cars. It also has the bigger, glossier and more logical touchscreen infotainment system.
The Fiesta ST isn’t without practical merits, though. Its Recaro seats are more comfortable than the Hyundai’s, particularly on a long slog, and keep you a touch more firmly in place while you’re flinging yourself about the countryside.
In short, both of these hot hatches are strikingly brilliant for whizzy kicks on a good road, with ease of use, loads of comfort and safety kit and very reasonable running costs all there to make daily life convenient.
The fact that these rivals have such different characters, from the i20 N’s overt machismo to the Fiesta ST’s more subtle playfulness, is only to their credit. But while it’s easy and correct to say that both are illuminatingly brilliant, we’re giving the nod to the Ford. It wins by such a tiny margin that even a half-star difference feels too much like overstating it, but it’s ultimately still peerless for depth of handling adjustability.
That finer moment of playfulness as the Fiesta ST lets its rear axle slip while, in the same moment, the i20 N is hunkering down for a grip-and-go exit? That tips it in the Ford’s favour. If you want the fastest cross-country runner or the most theatrical small hot hatch, there’s no competition here. But if you want the sweetest-handling, more purist experience, and never mind the speed, the Ford is the one for you, for me and, well, as the last decade or so has already proven, for just about everyone.
Alternative hot hatches
Toyota GR Yaris
It may be a lot more expensive than any of the other hot hatches here, but it’s the most playful hot hatch of all and (sort of) a rally homologation special, so it would be remiss not to mention it here. If you have the cash to get this four-wheel-drive work of art, do so.
VW Polo GTI
The Polo GTI has always been a touch disappointing, and actually the Fiesta and i20 have upped their game in the quality stakes so don’t really lag behind the little Volkswagen inside any more. It’s a really easy car to live with, though, so if you just want something that’s relaxed and a bit posh yet fast when you want it to be, this will do the job.
Mini John Cooper Works
The Mini JCW is a brilliant blend of design flair, cheeky performance and premium desirability that will serve up decently low running costs. It’s not the quickest nor the most exciting way to spend nearly $60k, but its brand of brash yet chic is unlike anything else. It’s not hard to see why someone would fall for it.