Quick note before I jump into the review: I’m a 14 year old with a passion for cars.

At a media event at the 1975 Frankfurt motor show, Volkswagen revealed the first generation Golf GTI. With 110 horsepower (80kW) and a low kerb weight of 810kg, the little GTI was VW’s most powerful car at the time and could fly to 60mph (97km/h) in just nine seconds.

Since its release, the Golf GTI has always set the segment benchmark. Sure, modern hyper hatches like the Mercedes-AMG A 45 and Audi RS 3 are more powerful, and front-drive beasts like the Honda Civic Type R and Renault Megane RS are faster around a circuit, but nothing drives and handles with the same poise and refinement as a GTI.

Now there’s a new contender on the scene – the all new Hyundai i30 N. It’s the company’s first performance car, and claims to be better than the GTI. It has been tuned by Albert Biermann – the 61-year-old who left his role as the chief engineer of BMW M to spearhead Hyundai’s new performance division, dubbed ’N’. The i30 N may be Biermann’s first front-wheel-drive car and first ever N model, but it isn’t like most first attempts – it’s a cracking drive. More on that later.

First, let’s cover the looks. Journos and customers often call the regular i30 models bland and boring, so you’d be forgiven for thinking the N will be the same – not at all. The front gets a new and more aggressive bumper, complemented by a black ‘cascading’ grille with a little N badge, horizontal DRLs and a sporty black splitter with a red accent stripe. From the side, it looks fairly similar to a normal SR – however, you’ll note a black skirt, blacked-out window trim and a winglet on the rear fender to redirect airflow. That’s in addition to a new wheel and tyre package – the i30 N runs on a set of 19-inch alloy wheels wrapped in custom made 235mm-wide Pirelli P Zero HN tyres. At the back the whole lower section has been redesigned, with a red accented diffuser, additional (fake) vents, two silver exhaust pipes and, as per hot hatch tradition, a large black roof spoiler with a built-in brake light.

On to the driving experience. I only got to spend a couple of days with the i30 N, so all of my driving impressions are strictly what I’ve experienced from the passenger seat.

Under the bonnet of the Hyundai i30 N is a 2.0-litre, turbocharged 4-cylinder petrol engine drives the front wheels through a 6-speed manual transmission. That 4-pot pumps out 202kW of power and 353Nm of torque – that figure rises to 378Nm during short 18-second periods of overboost. Other performance features include an electronic limited slip differential, active exhaust, adaptive suspension and a nifty rev-matching feature that blips the throttle on downshifts that makes you feel like a hero.

Albert Biermann, at the car’s launch, claimed its performance credentials were measured “in BPM, heart beats per minute instead of only RPM.” That’s the first thing you notice upon driving the i30 N – it’s fun. Sure the manual means it won’t be great for city traffic, but if you enjoy attacking twisty back roads and your local racetrack (which, by the way, is fully warranted by Hyundai) it’ll be a load of fun.

Oh, and did I mention the sound? Stick the i30 N into N mode, lift off the throttle and it will just pop and bang till the end of time. It’s hard to explain it properly unless you hear one – so take a listen of the sound clip at the bottom of the review. It brings out your inner child like no other car can, and it just doesn’t get old. Does the i30 N have one of the best soundtracks of any car on sale? I reckon so.

Speaking of drive modes, the i30 N has five of them – Eco, Normal, Sport, N and Custom. The first three work as you’d expect – Eco makes the car as frugal as possible to hit its 8.0L/100km economy claim, Normal is just… normal and Sport sharpens up all areas of the car for a sportier drive. Click the chequered flag on the steering wheel and you’ll get N, the car’s fastest mode mainly designed for corner carving and track work that puts every component in its most hardcore setting. The final mode is Custom, which allows you to choose from one of 1944 combinations of engine response, rev-matching, E-LSD settings, exhaust note, suspension, steering and stability control. My ideal setting would have everything in its sportiest setting except ESC and suspension because, you know, I like my spine in one piece.

Let’s move inside. The i30 N’s interior is very similar to that of regular i30 models – the overall cabin is the same. That really isn’t a bad thing, as its interior is commonly reported to be one of the better ones in the non-premium, small car class. Despite the fair amount of hard plastics, it has premium, soft touch materials where it counts.

There are a few key differences and sporty additions that are exclusive to the i30 N that differentiate it from its standard siblings: an N-branded steering wheel with two massive light blue buttons (one for Eco, Normal and Sport modes, the other for N and Custom modes), blue-accented instrument dials, racecar-style shift lights that tell you when to change gear and a unique spherical shift ball. This particular car had the $3000 Luxury Pack that adds suede and leather sports seats, in addition to push button start, wireless phone charging and more (more on pricing and equipment soon).

Like other i30 variants the N gets Hyundai’s superb 8.0-inch infotainment system that features Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and satellite navigation. Although its integration on the dashboard may not be to everyone’s taste, the system is easy to use and doesn’t need you to spend a Sunday afternoon reading the owner’s manual to become an expert. It also gets a model-specific ’N mode’ app, that contains a lap timer, g-force meter and power, torque and boost gauges – it also serves as the place to tune the ‘Custom’ drive mode.

In addition to these features the i30 N has automatic LED headlights, LED taillights, a reversing camera, dual zone climate control, tyre pressure monitoring and Hyundai’s SmartSense safety suite with autonomous emergency braking with forward collision warning, driver attention alert, and lane-keep assist.

Price? The base 5-door Golf GTI retails for $41,490 plus on-road costs, but it has less power (169kW), less torque (350Nm), doesn’t have an LSD or an active exhaust and misses out on lane keep assist. You’d probably expect the base N to cost upwards of $43,000, but no.

$39,990.

How Hyundai was able to price it so competitively is astounding. The value proposition is incredible – you can park a 202kW manual hot hatch that pops and bangs in your driveway for less than 40 grand. Do note that this car’s Luxury Pack bumps that up to $42,990, and quite frankly I believe it’s necessary for a car like this.

Before I wrap up this review, I’d just like to touch on a few more things. First, ride quality – it’s not bad for what the N is, but it’s not S-Class levels of comfort. Also, boot space is decent for its class, however there’s a thick black brace that spans across the width of the car that will likely limit its practicality if you plan on carrying long items.

In summary, the Hyundai i30 N is a brilliant hot hatchback. It’s quick, handles well, looks sporty, is packed with equipment and allows the driver to tune it how they want, all for an unbelievably low starting price.

So, does the fast Hyundai live up to its claim? Is it really better than the king of hot hatches, the Volkswagen Golf GTI? You bet it is.

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