Hyundai's debut hot hatch attempt stunned the world the first time around, but with this freshly facelifted version of the i30 N having it feeling all grown up, is the magic still there?

No one really knew what to expect from Hyundai when it first debuted the i30 N in 2017 – here was a company known best for making reliable but admittedly basic and sensible cars launching what promised to be a hot hatch to rival the establishment’s best.

True to its word, Hyundai aced it – with a name paying homage to its home in Namyang, South Korea and the Nürburgring in Germany, an utterly raucous 2.0-litre turbo engine, and a manual gearbox exclusively, it instantly challenged the best in the class. Sure, a Volkswagen Golf GTI might have felt more refined and complete and a Renault Megane R.S. 280 would munch it in a straight line, but the i30 N appealed to the inner teenager in all of us.

Now freshly facelifted for the 2022 model year, however, it appears Hyundai’s black sheep has gone suit shopping and matured from a punk-rockin’ teenager into a well-put-together grown up. The Czech-made hatch now looks more replete and sophisticated, rather than as if a tuning shop threw the catalogue at a regular i30; there’s a new sedan variant soon due to join the existing hatch and Fastback options; and, shock and horror, there’s a dual-clutch automatic gearbox now available as well. They really do grow up so fast.

In the new range – consisting of regular and Premium versions, with the latter available with or without a panoramic sunroof – the car you see tested here is the base N optioned up with the new auto ‘box, which is priced at $47,500 before on-road costs, which marks quite the jump in price over the once sub-$40k base model.

At least, then, it looks like a more expensive product outside, as the new looks really make this quite the attractive package. The red accented front lip and rear diffuser, the big roof spoiler and side skirts, and lowered ride height certainly still see it looking pretty aggressive, but the new front-end and lighting designs along with the new matte-finished 19-inch alloy wheels really do help it look like an all-around classy unit.

What’s a bit of a let-down about this updated model, however, is the interior. Sure, there might be some new chrome trimming around the air vent positioning tabs to try to amp up the classiness, but it does feel a bit cold and dour in here, it must be said.

The primary cause for that is the toning-down of the colours that were once in here. The vibrant red stitching has been swapped out for a more subdued blue that better matches the Performance Blue exterior hero colour, the red air vent surrounds are now plain silver, and even the seatbelts are just plan old black like you’d expect. Factor in that this base model has cloth upholstery rather than the leather and Alcantara of the Premium spec, and that it’s missing some obvious things like rear air vents like Korean-made i30s and adaptive cruise control despite having lane tracing, and it’s admittedly a bit underwhelming in here.

It’s not all bad, though, at least. The N-branded bucket seats up front are very comfortable and supportive, there’s finally a bigger 10.25-inch infotainment touchscreen perched atop the dashboard, keyless entry and push-button start are now standard, and so is a wireless phone charger.

Anyone expecting something that feels truly on par with the Europeans for spec will still want to go for the N Premium, though – a jump that’s necessary to make just in order to get rain-sensing wipers, let alone heated seats, a heated steering wheel, front parking sensors, and the much nicer upholstery package. Really, though, this base spec isn’t aimed at people who care about all those luxuries – this is for people who just want to drive.

That’s why, in the drivetrain department, there have been no compromises made. Packing an updated version of the 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder it always has, it now makes 206kW at 6100rpm and 392Nm from 2100-4700rpm – only a moderate 4kW bump in power, but a quite noticeable 39Nm jump in torque.

The new in-house-designed dual-clutch automatic fitted to my tester is a wet clutch eight-speed unit – although don’t fret, the six-speed manual is still available. The i30 N still remains front-wheel drive, but packs an electronically-controlled limited-slip differential to keep the power in check.

And keep it in check, it does. Factor in the grip of the bespoke Pirelli P Zero tyres that sport a compound unique to the i30 N, and it feels super glue levels of sticky through the corners. With the diff shuffling the power around expertly, you’ve got to be right on the absolute limit to feel any hint of tugging at the wheel, with any torque steer or understeer effectively imperceptible. It’s remarkably good for a front-drive chassis.

No doubt the chassis’ stiffness plays a big role in this as well. Compared to the normal i30, there’s not only a beefy strut brace up front, but another in the rear which eats into the boot space a bit – but hey, who cares when the car feels this good to drive.

The adaptive suspension has been reworked since the i30 N’s debut to improve daily driving comfort as well, and while I was initially taken aback by how brittle the ride felt when I first hopped behind the wheel, I soon realised someone had overinflated the tyres to 50psi for some ungodly reason. With the pressures dropped to placard spec, it rode every bit as well as a normal i30 with the suspension in Comfort, but would still go track-pounding hard in N mode.

For the best compromise for spirited driving on the road, there is fortunately a comprehensive Custom mode in which just about all aspects of the car can be configured to different settings, allowing you to get it right where you wanted – which if you’d like my advice is to have the drivetrain as aggressive as possible, chassis as soft as possible, and the traction control somewhere in-between. Play around with it enough, and you’ll easily be able to tune this to anyone’s tastes, which only adds to the appeal of it.

But what good is a great chassis without the power to back it up? Hyundai recognised this, fortunately, and the reworked engine now gives the i30 N it sorely needed. That extra glob of torque really does help it feel punchier through the mid-range, and even if there are times you can still want for a little extra at the top-end when you’re gunning it in a straight line, for boosting between corners it’s absolutely bang on the money. Admittedly, the exhaust note is less fruity than before, but it still sounds great and delivers plenty of gunshot-like pops and crackles. Plus, I’d much rather less show and more go.

What really makes a world of difference to its pace, though, is the dual-clutch transmission. Shaving half a second off the manual’s 0-100km/h time, this DCT-equipped model completes that sprint in 5.4 seconds, putting it atop the FWD hatch fraternity, so it’s now no-joke fast.

Truthfully, this dual-clutch paddle shift ‘box is a revelation for the i30 N. With how long it had been promised for, it needed to be good, and without question it is. Downshifts – the tricky ones to get right – are only just off the mark of Volkswagen’s DSG, and the upshifts are every bit as rapid, and the paddles are perfectly-sized and feel tactile enough as well. It’s an incredibly smooth gearbox as well, never jolting you around or doing anything untoward. It really is every bit as good as Hyundai’s been promising.

But – and there always is a ‘but’ with these things – part of me feels a bit forlorn about all this refinement and maturity. The i30 N’s appeal was youthful and rebellious, yet here it is with an easy and accessible automatic gearbox, an exhaust that won’t make passers-by jump out of their skin with fright, and an interior that’s all grey and sensible.

Objectively, without question, this is a much better car than before for all of that, but that doesn’t exactly make it feel right and in the spirit of what the original N put forward. Perhaps the smaller, manual-only i20 N will fill that gap; perhaps it’s just a sign that the N brand needs to evolve and is evolving with the ever-changing new car market. I know it’s an incredibly subjective thing, but personality and character is so integral to a hot hatch’s appeal, and unfortunately, there’s something a little cold about this.

Would that stop me having one, though? Absolutely not. If the i30 N wasn’t the best hot hatch out there already, it probably is now – I’ll wait to drive the new GTI to make my final call on that, but from a value-for-money standpoint alone, the faster, cheaper i30 N trumps it easily. It’s an utterly brilliant little car, and genuinely one of the best all-around packages you’ll find. I only wish I could’ve fallen more in love with it than I did.

2022 Hyundai i30 N DCT List Price: $47,500
  • 8.5/10
    Performance - 8.5/10
  • 9.5/10
    Ride & Handling - 9.5/10
  • 8/10
    Tech & Features - 8/10
  • 8/10
    Practicality - 8/10
  • 8.5/10
    Value for Money - 8.5/10

Pros: Tight and poised chassis, smooth and brisk dual-clutch gearbox, looks classier than before, arguably the best front-drive hot hatch out there right now
Cons: Non-Luxury pack interior feels too dour, no adaptive cruise control yet it has auto steering, no rear air vents like the normal Korean-produced i30

In a nutshell: The i30 N is all grown up, and it’s objectively a much, much better car for it. Subjectively, it’s perhaps a bit cold being less youthful and rebellious, but in terms of the drive itself, this makes a strong case for being the dollar-for-dollar best hot hatch out there. 

Photography by Marcus Cardone.

Full Disclosure: The vehicle tested here was provided by Hyundai Motor Company Australia for a week with a full tank of fuel. All additional fuel costs were covered by the author.

Patrick Jackson
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