Hot hatchbacks must be affordable, they should be practical, and they have to be fast and fun. For decades the best wicked-up three- and five-door models have blitzed these three criteria, and such dot-points become especially relevant here.
That is because, while several other hot hatches skew the above trio of wants and needs, the Hyundai i30 N and Volkswagen Golf GTI Original both have a starting price beginning with a ‘3’.
Other than the likes of a Suzuki Swift Sport or (forthcoming) Ford Fiesta ST from the light car class below, and excluding the very dated Subaru WRX and Ford Focus ST from this small car segment, there is now no practical way to go faster for less.
Ah, yes, practical way. The GTI Original is a three-door-only limited edition, while the N is five-door-only, but cabin space and comfort means more than just counting the sides that open and shut. And the former is usually pretty great with cabin quality.
The Volkswagen is also, once on-road costs are included, $5500 cheaper than its plucky new rival. The Hyundai responds with more power, switchable suspension, an active exhaust and front limited-slip differential (LSD) to cover costs. But hot hatch-ing is not always about taking a ‘more is more’ approach. This one will be close.
Hyundai i30 N
Price: $39,990 plus on-road costs, or $44,063 driveaway
Engine: 202kW/353Nm 2.0-litre turbo 4cyl | six-speed manual
Fuel use claimed: 8.0L/100km | tested: 10.5L/100km
Volkswagen Golf GTI Original
Price: $37,490 plus on-road costs, or $38,490 driveaway
Engine: 169kW/350Nm 2.0-litre turbo 4cyl | six-speed manual
Fuel use claimed: 6.7L/100km | tested: 9.5L/100km
More is more, or less is more? Both hot hatchbacks utilise a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine, driving the front wheels via a six-speed manual transmission.
The Golf GTI Original delivers 169kW of power, weighs 1304kg, claims 6.4-second 0-100km/h acceleration and in combined-cycle tests drinks 6.7 litres per 100 kilometres. The i30 N claims 202kW, 1429kg, a 6.2sec 0-100km/h and 8.0L/100km, while the torque figure between the two – 350Nm versus 353Nm – is near identical.
Kerb weight is important here as a great leveler of what a hot hatch engine can actually do, however, because the Hyundai makes a greater power-to-weight ratio (141kW versus 130kW) but a lower torque-to-weight ratio (247Nm plays 268Nm).
They could not be closer in terms of size and equipment, either, with both featuring cloth sports seats, remote central locking, power windows, cruise control, dual-zone climate control, 8.0-inch touchscreens with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone mirroring and reverse-view camera, rear parking sensors, automatic on/off headlights and autonomous emergency braking (AEB) – basically, the bare essentials today.
The Volkswagen then uniquely includes front parking sensors, rain-sensing wipers and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, though it swaps its rival’s 19-inch alloys for 18s, and lacks its satellite navigation, digital radio and active lane-keep assistance.
With soft-touch dashboard plastics, high-quality tartan cloth trim, a thin-rimmed leather-wrapped steering wheel and subtle white-on-red lighting, the GTI isn’t only the hot hatch cabin benchmark; but the Original could be the best Golf interior of all.
For anything under its sub-$38K asking price, the Volkswagen’s dashboard can seem plain, yet the likes of the $45K-plus Golf GTI Performance Edition 1 and Golf R can seem overdone. Just call the Golf GTI Original the Goldilocks version.
The sports seats are just as brilliant as every other GTI or R, served here for a discounted pricetag. Meanwhile the traditional speedometer and tachometer cluster looks classier than the Active Info Display used on higher-model grades; while some fawn over the digital dials, the screen resolution is low and ergonomics sub-par.
It’s a similar story for the 8.0-inch touchscreen flanked by rotary volume and track-change dials. While higher-model grades feature a 9.2in screen, it is flanked by touch-sensitive tabs positioned on the left side; perfect for left-hand drive markets but a real stretch for a driver positioned on the side of the vehicle Australia demands.
Original buyers might miss out on integrated nav or digital radio, but the centre monitor is so high-res and easy to use, plus the CarPlay alternative is easy peasy.
The Hyundai does, however, include such features on its similarly high-resolution and intuitive touchscreen. Before getting there, though, comes the door debate.
For just the driver, the wide front doors of the Golf mean that laptop bags and gym backpacks can slide easily into the rear floor. For passengers, entry and egress obviously isn’t as easy as in the i30 that has back doors. But once seated, the GTI includes the much nicer rear bench and backrest, with extra legroom and headroom, plus standard air vents lacking in the N – so this part really is a draw.
Don’t look to the identically capacious boots to separate this duo, either – the Czech Republic-built South Korean’s 381-litre luggage volume only just eclipses the German’s 380L, although the latter also uniquely includes a fold-down ski port.
It should be noted at this point, too, that the pictures show the i30 N with a luggage net as well as electrically adjustable front seats with part-leather/Alcantara trim that aren’t standard. Indeed, those features are bundled in with a $3000-optional Luxury Package fitted to our test car, and further includes keyless auto-entry, heated front seats, wireless phone charging, auto-dim rear-view mirror and rain-sensing wipers.
None of the above makes any difference to how the Hyundai feels up-front, though.
With brilliantly bolstered front seats, a stubby gearlever, brilliant steering wheel with cool paddles for Drive Mode functions, and a vertical-needle speedometer and tachometer featuring upshift ‘staging lights’, the N looks cool and feels purposeful.
What the i30 doesn’t possess is the perfect seating position of its rival – a driver sits higher, even on the lowest setting – and its intrinsic quality. The dashboard is made of a rubbery vinyl that hands the baton to hard, coarse plastic from the middle section down; while the doors are an unyielding all-grey affair without even cloth inserts.
Maybe this section won’t matter to those for whom the next part of this test counts the most, but either way the Golf GTI Original takes a comfortable first-round win.
ON THE ROAD
Two distinct philosophies are at play here.
Compared with the regular five-door Golf GTI, which continues on-sale priced from $41,490 (plus orc), this three-door Golf GTI Original swaps out three-mode adaptive suspension for fixed sports suspension. Along with a simple manual and modest – by today’s standards – 18-inch tyres, this is an ‘original recipe’ for creating a hot hatch: less weight, fewer features, a back-to-basics approach that should result in more fun.
Then there is the i30 N, which attempts to drag the racetrack-honed credibility of more expensive hot hatches such as the Ford Focus RS and Honda Civic Type-R – both of which cost $51K-plus – and serve them for at least $11,000 less. Note the sticky 19-inch tyres, the LSD, and three modes each for steering, electronic stability control (ESC On/ESC Sport/ESC Off), LSD, suspension and exhaust.
And, frankly, both vehicles do a sterling job of executing their disparate aims.
The Hyundai is faster in a straight line and the way the exhaust spits, pops and barks exceeds that of a Mercedes-AMG A45 for aural satisfaction. The 2.0-litre turbo itself is quite an industrial-sounding unit that lacks the zingy sweetness of the Volkswagen 2.0-litre turbo, though the light blue unit’s mini-WRC-car impression is giggle worthy.
While the Golf GTI’s two-tenths-slower 0-100km/h claim is barely felt on the road, however, conversely it feels more linear and less laggy in the lower half of the rev range. It also feels just as energetic towards 7000rpm compared with its rival, owing to a lighter kerb weight that extends to a fleet-footed feel on the road.
Despite only having one setting for its suspension, the Original rides far more smoothly than its foe while remaining impeccably controlled over even the worst road impacts. So good is this sports chassis that it pushes the five-door GTI’s three-mode adaptive dampers to a lower order, simply because it does everything near perfectly.
Along with a three-door body that is 25kg lighter than the five-door, while being structurally stronger, the fixed dampers even enhance the handling of this Mark 7.5 generation to make it – easily, emphatically – the most playful, most fun Golf of all.
The quick and responsive steering guides an only decently sharp and incisive front axle into tight corners, but the Original’s real secret recipe is the way it springboards its rear-end into action almost immediately. The term ‘back it in’ to a corner is usually applied to oversteer-obsessed rear-wheel drive sports cars, but the fact is this front-drive hatch becomes extremely keen to instantly pivot weight onto its sleek backside.
Teamed with the progressive release of grip from the superb Bridgestone Potenza RE050A tyres, and an immaculately tuned Sport ESC, and this Golf GTI can be an absolute riot and laugh-out-loud blast. Take it by the scruff of its neck – in this case the delightful manual shift – and throw it around, and it will reward by requiring very little steering movement through bends as the chassis shifts around its driver.
This behaviour also means that, on the road at least, the Original absolutely does not need an LSD. In fact, given that it also rides well, this chassis can only get a perfect dynamic score for this pricetag.
Yet despite all this high praise, there is also no comedown after swapping over to the i30 N. Quite simply, this is surely the best steering, Sport ESC and suspension tune ever delivered to customers in a South Korean-badged vehicle.
A chequered-flag-denoted N Mode places everything in maximum attack mode: Sport+ for engine, rev matching, LSD, exhaust, suspension, steering and ESC.
Thankfully, however, there is an N Custom that allows you to mix-and-match those.
Okay, Sport+ for engine, LSD, ESC and exhaust is perfect; but Sport is best for suspension and Normal for steering. Go into Sport+ for the latter and the chassis doesn’t turn unbearable, but it is also very hard, while the steering becomes gluggy.
Either way this Hyundai delivers terrifically consistent, feelsome and quick steering, with suspension that feels like it keeps weight evenly distributed front to rear.
The N never feels light on its feet and it can feel very buttoned down up until the Pirelli P Zero tyres start to be really pressed. When that occurs they give up grip in a sharper, less progressive fashion than in the Golf – in the first instance they hang on hard at the front end to the point of understeer, then the rear pivot point can be terse.
It should be noted that the i30 can be thrown through a set of corners at a faster pace than the Golf, and its prize fighter-agility and control does indeed enter the realms of harder, racetrack-focused rivals.
But heavier, harder, grippier, louder isn’t always what a hot hatch is about, and the GTI Original on the road can ultimately be more playful, fun and communicative. Conversely, only the i30 N will have you covered for racetrack usage over its (two-calendars-longer) five-year/unlimited kilometre warranty, and that really says it all.
But the South Korean-badged contender also requires annual or 10,000km servicing intervals totalling between $1595 over five years or 50,000km, and $2650 should 70,000km come up first.
The German needs annual or 15,000km check-ups, totalling $2581 over five years or 75,000km – so, in short, if you don’t cover many kays the former is cheaper, but if you do the latter is more affordable. Another dead-heat, it seems.
Had we tested a five-door Golf GTI at $41,490 (plus orc) the i30 N could have topped this test. But at $38,490 driveaway until October, in addition to sweeter suspension than its sibling, the Original is both better value and more fun than any other Golf.
With a beautifully finished cabin, terrific sports buckets, superb rear accommodation (which makes up for the lack of back doors), a delightful engine and transmission, smooth ride quality and brilliant dynamics, it’s tough to expect more for the price.
This is called a road test for a reason, but if racetrack-hunting is on the agenda then the Hyundai offers such a compelling proposition. It’s a big-name hunter, alright, but perhaps not of this GTI Original. On the road the i30 N feels more aggressive, angrier, sharper and harder; yet it also feels cheaper, heavier, noisier and bumpier.
But while the Volkswagen comes closest to nailing that three-tier criteria – because it is the most affordable, practical, fleet-footed fun for the road – it also isn’t long for this world. Within four months a facelifted DSG- and five-door-only Golf GTI range will lob complete with a higher 180kW … and an i30 N-matching LSD included.
Did someone say, rematch?
Volkswagen Golf GTI Original – 5.0 stars
Hyundai i30 N – 4.5 stars
- Interested in buying Hyundai i30? Visit our Hyundai showroom for more information.
- Interested in buying Volkswagen Golf? Visit our Volkswagen Golf showroom for more information.