I WAS driving along in a dreary, ugly and unnecessary Mini Countryman the other day when an important message flashed up on the dashboard. And, after I’d ferreted about in my pockets to find my spectacles so I could read what it said, I was a bit alarmed.
I don’t recall the exact wording but, in essence, it said there was a fault with the steering system and that as a result, I should drive “moderately”.
I wonder what that means. Because Lewis Hamilton’s idea of “moderately” is rather different from James May’s. And anyway, if there’s a fault with the steering, surely it’d be better to say: “Stop immediately and flee.”
Losing your ability to steer is worse than losing your ability to stop. I know this because I once drove a brake-free lorry across Burma and I just about managed. But when the steering locked while I was in a Renault A610, I crashed almost immediately.
The problem is, of course, that to save the polar bear, the Mini Countryman has electric power steering. And when something is electrical, you can be certain that one day it will break and you’ll have to turn it off then on again to mend it. That’s not so bad when it’s a wi-fi router but the steering on a car? When you’re driving? Hmmm.
Charles Babbage, the father of the computer, talked once about the unerring certainty of machinery. But we don’t use machinery any more because we’ve got it into our heads that circuit boards and ones and noughts can do the job better.
They can’t. A point proved by the Countryman, and by a feature you’ll see in the current series of The Grand Tour. We took some fun-sized SUVs to Canada, where they failed to do anything very well. And when we asked them to do some actual four-wheel-drive work, they responded by not working at all. The electronics simply couldn’t cope.
And that brings me on to the subject of this morning’s missive, the Hyundai i30 N, which has two speedometers. I don’t know why. One is analogue and one is digital. And at no time could they agree on how fast I was going. There was always a 3mph difference. And if they’d both been connected to the wheels with an actual cable, rather than some nerd’s wet dream, this wouldn’t have happened.
There was another issue I had with this new hot hatch. Its name: i30 N. There are certain letters that work well on the boot lid of a car. G, T, V, R, I and S are fine; B, D, U, J and L are not. But the worst letter of them all is N. I know Hyundai will say it used an N because the car was developed at the Nürburgring but we don’t need reminding. We can tell.
Hyundai — which has never made a hot hatchback before — has bought a book called How to Copy a Golf GTI and stuck rigidly to the recipe. It’s taken its ordinary five-door hatchback — the sort of car that’s bought by people who wear hats — lowered it, given it a 2-litre turbocharged engine and added some red styling details and hey presto. One hot hatch . . . that no one wants because they’d rather have a VW Golf, thanks very much, or a Renault, or a Ford.
“Reasons why you would not consider the N? First, you’d have to tell people that you’d bought a Hyundai, which, despite its successes in rallying, is a bit like saying your bladder has broken”
There’s more, I’m afraid, because instead of going to suppliers that know what they’re doing, Hyundai has got everything it needs to make this car — brakes, suspension and so on — from Korean firms no one has heard of. And that’s like having a Korean shotgun or a Korean watch.
The only way you’d be tempted is by a very low price. And on the face of it, you don’t even get that. However, if you look carefully, you will notice it includes all sorts of things that are options with a Golf GTI. Furthermore, this car was developed, in 15 months incidentally, by one of the men responsible for all BMW’s M models in recent years. He’s a man who knows what he’s doing and that shows because this car, despite its on-paper problems and an inability to work out how fast it’s going, is utterly delightful.
On an ordinary day, on an ordinary road, it’s beautifully understated. It’s quiet and comfortable and there are many toys to keep you amused. My favourite was the button that makes the exhaust go all noisy. Because then you do get people looking. And what they’re thinking is: “Why is that hat transportation device making such a rumbly sound? And why is it barking every time it’s asked to change gear?”
It’s like looking at a Secret Service agent. He’s wearing a nice suit and has a neat haircut and he could be a Wall Street functionary. Except, if you look, you can see the earpiece and if you listen hard, you can hear his controller talking about shooty stuff.
The Hyundai is very good at shooty stuff. It’s provided with an electronic system — which will break, obviously — that allows you to choose from a whopping 1,944 setups. There’s Sport and Sport+ and all sorts of individual custom programs that allow the driver to tailor each aspect to his or her personal preference, and it doesn’t matter what you do, this is a car that just works.
Maybe, if I were to pick nits, I’d argue that a hot Renault is a bit more feelsome and that a Golf GTI with a front diff is a bit more sticky in an uphill, tight, first-gear bend but as an overall package, the i30 N is a sweetheart. Even in Nutter Bastard mode, it’s not even remotely bumpy or unpleasant.
I especially like the rev match function. It was first seen on the Nissan 370Z and I’ve always wondered why more car makers haven’t copied the idea because what it does, as you change down, is rev the engine so the gearchange is smooth. It’s double declutching for you. And it’s doing this mechanically, so it’ll still be working long after the Apple CarPlay and sat nav system have gone haywire.
Some say the bite on the clutch pedal is too high and that they wouldn’t buy this car because they kept stalling it. But that can be adjusted in about five seconds. Because it too is mechanical. And then it would be fine.
As I see it, there are only a couple of reasons why you would not consider the N if you wanted a five-door, family hatchback with a folding rear seat at the back and plenty of ponies at the front. First, you’d have to tell people that you’d bought a Hyundai, which, despite its successes in rallying, is a bit like saying your bladder has broken.
And then there’s the problem of Kim Jong-un, whose wobbly rockets may well affect your warranty one day. If you think all is well on that front, because Donald Trump would be on hand with a calm, measured response, then the i30 N makes a deal of sense. It’s come out of nowhere, this car, and is immediately a force to be reckoned with.
Head to head: Hyundai i30 N vs VW Golf GTI
|Hyundai i30 N Performance||VW Golf GTI Performance 5dr|
|Boot space (seats up)||381 litres||380 litres|
Write to us at , or Driving, The Sunday Times, , London .