The poor man’s hot hatch
Our 2018 Car of the Year, Hyundai's i30N, is the brand's hero model, a statement in metal that it's capable of much more exciting stuff than the appliances it does so well.
It's an uncompromising performance machine - certainly compared with the more refined, luxurious VW Golf GTI - and you probably have to be a committed petrolhead to live with an i30N as your daily driver, not least because the sole transmission is a manual.
Then there's the $40,490 asking price - a bargain in A-grade hot hatch territory but still a relatively big spend for a small car.
The sporty i30 that most people will actually buy is the N Line, the model that used to be called SR before Hyundai launched its N performance sub-brand in 2018.
Priced from $26,490, the N Line is pitched at buyers who want something more engaging than the worthy, bland, naturally aspirated 2.0-litre i30 but for whom the take-no-prisoners i30N is a bit too out there.
So under the N Line's bonnet is a 1.6-litre turbo four with 150kW of power - 52kW less than i30N's 2.0-litre turbo and 30kW more than the base model's - plus a useful 265Nm of torque, matched with a six-speed manual or, tested here, a seven-speed dual-clutch automatic that adds $3000.
Other mechanical upgrades over the base i30 include sports-tuned suspension - multi-link independent rather than torsion beam at the rear - and premium 225/40 Michelin Pilot Sport 4 tyres on stylish 18-inch alloys.
The world knows you're driving something interesting via a bespoke front, rear bumper/diffuser, larger diameter twin exhausts, LED tail-lights and N Line badging.
Inside, it's similar to the i30N, with dark decor, red stitching and highlights, fake metal and carbon-fibre, leather-wrapped sports seats embossed with the N logo, a properly contoured, leather-wrapped steering wheel, paddle-shifters, alloy pedals and groovy red seat belts.
Eight-inch touchscreen infotainment includes navigation, digital radio, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (which also access voice control) plus wireless phone charging. Keyless entry and starting and dual-zone aircon are also standard.
The N Line Premium, at $34,990, includes the dual-clutch transmission, sunroof, heating, cooling and power adjustment for the driver's seat and Hyundai's Auto Link Premium app, which allows remote engine start, locking/unlocking and aircon control from your smartphone and collects all sorts of data about the car and how you drive it.
The N Line's understated sporty elegance feels almost Alfa-esque in design, materials and just the right amount of red.
A high seating position is inherited from its shopping trolley donor car. Generously padded, the manually adjusted driver's seat is good for a long day's driving. A long reach to the touchscreen is the only notable ergonomic blot.
Around town the front end reacts harshly to bumps and road joins. At highway speeds the suspension becomes more absorbent but the front can run out of travel when it cops a decent whack and the ride on country roads is lumpy and tiresome. The Michelins are also noisy on coarse chip bitumen.
Rear seat space is quite tight though the bench itself is firm and comfortable.
With the auto transmission comes automatic emergency braking - which can bring you to a complete stop from 80km/h and slow the vehicle from higher speeds. There are blind spot detection, rear cross traffic alert, driver attention alert, lane keeping and adaptive cruise, which can also do automatic stop and go in slow traffic.
Gentle at low revs, the 1.6 delivers strongly in the midrange then flatlines as its 6000rpm redline approaches.
The dull top end doesn't quite feel like 150kW worth, or synchronous with the pleasantly vocal, fruity exhaust note. This may be because the N Line runs on regular unleaded instead of the premium recommended for the turbo.
Hyundai's dual-clutch auto is smooth and efficient, if conservatively programmed and occasionally slow to respond, especially in Sport mode. Manual mode, with paddle-shifters, isn't really manual at all and still shifts when the management software tells it to shift.
There's little finesse or joy to the dynamics. You get minimal feedback from the front end, which has an obvious liking for the wide line when you point it into a tight corner at speed.
Sport mode makes the steering numb and heavy, especially on initial turn in, and the car isn't as responsive or well balanced as a sports-flavoured hatch should be. It feels clumsy and out of its depth when pushed.
I wear my cap with the peak facing forward but I want something more exciting and premium than my mum's hatchback.
This looks like the perfect compromise between hoon boy hot hatch and boring transport. The price is right and it's a Hyundai, so quality and reliability are a given.
FORD FOCUS ST LINE FROM $28,990
Ford's 134kW/240Nm 1.5-litre turbo three-cylinder is willing enough but less responsive and refined than a four. Matched with an eight-speed automatic. Dated dash, superb handling and a firm ride.
HOLDEN ASTRA RS-V FROM $31,740
Holden has been promoting this beautifully styled Euro import for $28,990 drive-away. 147kW 1.6-litre turbo/six-speed automatic. Loaded with luxury and safety spec. Seven years' warranty.
The numbers, especially price, look great on paper but on the road the N Line doesn't quite nail its intended compromise between performance and comfort. The ride is too hard and the engine and handling too soft. Goldilocks doesn't live here.
HYUNDAI i30 N LINE
PRICE From $26,490
WARRANTY/SERVICING 5 years, $1385 prepaid for 5 years
ENGINE 1.6-litre 4-cylinder turbo, 150kW/265Nm
SAFETY 5 stars, 7 airbags, AEB, radar cruise, blind spot monitoring