Thought the Ford Fiesta ST completely unassailable? Think again…
By Dan Prosser / Wednesday, October 7, 2020
They like to talk about logic. That's their unique and ingrained way of doing things. Their guiding principle. Car engineers use the word logic because it means they don't have to say anything terrible like 'overarching philosophy', but it means the same thing. A car manufacturer's logic is its top-level approach to designing, engineering and manufacturing motor vehicles, and each carmaker will tell you its own logic is unlike anybody else's.
Hyundai says the way it goes about concocting a 200hp-ish small hot hatch is totally different to Ford's way, for instance. And it is, even though the Korean firm's 204hp hot hatch looks quite similar on paper to the Blue Oval's own such car, the brilliant and feisty Fiesta ST. After all, both are small hatchbacks with similar power, plus six-speed manual transmissions, front-wheel drive and the option of a limited-slip differential. Although the Ford does use a 1.5-litre triple rather than a slightly bigger four.
It is with the i20N, Hyundai's forthcoming challenger to the Fiesta ST, that the company will follow up the excellent i30N and prove, or so it hopes, that it was no mere fluke that its first real hot hatch was a proper contender in the 300hp hot hatch category. (Hyundai did of course knock out the apparently very good Veloster N in between times, but that model didn't come to Europe and I've never driven one.) I have high hopes for the i20N, though, because Hyundai's engineers have demonstrated what they're capable of when tasked with creating a front-wheel drive hot hatch to shake up the established order.
Or more to the point, I have high hopes for the i20N because I've driven a prototype and I reckon the finished thing could be bloody brilliant. But if it's as similar on paper as it is to the car it's trying so desperately to dethrone, how can the logic that underpins the thing be so different to Ford's own?
We'll come to that. First, a little closer at what makes the i20N different to the more ordinary i20, starting with its engine. Hyundai's 1.6-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder will be used for the first time in Europe beneath the i20N's stumpy bonnet, where it'll develop 204hp and 203lb ft of torque. Having reached 62mph in 6.7 seconds, the i20N will top out at 143mph.
Its limited-slip differential will be purely mechanical with no electronic control and the dampers will be fixed rate rather than adaptive. Expect the car to weigh around 1170kg at the kerb. It'll have a launch control function, switchable rev-matching and various driving modes including a customisable one (in typical Hyundai-not-taking-self-too-seriously fashion, this feature won't be called anything po-faced like Drive Select, but 'N Grin Control System').
The basic i20 body structure has been reinforced at various points to make it stiffer and a better platform for the suspension, which itself has been completely overhauled. The springs and dampers are new, the suspension kinematics are bespoke, there's a new beam axle at the rear, plus bigger brakes and specific tuning for the power steering.
Meanwhile, an aerodynamic bodykit, 18-inch wheels and styling tweaks inside and out should give the i20N the athletic appearance it will need if it's to be taken seriously in its quest to destabilise the Fiesta ST. So where exactly do the two cars differ? In their logic. Hyundai's guiding principle for its N machines – and these are cornerstones of the very enjoyable i30N – is that they should have honest, predictable and not at all contrived dynamics. They should steer, ride and handle in a fundamentally sound way and be great to drive because of it. There should be no artifice – that means organic rather than overly-reactive steering, and a neutral chassis balance rather than, say, an unnecessarily oversteer-y setup. Think a dark grey suit with a crisp pinstripe, not big floppy shoes and a floral buttonhole that squirts water.
Ford's approach in that regard is very different. As good as I think the Fiesta ST is – and I rate it as one of the best performance cars you can buy right now at any price point, not only its very affordable one – it's true that its handling and steering characteristics are somewhat contrived. In the very sharp initial response of the steering (apparently to make the car feel more alert and agile than it really is, which is what Ferrari has done at times with its own ultra-sharp steering setups), that very exaggerated way of yawing about its centre point in a corners and its pronounced body roll, the ST behaves in a cartoonish way. Everything is dialled right up to caricature levels, as though the chassis was signed off by a part-time seaside illustrator who draws grotesque portraits with great big chins and very long noses on weekends.
Hyundai's engineers abhor that approach. To them it seems childish and silly. Rather for them a more mature logic – foundational ride and handling principles like intuitive steering, consistent grip and predictable balance that have underpinned great cars for decades. But even they, I suspect, will acknowledge that the Fiesta ST, despite all its daftness, is brilliantly fun to drive. Otherwise they'd be kidding themselves, frankly.
So how does their more buttoned-down way of doing things play out? The i20N – and I should say now that changes might still be made to the final production cars – steers in a very linear and consistent way, without the razor-sharp response about the straight ahead that you get in the Ford. I much preferred the feel of the steering in the default Normal mode, finding that as the weight ramped up in Sport and then N, my sense of connection to the front axle diminished. But in terms of rate of response and predictability, I had no concerns.
The car feels really well controlled, meaning it doesn't lean heavily in corners, or much at all for that matter, and the body stays relatively level even when the road surface underneath is kicking up and down. On those fixed rate dampers there's a tension to the ride quality, but on some rougher sections of highway near to the Nurburgring it never felt unbearably tough. There is a sweet natural balance to the car – you can lean hard on the front axle and feel the rear end working too. It doesn't just plough into understeer or hurriedly try to swap ends as soon as you turn into a bend, although with a sharply lifted throttle there is enough poise that the car will rotate a little. That makes it fun to drive on the road.
The engine, meanwhile, is strong and lusty but it pulls hard to the redline as well. The gearshift is sweet, although where the Fiesta ST feels so cohesive in its control weights and rates of response – the clutch pedal and gearshift, for instance, are so well harmonised that changing gear feels like one single motion rather than two distinct actions involving the clutch pedal and gearlever – the Hyundai can feel ever so slightly disjointed. But its LSD works effectively, dragging the car sharply away from bends. You can feel it doing its job through the rim of the steering wheel, but the diff doesn't tug so hard that you think the wheel might be wrenched from your hands altogether.
And on circuit? I did a handful of laps of the Nurburgring Grand Prix loop (a shortened version of it, in fact) and found a very capable little track machine. It feels light and lively, darting into every apex, exhibiting that same balance and poise I discovered on the road and never seeming to take too much from its brakes. I had more fun in the i20N on circuit than I did in the i30N that I drove moments beforehand, finding the smaller car to be more indulgent and less prescriptive in its handling. It just felt more up to track work than its bigger, heavier sibling.
I'll bet here and now that the Hyundai i20N runs the Ford Fiesta ST closer than any other comparable car has managed so far. Prices haven't been announced at the time of writing, but the i30N's pricing suggests the newer model might slightly undercut its rivals. Sub £20,000? Possibly, but only just.
Daft, contrived and puppyish the Fiesta ST might be, but it's also enormously rewarding to drive in a way few performance cars of any sort are. Hyundai could not have targeted a more talented opponent. Its i20N has a huge amount of potential – particularly on circuit, where its main competitor is ever so slightly out of its comfort zone – but I do hope the Korean car with that very determined logic isn't too strait-laced for its own good.
- Hyundai i30 N DCT prototype | PH Review
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