We love hot hatches here at DriveLife. Whether it’s a Hyundai i30N, Ford Fiesta ST, Renault Megane RS or Honda Civic Type R, manually swapping gears in a light hatchback while the turbo sings the song of its people is a joy that not enough people experience.

Then there’s the bad boy on the block, the Toyota GR Yaris. All-wheel-drive (AWD), a 1.6-litre turbo and slick 6-speed manual ‘box – it seems an even better proposition than the other three front-wheel-drive hot hatches, although its price has risen to $59,990.

Not wanting to be left behind with the rise of the GR Yaris, Hyundai has launched the $53,990 i20N. Small, light, powerful, and manual. Strangely, even with Hyundai’s global successes in rallying including local hero Hayden Paddon, the i20N is only available as a front-wheel-drive. Sure, it’s $6K cheaper, but will buyers simply go straight to the AWD GR Yaris instead?

i20N interior

This may be one of those times when it’s a seat-of-the-pants decision; only time behind the wheel will decide. With that, Hyundai invited us to Hampton Downs racetrack to sample the i20N in its favourite environment, and as a bonus, we’d get time on the track behind the wheel of Hyundai’s other (front-wheel-drive) N cars, the i30N and Kona N.

Every owner of a new Hyundai N car is offered to spend a half-day at Hampton Downs racetrack, learning about their car’s abilities. This includes a slalom, an ABS test, and time on the track including a hot lap with Haddon Paydon. In the morning of the day DriveLife was at the track, a dozen owners would be there, with another dozen in the afternoon.

There were a lot of smells lingering; a 90% mix of rubber and brakes. But on view were absolute grins from around the first group of Hyundai N owners. For many of the ones I spoke to, it was their first time on a track and they were hooked. Many also mentioned the fast lap with Haddon was gold, and an opportunity they would never want to miss.

Hyundai N Track Day: Tech Talk

Chris Blair, General Manager of Hyundai New Zealand (HNZ), gave us a presentation on the history of the N brand. It dates back to 2013 when Hyundai Motorsport was established. Eventually, in 2017, the i30N was launched, with the New Zealand launch in 2018. 2019 saw the introduction of the i30N Fastback, closely followed by the i30N Automatic, and the global launch of the i20N in 2021.

The partnership between HNZ and Hayden Paddon started in 2014, and includes the launch in 2020 of the world’s first EV rally car, the Kona EV. 

Hayden Paddon also spoke at this event, saying that his team are developing some option kits for the N range, which will include items like upgraded air boxes, different brake pads, some other mechanical changes as well as cosmetic options. None of these will affect the warranty, he says. Watch this space. 

i20Ns lined up and ready to hit the track

2022 Hyundai N Track Day: i20N Details

As per our launch article, the car is fitted with an all-new 1.6-litre turbocharged N powertrain. ‘Flat Power’ tuning is applied to give the four-cylinder broad torque, with 275Nm produced from 1,750 to 4,500rpm, and 304Nm available on overboost.

Only on the i20N and new to N Performance is N Road Sense, a sign-reading function that can detect road signs indicating curves ahead and recommend the driver switch to N mode. This gives me memories of the Ford Fiesta ST, which prompts you every time you stop if you want to use launch control.

HNZ says the i20N is coined as a “corner rascal” with it being an everyday performance road car with race-track capability. The SmartStream 1.6L T-GDi engine is exclusive to the i20N, and gets it to 100km/h in 6.7 seconds and on to a top speed of 230km/h.

It has variable valve duration, can handle 350 bar of fuel pressure, and also has “Virtual Turbospeed Control” (VTC). The i20N is the first car to use this. It’s driven by software that takes all the data available to operate VTC. Key items monitoring air/fuel mixture, exhaust pressure and boost pressure, which is then analysed and predicts outcomes, so then precisely controls the turbo via the wastegate.

There’s also rev-matching, a mechanical Limited Slip Diff, a reinforced clutch for higher RPM, and launch control. The front discs are up 40mm from the standard i20N, to 320mm. Twelve points of the chassis have been reinforced to handle the extra power, there’s new steering geometry, retuned steering, and dedicated ESC logic with 3 stages: ESC On, Off, or Sport.

i20N

Along with N Grin mode (overboost), there are 5 drive modes; Normal, Eco, Sport, N, and Custom.

The interior has a 10.25” central screen with Performance Driving Data, including lap and acceleration timers. There’s also a track page, and while there are no New Zealand tracks available just yet, HNZ is working on updating the car to have the top 5 circuits in the country available.

At last, it was time to actually get onto the track and test out Hyundai’s latest N cars.

N cars everywhere!

2022 Hyundai N Track Day: Slalom

First up was the slalom, where we’d be using the Kona N (automatic) to get the best possible time through a set of cones starting on the front straight, and winding down to the first bend of the track. I hadn’t driven the Kona N for a while, but it still impresses with its acceleration and when you are outside watching the action, the awesome sounds that 2.0-litre turbo motor makes. Crackles and pops are the order of the day here, and we appreciate it.

Kona N lined up for the slalom, with Kiwi racing legend Ray Williams at the wheel

First run through and I’m taking it easy, checking the lines I need and getting a feel for the car. It may be an SUV but it can hustle, without as much body roll as I had expected. Mind you, all the cars today are running in Sport mode. The second time through it’s more accelerator off the line but keeping the lines clean. Third time through and it’s more of the same but more speed coupled with what you hope is more control. That control was rewarded with the third-best time of the day, with my time being one second slower than the fastest.

2022 Hyundai N Track Day: ABS Test

The next event was the ABS test, again in a Kona N automatic. Here, the driver was expected to go at full throttle towards a set of cones, brake as hard as possible, turn right and then turn left to go straight on, and stop.  My driving mentor for this event was well-known race driver, Ray Williams, who last helped me get around this track faster at the Audi Driving Experience. Ray would be there to give me advice, mainly (I hope) on how not to knock down any cones and embarrass myself. I think this was one the time I was happy the car was an automatic, so one less thing to think about.

Kona N cocks its wheel braking hard

It was full throttle out of the gate and straight to the cones, with Ray yelling “Go! Go! Go!” non-stop. Then when you think it’s too late and you’re going to crash, he’s yelling “Brake hard! Brake hard! Brake hard!” Still hard on the brakes, you drive around the cones avoiding that imaginary beam that’s fallen off the back of a truck. This demonstration absolutely shows both the braking performance of the Kona N, and the capability of ABS braking. I went through this same process with Ray 6 times, each time braking later and later, and only knocked over a cone twice, so my Man Card is still intact.

It’s such a great way not only to learn about emergency braking in a controlled environment but also to find out what ‘your’ car can do, when needed. Every driver should do this sort of training.

2022 Hyundai N Track Day: i20N On The Track

Next up was the bit I had been waiting for: getting the i20N onto the actual track. We’d be restricted to only 160km/h, but it would fast enough to get a feel for the car on Hampton Downs’ corners.

Heading out of the pits, the car sounds good and would embarrass a Honda Civic Type R for engine noise. The 6-speed manual ‘box is a fairly short throw, but a very positive gear change so there doesn’t seem to be any issues with hitting a false neutral or the wrong gear.

Kona N

On the track proper, the car is a whole heap of fun and brings instant memories of the GR Yaris; small, light, powerful. It fair launches itself at the corners, and cornering is almost neutral. Steering feedback is good too, as you can really feel what the front end is doing, especially when you hit a bump mid-corner.

It is hard to tell this is a front-wheel-drive car, and only hard acceleration out of a corner will see the front wheels scrabbling for grip. While I kept the Kona N lead car in view at all times, he did get away from me a few times, the extra power of the 2.0-litre turbo coming into play. Still, the little i20N outranks the Kona N for the fun factor. Is it better than the i30N? We’d know shortly, as after 3 laps we pulled into the pits and swapped into (automatic) i30Ns.

While accelerating to the first corner, the extra power of the i30N over the i20N was definitely there; it does punch towards that corner faster. But for me, the i20N has the handling advantage over the i30N. That lightweight and shorter body make a difference in the bends, as the i20N can really carve those corners up. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the i30N – it’s still a brilliant car, and can hold its head high at Hampton Downs as a hot hatch that walks the walk.

Next time out was back into the i20N, and it simply confirmed expectations; there’s not quite as much performance, but it’s more fun and satisfying to drive. There’s so much torque too, so for this racetrack, it was pretty much third gear all the way, with the occasional use of fourth. It’s a very smooth engine and doesn’t mind it at all if you wind it out to the 7,000rpm redline for every gear change. Fantastic little engine.

2022 Hyundai N Track Day: Hayden Paddon And His i20N

As part of the day, customers get to do a hot lap with the famed rally driver. Two of us jumped in passenger seats and headed out of the pits.

I think it was the first corner when it hit me; the brakes had failed. We’d passed the orange Brake Now cone, and were almost past the apex, and Hayden had yet to start braking. My life flashed before my eyes – and then he braked. “I always thought they put that marker way too early,” he said.

Around the corner we went, not on two wheels but extremely quickly. It was like this for corner after corner – incredibly late braking, then throw the i20N into the corner and muscle it through. It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t smooth but it was incredibly impressive. I still have bruises on my shoulders from being thrown around in the seat, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Again, this demonstration simply showed the forgiving nature of the i20N’s chassis; It took all he threw at it, and we never felt unsafe in the car.

With the day now over, we’ve locked in an i20N to test, and will do our normal full and comprehensive review.

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How on earth to start this? I've been car/bike/truck crazy since I was a teen. Like John, I had the obligatory Countach poster on the wall. I guess I'm more officially into classic and muscle cars than anything else - I currently have a '65 Sunbeam Tiger that left the factory the same day as I left the hospital as a newborn with my mother. How could I not buy that car? In 2016 my wife and I drove across the USA in a brand-new Dodge Challenger, and then shipped it home. You can read more on www.usa2nz.co.nz. We did this again in 2019 in a 1990 Chev Corvette - you can read about that trip on DriveLife. I'm also an Observer for the Institute of Advanced Motorists - trying to do my bit to make our roads safer.

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