Hyundai – Brave ‘N’ World

M has been around for more than 40 years. It’s time to move on to the next letter. Say hello to N.

The day was December 22, 2014. Every automotive site was talking about it: Albert Biermann, Vice-President of Engineering at BMW’s M division was leaving for Hyundai. Not Ferrari, Porsche, Mercedes or even a mainstream brand with proven sporting credentials, like Ford or Renault.

Nope, after more than three decades at BMW, where he held what is arguably one of the best jobs in the industry, planning and executing M models, Biermann was going to South Korea where, let’s face it, a true sports car had never been produced.

I was pretty shocked, I have to say. I had met Biermann before, at the launch of the latest M3/M4 models and he seemed genuinely passionate about his work and about the cars. He also felt like a BMW man until the day he would retire. Well, I guess not.

Since he left and joined the Hyundai Group (which, in case you forgot, means Hyundai and sister brand Kia), a little more information has transpired about his departure. Biermann was apparently feeling BMW was taking the M division in the wrong direction and giving the M more of a Marketing over Motorsport vibe. He says he’s much happier at Hyundai – he has more freedom to implement his ideas and he has been given free rein to develop the cars.

But exactly what cars? Sports cars, but of course. Hyundai wanted to create a new department that would develop a range of sportier versions of their existing models and thought that nicking the engineering overlord at M would be a bloody good idea. Can you blame them?

Besides, Hyundai are at present running the strongest team competing at the World Rally Championship and one event away from being crowned champions. What better way to live the old ‘win on Sunday, sell on Monday’ adage than to have a few interesting sports cars that keen drivers might actually want to buy?

So Biermann got to work. Now remember, although this is a guy with an immense experience, he is working inside a company that never produced such a car. I mean, the guy had never even worked with a front-wheel drive chassis, for Christ’s sake. All M cars he developed were rear-wheel drive (bar those two elephants in the room, the X5M and X6M, which are, of course, 4x4s).

First things first: they needed a name. M, AMG, Quattro, RS, those were all taken. So guess what name the former M boss chose? Yup, that’s right: N. As in the alphabet. First comes M; then comes N. Hyundai says it stands for Nurburgring, where they have set up a performance centre that is the heart of the N division, but, come on, you gotta love this: M – N.

It took former Mr. M less than three years to give us the first road-going N model. That honour went to the i30, the C-segment hatch with which Hyundai fights off a commercial guerrilla warfare with Ford, Renault, Peugeot, Volkswagen and many, many others. Every mainstream brand has a C-segment hatch and all three premium ones have one as well. So do the in-betweens: Lexus, Volvo, Alfa Romeo. Not an easy task then, the one given to the i30 – nor, consequently, the i30N.

But you know what? Without delving too much on the technical side, I am just going to say this: what an incredible car. Really. Just incredible. It takes but five minutes to understand this is a hot-hatch developed by people that know exactly what they want and how to get there. It feels solid, it feels fast, it feels like a proper hot-hatch should.

The i30N uses Hyundai’s proved 2.0 litre Theta GDI petrol engine, turbocharged to produce 250 or 275 horse power, depending if you want the basic or Performance version. I say Performance all the way. It is mated to a slick six-speed manual gearbox – no auto option, this is a car for real drivers – and an electronically controlled limited slip differential, performing its black magic out of corners.

The aggressive bodykit sits 10mm lower than the regular i30 and has a four-way suspension configuration, depending on whether you want more grip and less travel for ultimate attack or more compliance for those inescapable everyday errands. In fact, the i30N is a halfway house between the tremendous usability of, say, a Golf GTI and the all-out approach of the Civic Type-R. That balance is a sweet one and the Hyundai works remarkably well in any situation.

I loved thrashing it around some mountain roads I know with my eyes closed (although I kept them open just in case) and I loved taking the kids to school in it. It feels special and I don’t feel that about many cars these days.

The interior is typical Hyundai no-nonsense, with decent ergonomics and surprising build quality; you get all the safety gadgets available in the segment and the infotainment system, while not as appealing as the best in the market, is definitely not ‘gonna’ stop you buying this car. In fact, I gather anyone who has it on a shortlist and goes for a drive will be signing some papers afterwards. It is that good.

Got a spare €40,000? Mr. Biermann has the right car for you.

By Guilherme Marques