Hyundai and Kia take the fight to the Germans
The Hyundai i30 ‘N’
It’s a fairly alien concept, putting fingers to keyboard for evo magazine to write about a car that wears a humble Hyundai badge. It hasn’t happened too many times in the past, after all.
Then again, as we discovered when we had an exclusive drive of a development prototype a few months ago, the i30 N ain’t no ordinary Hyundai. Conceived by the company’s new N division, which is itself led by one Albert Biermann, who masterminded most of BMW’s best M-cars for 20 years until Hyundai poached him in 2014, the i30 N is without doubt one of the more intriguing high-performance hatchbacks of the moment. But even so, and despite the undeniable credibility of its chief engineer and Hyundai’s very obvious desire to persuade us all that it really has crafted a proper drivers’ car out of the i30, you do wonder… You can’t help but wonder.
I mean, how on Earth can Hyundai be expected to produce a car that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the genuine hot hatch greats – the Honda Civic Type Rs and the Golf GTI Clubsports of this world – having had precisely zero experience at building such cars in the past? Also, even MrBiermann himself admits to not knowing a great deal about front-wheel-drive cars before making his move to Hyundai. So once again you can’t help but harbour a nagging doubt or two about the true life potential of the i30 N.
“It’s one of the most exciting, well sorted, well executed hot hatchbacks money can buy”
All it takes, though, is one good drive across one great road in the i30 N to banish such doubts, and for the scepticism to be replaced by a mixture of mild disbelief, major respect and, most of all, a refreshing wave of pure pleasure about what Hyundai has created. Which is to say, a thumpingly good hot hatchback; one that can absolutely stand comparison with the best.Which is little short of extraordinary if you stop and think about it, but also perhaps a touch ominous for the European manufacturers in terms of what else the Koreans will come up with over the coming decades.
On paper the i30 N is not a rule-breaker in any specific area. Instead it nudges towards the top of its sector right the way across the board. In Performance Package trim its 2-litre turbo engine produces 271bhp and 353Nm of torque, with 378Nm available on overboost for 18 seconds. (There’s also a non-PP version that offers 24bhp less but the same torque.) As such it can hit 100kmph in 6.1sec and has a top speed of 250kmph, all decent enough stats but nothing outrageous compared with the likes of the latest Type R.
But in a way that’s what Biermann and his team wanted. His theory was that by being good or very good in everything it does, rather than mind-bending in only a few areas, the car would, and will, appeal to more people, more of the time. Especially so given that it will have an asking price of less than `25 lakh (price in UK, excluding Indian taxes and duties), which undercuts most of its potential rivals and which includes not just the sink but the rest of the kitchen as well when it comes to spec: satnav, cruise control, a decent stereo – you name it, the i30 N has it. As standard.
Having said that, it is no shrinking violet, not on paper and certainly not to drive, even if it is fractionally disappointing on the eye, in as much as I personally wish it looked, well, a bit more aggressive from some angles, especially around the nose. Maybe with some mildly blistered wheelarches to persuade the naysayers that it truly is the real deal, because, to drive, it truly is the real deal, and then some.
There are several reasons why. One, it has a proper electronically controlled limited-slip differential that works out all sorts of clever things to keep the front tyres keyed into the road at all times. Two, its chassis has been endlessly developed by Biermann and his team to deliver maximum precision in its most hardcore settings – which you’d expect given his background – but also a surprising range of comfort and refinement when you dial it all back down. Three, it rides on a set of Pirelli P Zero tyres that are bespoke to this car, and as you know, this always makes a big difference to the end result, even if it is an expensive route to take for the manufacturer. (The i30 N isn’t quite a money-no-object car for Hyundai, but it hasn’t exactly been constrained by budgetary concerns either.) Four, it sounds the absolute nuts if you press the N button on the steering wheel, give it full beans in third gear and then back away from the throttle momentarily.
Oh yes, and it also goes rather well in a straight line, too, and features a six-speed manual gearbox with an auto-blipping function on downshifts that is mostly delightful to use, even if the third-to-second shift on our test car has a tendency to baulk from time to time, especially under load from high revs when turning into left-hand corners.
What really marks the i30 N out as something a little bit special, though, is its chassis. The way it slices so cleanly into corners and then just sticks, without there being any kind of overreaction from the tail. I hate the term ‘all of a piece’, but if ever it could be applied to the way a hot hatch goes down a road, this is it.
The ‘N’ Power
In N mode, which stiffens up the dampers to the max and alters the exhaust noise, the ESP map, the throttle map and even the e-diff map, the i30 N is so composed yet also so sharp, it is capable of taking just about any road you’d care to throw at it to pieces. Genuinely, it is that well sorted, that crisp and clear and precise in its responses, and in pretty much everything it does.
Especially the way it steers and slows down for corners, and then just sits so sweetly in them for a second or so before taking full power once again at the exit. I also like the fact that you need to learn how to get the best out of the e-diff in order to get the best out of the car itself. And to do that it’s all about having the confidence to get on the throttle as early as possible in a corner – because when you do the diff really comes to life and, so long as you haven’t got your entry speed cataclysmically wrong, the front tyres bite and your exit speeds become increasingly ridiculous.
In a way the engine plays second fiddle to the chassis, but it’s still an essential ingredient to the cocktail. In short it does the job, and does it pretty well, without ever making the hairs on your neck head north. There’s very little lag, the throttle response is strong and clean, and it delivers enough performance to enable the star of the show – the chassis – to sing. And if it had more boost in order to give it, say, 320bhp rather than 271, then it would be even better still. But maybe that’s another state of engine tune, for another car, for another day… In the present, the i30 N as it stands is a thoroughly convincing – no – stunning first effort from the N division.
Inside, you get all the usual stuff you’d expect from a Hyundai – high-quality switchgear and controls, lots of room front, rear and in the boot, plus that great level of spec – and in this case you also get a good pair of electric sports seats and all sorts of buttons and modes to play with as well. In total there are five different drive modes to choose from: Eco, Normal, Sport, N and N Custom, that last one allowing you to tailor the car’s individual components to your own personal desires.
And so when you’ve had enough of all the exhaust pops and bangs (which are entirely natural, says Hyundai, not at all computer generated) and the idea of wringing the car’s neck in N mode has begun to lose its appeal momentarily, you really can dial it back to Normal and the whole thing settles right down. The dampers still deliver quite a taut level of ride control, but no longer do your fillings feel vulnerable, while the exhaust system climbs back into its box and goes to sleep for a while.
It won’t be long before you press the magic button again, though, because when you do, you unlock one of the most exciting, well sorted, well executed hot hatchbacks money can buy.
Precisely how good it is we’ll find out when we put it through a more thorough test against its rivals in a future issue. But for now, be in no doubt: at 25.59 lakh (price in UK, excluding Indian taxes and duties) the i30 N is an absolute steal. So you can forget all about it being just a humble Hyundai, because in reality it is anything but.
Bonkers sports saloon – KIA Stinger GT-S
Cast your eye over Kia’s current model line-up and you’ll find a raft of ‘me too’ crossovers and cost-conscious small cars that are only really notable for their long warranties – along with driving dynamics that would give Nytol a run for its money as a cure for insomnia. Yet look a little closer and there are clues that Kia’s focus could be changing – and changing in a way that gets the likes of you and me sitting up and taking notice.
First there was the surprisingly accomplished Kia Proceed GT warm hatch; then the company delivered its most serious statement of intent by poaching BMW M division’s Albert Biermann. That was two years ago now, and since then the German has been working his magic behind the scenes in an effort to give Kia’s products a more dynamic edge. Sister firm Hyundai was the first to benefit from his endeavours with the very recent launch of its startlingly good i30 N hot hatch, but now it’s Kia’s turn with its first sports saloon: the Stinger GT-S.
While Herr Biermann might have felt a little out of his comfort zone developing the front-drive Hyundai, he should’ve been right at home when getting to grips with the Stinger, as just like those M-cars he used to work on it has a big engine at the front driving the rear wheels.
There’s no doubting Kia’s ambition with the Stinger, which in terms of specification and intent is aimed squarely at some fairly tasty machinery, including the Mercedes-AMG C43, Audi S5 Sportback and BMW 440i Gran Coupe. There will also be milder diesel and petrol versions when the car goes on sale later this year, but it’s this flagship GT-S that’s of most interest to us. Unlike most markets, the UK is the only country that gets this model in rear-wheel-drive guise only – elsewhere the GT-S is four-wheel drive. It’s a decision that seems to send a clear signal that this is a car to be taken seriously, even if Kia’s bosses then muddle the message by stressing that the Stinger is really an effortless grand tourer that’s capable of some occasional driving fun, rather than an out-and-out sports saloon.
“Peak torque is 510Nm which is delivered in a flat line from an idle-like 1300rpm all the way to 4500rpm”
Nonetheless, it’s certainly got what it takes on paper to make you think Kia’s targets aren’t too fanciful. For instance, nestling under the Stinger’s vented bonnet is the ‘Lambda II’ 3.3-litre V6 that can trace its roots back to the Hyundai Genesis executive saloon. The addition of a pair of turbochargers boosts power to 365bhp, while peak torque is 510Nm, which is delivered in a flat line from an idle-like 1300rpm all the way to 4500rpm.
Other high-performance hardware includes a locking rear differential, adaptive dampers and a Brembo braking system that packs four-piston calipers and 350mm front discs, though an eight-speed automatic gearbox is the only transmission option.
So, what’s it like? Well, given the materials and the personnel involved, you’ll not be completely surprised to learn that it’s a very good first effort. For a start, it’s properly quick: despite tipping the scales at a hefty 1780kg, the Stinger launches from 0 to 100kmph in just 4.9 seconds. Yet it’s the car’s thumping mid-range pace that leaves the biggest impression. With maximum twist on tap from such low revs, there’s virtually no turbo lag, the Stinger simply surging forward like it’s been, erm, stung. It has that relentless, deep-chested urge normally associated with big-capacity muscle-cars.
Of course you can rev the engine out to its 6500rpm red line, but there’s really no point, because not only does the Kia feel so effortlessly fast in the mid-range, but the V6’s note is rather charmless when extended. There’s a sound synthesiser that adds a more gravelly tone when you select Sport (there are also Eco, Smart, Comfort and Sport+ modes), but the sound it delivers is unpleasantly artificial. Best to simply enjoy the low-down thrust and general refinement to make quieter but equally swift progress.
The eight-speed automatic is also a little uneven in its qualities. Left to its own devices, the transmission slurs its shifts with the sort of near-imperceptible smoothness you’d expect from a car emblazoned with GT badges, while twisting the centre console-mounted driver-mode rotary controller to Sport serves up snappier shifts and a sharper response to the throttle. For ultimate control, the wheel-mounted paddles are the best bet, apart from the fact that there’s no option to lock the gearbox in the manual setting – leave the shifters alone for five seconds and the transmission reverts to automatic. It’s a frustrating trait for a car aimed at enthusiastic drivers, but one that might make sense if you were developing an easier-going GT car.
Leave the systems in Smart or Comfort mode and it’s clear the engineers have got the grand tourer thing nailed. What strikes you first is the ride, which is supple and well- damped, taking everything from big bumps to potholes in its stride. There’s an underlying firmness around town, but it never becomes uncomfortable and the excellent dampers manage to round off even the sharpest surface imperfections. The car is quiet, too, with both wind- and road-noise well suppressed, even when cruising at high speeds.
Yet there are clues that the Stinger has a more dynamic alter ego lurking beneath the surface. For starters, the driving position is set surprisingly low, while the major controls have a reassuring meatiness to their weight and response. The Brembo brakes deserve special mention, for they deliver both confidence-inspiring stopping power and a beautifully progressive pedal action.
Flick the car into Sport and you can feel the extra firmness in the dampers and that more eager response to the throttle. The steering is reasonably quick and the front end responds crisply, with the combination of torque-vectoring and grippy Continental rubber helping the Stinger stay locked on to your chosen line. There’s good traction, too, in the dry at least, and despite the Kia’s large external dimensions and portly kerb weight it feels remarkably light on its feet through a series of corners.
Perhaps more surprising is just how throttle-adjustable and playful the Stinger can be. Relax the traction control’s grip on the rear wheels and you can use all that torque and the limited-slip differential to trim your line. Apply more throttle and you’ll have well-telegraphed oversteer on command – at this point you really have to pinch yourself that you’re driving a Kia that’s more willing to play the hooligan than any BMW this side of an M3.
That said, it’s not without its quirks. With so much mass to manage, the suspension struggles to contain body roll, even with the dampers in their stiffest setting. Weight also plays its part in the Kia’s on-limit handling, where it can get a little ragged – carry too much speed into a corner and the front end pushes wide sooner than in an Audi S5, while body movements aren’t as well-checked as you’d like over mid-corner crests or big compressions. The steering would also benefit from additional work – the electrically assisted set-up is fast enough, with decent weighting, but there’s little feel.
The surprisingly capable driving experience is matched by the car’s looks and finish. We’ll leave it to you to decide whether the exterior’s mish-mash of Audi A7, Maserati 3200 GT and Kia Optima is a successful one, but there’s no denying it attracts attention. It’s a similar story inside, where in this case the bold ambition is slightly undone by materials that aren’t up to the same standard as you’ll find in the German competition – the leather-look key-fob with its moulded plastic stitching is a case in point. Still, it’s roomy and ridiculously well equipped, with a standard features list that would have BMW owners weeping into their optional extras brochure.
“It has that relentless, deep-chested urge normally associated with big-capacity muscle-cars”
And that brings us to the price. The all-singing and all-dancing GT-S tested here is 37.09 lakh, which is a fairly hefty chunk of cash to drop on a large five-door hatchback with a Kia badge, even one that undercuts the usual German suspects by between 4 lakh and 8 lakh. In fairness, the Kia won’t worry these models in the sales charts (the aim is to shift just 1800 Stingers a year in the UK), but that’s not what this car is about: it’s a shop window for the brand; one that will set the tone for Kia’s more mainstream machines. The Stinger GT‑S is not perfect yet – there are still some foibles to be ironed out – but as a first attempt at a proper, grown-up drivers’ car it’s a remarkably impressive achievement. that’s not what this car is about: it’s a shop window for the brand; one that will set the tone for Kia’s more mainstream machines. The Stinger GT‑S is not perfect yet – there are still some foibles to be ironed out – but as a first attempt at a proper, grown-up drivers’ car it’s a remarkably impressive achievement.