I recently completed my first ever lap of the Nürburgring. Bearing in mind the record for Germany’s infamous 14.2-mile circuit – held by Timo Bernhard in a Porsche 919 Hybrid – is 5min 19.5sec, my time of 22 minutes looks somewhat slothful. In my defence, I was aboard a 60-seat coach. And I wasn’t driving.
The occasion was the Nürburgring 24 Hours race, which this year was held on the weekend after Le Mans. Both events last 24 hours and both attract top-level drivers, yet they could hardly feel more different. At La Sarthe, the campsites are stuffed with supercars. At the ’Ring, modified Golf GTIs blast out migraine Euro-techno. With 155 cars on-track, from Renault Clios to Porsche 911 GT3s, the racing at N24 is pretty anarchic, too.
My tour of the track starts at Hyundai’s European Test Centre, located off the long straight at Döttinger Höhe. Here is where the Koreans decamped to develop the i30N hot hatchback, with former BMW M boss Albert Biermann leading the project. The next 22 minutes bring home what an exciting and frightening circuit this is: a non-stop rollercoaster with every conceivable type of corner. Rounding the right-hander at Bergwerk, where Niki Lauda crashed in 1976, seems poignant so soon after his death, but the banked Caracciola-Karussell is vividly special – even aboard a bus. No wonder the i30N feels so focused.
Now there is a new version of the i30N and it’s, well, slightly softer. The £29,995 Fastback N has sleeker rear bodywork, tweaked suspension and a £500 price hike over the hot hatch. However, while the latter is offered in 250hp and 275hp outputs, this car only comes in full-fat N Performance spec. Aside from the meatier 2.0-litre turbo engine, that means 19-inch alloy wheels, LED headlights, sat nav, keyless entry, cruise control and electric heated seats. A stripped-out track tearaway this ain’t.
You wouldn’t call the Fastback pretty, but a squat stance, red go-faster stripes and a ducktail spoiler give it plenty of presence. It’s still a hatchback, too, with a bigger boot than the standard i30N – albeit less rear headroom. The touchscreen media system is intuitive to use, while a BMW M-style dynamic redline on the rev counter is an exotic touch. Elsewhere, plush leather and Alcantara (man-made suede) brush up against some conspicuously budget plastics.
Hyundai i30 Fastback N on test.
Vital stats: 275hp, 0-62mph in 6.1sec, 34.0mpg and 178g/km.
Price before options: £29,995. pic.twitter.com/NGgd885JHu
— Tim Pitt (@timpitt100) September 12, 2019
All the work done by those serious folk in branded fleeces pays dividends on British B-roads, where the i30N serves up life-affirming fun. Its engine is raspy and eager, its steering weighty and tactile, its damping taut and unfiltered. You sense the electronic limited-slip diff biting into bends, while the rear can even be coaxed into oversteer if you’re keen. A rev-matching function on the manual gearbox (a twin-clutch auto arrives soon) makes you feel like a race driver, too.
This is a car that rolls up its sleeves and gives 100 percent, whether on the Nürburgring or the North Circular. Frankly, in maximum-attack N mode (selected via the chequered flag button) the Fastback is a bit too firm and feisty; the half-way house Sport setting is a better compromise. It’s less refined than some rivals, but that gung-ho character is a key part of its appeal.
The i30N is a formidable effort from Hyundai’s fledgling N division and the new Fastback offers something different – and dare I say more exotic – in this crowded class. While the standard i30 is as exciting as watching a kettle boil, the tenacious and vivid N makes every drive feel a bit special. It will be fascinating to see what Albert Biermann does next.
Top speed: 155mph
CO2 G/KM: 178
MPG combined: 36.0