As sporty cars grow increasingly heavy and complex, albeit more capable than ever, it can be easy to forget about the benefits of simplicity. Indeed, today’s well of performance-enhancing technologies—from torque-vectoring differentials to active anti-roll systems and active aerodynamics—is deep and at times convoluted. That makes the 2021 Hyundai i20 N a refreshing break from the norm because it has none of those clever gizmos and doesn’t suffer from their absence.
Although Hyundai sells the five-door i20 subcompact hot hatch in various parts of the world, the performance-oriented N version is solely available in Europe, seemingly one of the only global markets left with any appetite for small, simple hatchbacks. It is more compact than the Volkswagen GTI and the Honda Civic, as well as the Ford Fiesta ST that also is now sold only in foreign markets. The i20’s nearest relatives in the United States are the pedestrian Kia Rio hatchback and the Hyundai Accent sedan, although the N model’s closest analog could be considered the two-door Mini Cooper S.
The i20 N is a product of Hyundai’s N performance subbrand, the same division of the company responsible for N versions of the Veloster, Kona, and Elantra. As a junior model, the i20 N forgoes the boosted 2.0-liter four found in those larger vehicles for a smaller turbocharged 1.6-liter inline-four good for 201 horsepower. A six-speed manual is the only transmission available. The engine’s 203 pound-feet of torque reaches the front wheels through a limited-slip differential, and the rear axle is a torsion beam. As with its brawnier siblings, the i20 has an aggressive N driving mode, which when engaged illuminates a ring of animated fire around the tachometer in the 10.3-inch digital gauge cluster. In practice this just firms up the steering effort, sharpens the throttle response, and uncorks the active exhaust system.
The i20 N’s exterior design is more futuristic than its driving experience. The angular lines of the standard model appear even sharper with squared-off bumpers, larger front air intakes, and—on the car we drove in England—an optional black-painted roof with matching window surrounds. The N model even gets a dinky rear spoiler supposedly inspired by the substantially larger wing worn by Hyundai’s i20 rally racers.
Inside, the i20 N’s cabin is spacious up front, tight in the rear, and feels solid and well finished, although with the same abundance of dark plastics found in its grander counterparts. A sizable 10.3-inch touchscreen sits in the center of the dashboard and offers a data-reporting function in addition to the usual navigation and infotainment features. Like with the Veloster N, there are two prominent N buttons on the steering wheel, one for the three regular drive modes (Eco, Normal and Sport) and the other for switching between the full-tilt N mode and a driver-configurable Custom setting. There is also a red button that engages an automatic rev-matching function for the transmission. Supportive sport seats are standard, and the i20 N’s lack of frills is reinforced by the continued presence of a mechanical parking brake lever in place of an electronic toggle.
Despite its various drive modes, the i20 N’s dynamic recipe is simple and delivered without garnish. This is an old-fashioned hot hatch, one that prioritizes performance and charisma over finesse and refinement. The engine’s forced-induction nature is obvious both in its initial weakness at low revs as the turbo spools up and its angry induction roar when boost finally arrives. Once the turbo is spinning the engine pulls enthusiastically and, although our example seemed a little tight as it approached its 6500-rpm redline, the car feels quicker and more exciting than its modest power output suggests. This i20N weighs 2650 pounds, and the sprint to 60 mph should take 6.1 seconds.
More powerful front-wheel-drive cars often struggle to maintain purchase with the ground, but the i20 N is not wanting for traction. There’s almost no sense of torque corruption in the steering when accelerating, even over bumpy surfaces. At lower speeds the suspension feels firm, but quicker progress and greater chassis loads reveal that the dampers can maintain order during hard directional changes on choppy surfaces. Cruising refinement is limited, though, with noticeable tire roar joining the drone of the engine at highway speeds.
More important is the i20 N’s endearing playfulness, a familial trait that we came to cherish over 40,000 miles in the larger Veloster N. The handling limits of its chassis are lower than those of many hotter hatches, but this diminutive car always feels willing to give its all. The grip delivered by its 18-inch Pirelli P Zero summer tires is both ample and nicely balanced. We won’t call it as tail happy around corners as the current Fiesta ST, but it does feel exciting at sane speeds on twisty roads. In the i20 N, you don’t need to be traveling fast to have fun. The six-speed manual moves cleanly and accurately through its gates, but without the taut mechanical feel of the best stick shifts. And the rev-matching function works well, even if there’s more satisfaction to be had from disabling it and trying to match its throttle-blipping accuracy yourself. The weighting of the steering wheel is heavy even with the electrically assisted rack in its lightest setting; the more aggressive Sport and Sport-plus modes increase resistance yet actually reduce feel.
Sadly, fun, affordable cars such as the Hyundai i20 N—which starts at the rough equivalent of $28,850 in England before the hefty 20 percent tax—are on borrowed time. Stricter emissions regulations make them continually more expensive to buy and own, and the number of manufacturers still producing them is dwindling; the almost-certain electrification of future generations will probably pollute the genre beyond recognition with increased weight and complexity. But until that happens, the i20 N feels as if it exists in a sweet spot. As the automotive world continues to advance at a breakneck pace, Hyundai’s smallest hot hatch is a welcome reminder that some of the most appealing performance cars are defined by what they lack as much as by what they have.
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