One new hot hatch was not enough for Hyundai - it has decided to give its ground-breaking i30 N an extra-sharp suit in the shape of the more rakish Fastback body, while giving the suspension and steering a small tweak for good measure. We've had an early drive in an engineering prototype.
In the metal
We can't give you a proper idea of what the i30 Fastback N looks like in the flesh, so to speak, until we see it revealed in full at the Paris Motor Show in October. What we have seen so far has been covered in the usual dazzle-style camouflage that car makers always use to cover their precious prototypes, trying to preserve at least a little surprise for the motor show stand.
Even so, the i30 Fastback N looks good. The overall shape is basically that of the (rather handsome) standard model, but with the addition of a rear spoiler. Thankfully, Hyundai has resisted the temptation to stick a big rear wing on a pair of struts, so the kick-up at the back is a natural extension of the hatch, and looks all the better for it.
Inside, the i30 Fastback N test car's cabin was covered in sheets of heavy black fabric, and dotted with the usual make-do-and-mend plastics of any engineering prototype. It's there to do a job, not to look good. That said, there seemed to be no difference between this and the cabin of a regular five-door i30 N hatch, so it will most likely have the same mixture of simple layout and plastics. The same terrific sports seats too - just the right balance of squeeze and squash, even for those of us still carrying a little holiday weight (does it really matter which holiday?).
You would assume that Hyundai, having already scored quite the critical and commercial success with the i30 N five-door hatch, would have just bunged the same engine, sharp-shifting six-speed gearbox and tuned suspension into the Fastback bodyshell, and knocked off early. Not so.
Sven Risch, one of the senior engineers who's working on the i30 Fastback N, and who's responsible for such things as the traction control and electronic stability systems, accompanied us on our test drive, and told us that: "We don't just want to do a good job and then move straight onto the next thing. We wanted to use the opportunity of working on the Fastback to incorporate some changes, some additions, which will filter through to the 2019 model year hatchback i30 N as well."
The major changes have been made at the front of the car (although 'major' is probably stretching it a bit...), where Hyundai has responded to criticisms that the i30 N five-door was understeering a bit too much on the limit of grip. The solution? Make it softer, by reducing the spring rates a little, and backing off on the anti-roll bar stiffness. That softness makes for better front-end grip, which also means that the electronically controlled differential can be set to both be more aggressive and to make better use of the available grip. The same goes for the stability control, which can be set to intervene with a slightly softer touch when you do manage to exceed the car's reserves of traction. It does, of course, mean that the i30 N now leans at the front a touch more, but Hyundai has worked on the front suspension struts to try and combat this. The suspension has also been altered, just a touch, to allow for the Fastback's fractionally lower weight, and the different way that weight is distributed.
The result? It feels very much the same as the regular five-door i30 N hatchback, but that is in no way a criticism. Bearing in mind that our driving impressions were limited to a few brief minutes, on the Millbrook Proving Ground's Alpine handling track in the UK, and biblical amounts of rain were falling from the sky, but the i30 Fastback N feels every bit as biddable, adjustable and fun as its hatchback brother.
Certainly, the changes made seem to liberate a touch more grip at the front (and a softer front end is definitely welcome in soaking wet conditions such as these). The i30 N feels instantly confidence-inspiring and friendly, in spite of the 275hp that it's putting through the front wheels. The gearshift felt a touch baggy on our well-used prototype, but it feels much more positive in the production hatchback, so we'll give it the benefit of the doubt for now.
The steering, although good, is perhaps not yet great. Put the i30 Fastback N into 'N' mode (using the gorgeous blue aluminium switches attached to the steering wheel) and the steering is actually a little bit too heavily-weighted for our tastes. There's no benefit in outright feel and feedback, so you're better off using the Custom mode, allowing you to have the engine in its maximum-attack mode (in which it will send a happy cacophony of bangs and pops down the exhaust when you lift off the throttle), but keep the steering a little lighter, and keep the suspension dampers in their softest, and most pliant mode.
Do that and the i30 Fastback N is quite the car. It turns in beautifully, seems to find plenty of grip and traction even in appalling conditions and is agile and adjustable right up to the limit of grip, when a little bit of safe, stabilising understeer does indeed set in. Its ride is still a little too stiff, overall, and its steering a touch too numb to put it ahead of the mighty Volkswagen Golf GTI, but it's snapping right at the Golf's heels. And, in fairness, the Golf doesn't look this good...
What you get for your money
We don't have Irish pricing yet, but the omens are good. Hyundai Ireland generally asks for around €1,000 more for an i30 Fastback compared to the regular hatchback model, which would give the i30 Fastback N a base price of around €41,000. That puts it head on with the VW Golf GTI, but with more power as standard, and better standard equipment too. Hyundai doesn't yet offer a dual-clutch automatic option, to rival the VW DSG system, but there's compensation in the five-year standard warranty.
Hyundai doesn't strictly need to make the i30 Fastback N, but we're kinda glad it does. If its under-the-disguise looks translate through to production, then it's going to be amongst the most handsome of hot hatches, and it's seriously capable and confident, even in the worst weather conditions we could find. Are the steering and chassis balance a little less sweet than those of some rival products? Yes, but 'little' is the operative word. By any standard, this is a seriously engaging, enjoyable, effervescent fast hatch and we can't wait to try the finished product.