Volkswagen’s reputation for producing exciting, attainable hot hatches is legendary, and with over 40 years’ experience to draw from, so it should be.
There’s a new challenger in town, though, with Hyundai looking to spoil the Golf GTI’s party with something it’s never tried before: a hot hatch of its own called the i30 N.
Consider it part of the continuing rise of the Korean juggernaut. Hyundai may have established itself in markets like Australia with cut-throat pricing and drive-away deals, but now it sells as many big, luxurious SUVs and sensible family cars as more established brands.
Next on its hit list, it seems, is the performance market. While Japanese competitors duck in and out of focus, Germany’s influence on the sporty-hatch market (through the iconic Golf GTI) has been much more determined.
In fact, Volkswagen claims it started the hot-hatch movement with the Golf GTI in 1976, and now Hyundai, which only started building cars (under licence from other brands, no less) in 1968, thinks it can go toe-to-toe with the dominant Golf GTI.
The GTI Original is the most affordable option in its line, inspired by the earliest of the breed, all making it an easy go-to for enthusiasts hungry for historic appeal. The i30 N, on the other hand, is that first-generation offering, and it’ll surely be the enthusiasts that are most likely to snap one up.
To do that, Hyundai Australia has pulled a rabbit out of its hat with regard to pricing, giving the i30 N a starting price of $39,990. By comparison, the very cheapest way into a Golf offers you some extra spare change, with the GTI Original kicking off from $37,490.
Of course, there’s an elephant in the room. In this instance, the GTI Original comes as a three-door model only compared to the five-door i30 N.
Bigger still, though, the key mechanical differences: Hyundai has loaded the i30 with its performance package including an electronically actuated limited-slip differential, 19-inch alloy wheels, a variable exhaust, and a more powerful engine.
Australian i30 Ns produce peak power of 202kW while non-performance versions (in other markets) step down to 184kW. Torque is rated at 353Nm with an overboost function allowing up to 378Nm.
Put that next to the Volkswagen and the GTI Original musters ‘only’ 169kW and 350Nm, with no adaptive dampers, no electronic limited-slip differential, and no variable exhaust, rolling on 18-inch alloys.
A fair fight then? That depends on how you look at things. Volkswagen has offered a GTI Performance in the past, but right now that’s only available as a limited Performance Edition 1 model, again with three doors.
Move up to the five-door Golf GTI and you do get adaptive dampers (and keyless start, sat-nav, and LED fog lights), but the matching door count takes the price up to $41,990, so there’s no real tit-for-tat match between Volkswagen and Hyundai, at least not yet.
That means the two cars you see here represent each respective hot hatch in its most basic form. No unnecessary frippery, just pure performance hardware. The enthusiast’s choice, if you will.
On both cars your buy-in price nets you standard features like cloth trim, sports seats up front, aluminum-faced pedals, dual-zone climate control, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, Bluetooth, rear-view camera and seven airbags.
Both feature a colour multi-info display between the gauges, both come with 8.0-inch infotainment touchscreens, but the Hyundai includes inbuilt navigation and digital radio, while the Golf doesn’t, though you do get a CD player instead.
The Golf GTI Original also includes cruise control with speed limiter, and LED ambient lighting.
There are air vents for rear seat passengers, and an electric park brake – but of course, no back doors, meaning if you often carry passengers in the back, they’ll need to slide in and out past the front seats.
In the i30 N, you’ll find an old-fashioned manual handbrake (it may be less advanced, but seems right on a sporty car) though no rear AC outlets. On the other hand, there’s a pair of rear doors for added utility and ease of passenger loading.
Compared to the Golf, though, the i30 makes do without a speed limiter (and gee it would be nice to have) and lacks the premium-looking LED ambient lighting of its German competitor.
Take a seat in the cabin and the vitals differ by detail. In the i30 N you’ll find a driver’s seat with adjustable cushion length and electric lumbar for the driver, whereas the Golf GTI Original has a fixed-length seat and manual lumbar.
Otherwise, the seating position in both is eerily similar. Both are easy to get set behind the wheel from manually adjusted driver’s seats, though the i30 N steering wheel feels a touch smaller in diameter, but thicker-rimmed and more sporty.
Instrumentation in the Golf is less ornamental, whereas the i30 features a carbon look for the dial rings with an instrument layout nicked straight from Mercedes-AMG.
Both come standard with cloth trim. In the GTI’s case, there are iconic tartan inserts. The N doesn’t have the same heritage, and rather than trying to create it, there’s a fairly sedate-looking black patterned fabric.
Both come with a leather-trimmed steering wheel with contrast stitching: GTI red on the Golf and N blue on the Hyundai. The Golf also gets a funky golf ball gearknob, whereas the N’s knob is gimmick-free.
If you want to get touchy-feely with the interior, you’ll find Volkswagen is more liberal with soft-touch surfaces on the dash and doors. There are still some in the i30, but they’re used more sparingly, and the hard-plastic surfaces seem a touch less premium.
Now that you’re settled in, let’s turn the key and get going. Yes… Key. No keyless start in either, purist models and all that.
Both cars draw power from 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-petrol engines, and as mentioned earlier there’s a bit of a gap in output: 169kW and 350Nm for the Golf GTI against 202kW and 353Nm for the i30 N with 378Nm of overboost in short bursts.
There’s a crucial difference in weight between the two as well. The Golf tips the scales at a trim 1304kg, whereas the i30 is a more portly 1478kg – that’s like carrying two extra passengers with you everywhere you go.
Despite the added weight, the bigger torque figure wins the day with a 6.2-second 0–100km/h claim for the i30N compared to 6.4 seconds for the Golf GTI.
It’s a little hard to trust factory figures (often gathered using a jockey-like driver, specially prepared cars, and just a whiff of fuel to keep weight down), so our own Paul Maric ran the pair down the strip at Heathcote Park Raceway.
From its best run, the i30 yielded a time of 6.6 seconds maintaining the same 0.2-second lead as claimed, resulting in a 6.8-second run for the GTI Original.
Those figures come from the best results after a morning of repeated runs, with the Golf being slightly harder to launch cleanly and pulling its times back (you’ll see the difference quite clearly in our video).
To get that power down, both cars are strictly front-wheel drive, with the Golf using a pseudo limited-slip diff (controlled by the brakes) versus the i30 that uses an electronically actuated limited-slip differential.
The dragstrip wasn’t the focus of this comparison, though, not even a racetrack. Yes, owners might head there occasionally, but these are weekend fun factories.
To put them in their best light in the real world, both were run back-to-back through a series of conditions over a four-day stint (okay – long-weekend fun factories, then), from city loops through to highway runs, culminating in a four-hour ‘always on’ run over some tortuously twisty tarmac north-east of Melbourne.
One of those test days was torrentially wet, and while that might ruin the potential for all-out fun, it reveals a lot about how the two cars make the most of their performance potential.
The Volkswagen’s front end is certainly secure, with no signs of torque steer. But the more enthusiastic the drive, the more the limitations of the Golf’s XDL ‘by-brake’ differential revealed themselves, creating a pause in power delivery and at times reacting slowly to a spinning wheel.
Hyundai’s ‘real’ limited-slip differential, on the other hand, simply turns power into momentum. Fire hard out of sharp bends and the available torque feeds straight into the tarmac, although in the wet the more powerful Hyundai was prone to axle tramp as a result of overenthusiastic throttle applications.
Both engines mate to six-speed manual transmissions. That’s all Hyundai has for now, but yet again, Volkswagen will let you pick something else if you want it, in this instance a six-speed dual-clutch auto for an extra $2500.
The Volkswagen’s manual gear shift is amongst the best in its class. Not quite snick-snick precise in its shift action, but pretty close.
Problematically, when loaded up (we’re talking full throttle on the dragstrip here), the Golf becomes incredibly reluctant to select third gear, binds up and requires extra effort. Not something we could repeat in regular road driving, thankfully.
Hyundai still has a way to go on shift development with a long gate and loose feel, coupled with a high take-up point for the clutch that makes the shift action feel less hot hatch-specific and more like an everyday runabout.
Hyundai does offer a built-in rev-matching feature that can be fun to play with, and a dedicated steering wheel button for the system, giving enthusiast drivers and heel-toe devotees a quick shortcut to banish the system and hone their own blip-shift skills.
The Hyundai also offers a range of settings for throttle, steering, exhaust, differential, suspension, stability control, and more – either grouped by toggling the Eco/Normal/Sport paddle on the steering wheel, or via a dedicated N-mode button that selects maximum attack, or N-custom for a user-choose set-up.
Volkswagen is less flexible with the GTI Original, there’s still Eco, Normal, and Sport settings, plus an Individual mode, but only steering, throttle and fake engine noise can be tweaked, with less noticeable steps in between settings.
Fiddling with the Hyundai’s N-custom mode means finding the right mix for any road, but for the most part, Sport plus exhaust, engine and diff settings gave brilliant performance hand-in-hand with Normal suspension, making for a potent commuter hatch with a much better ride.
It’s details like those that divide these two competitors, as both utilise a fairly segment-typical MacPherson strut front and multi-link independent rear suspension layout, but whereas the Hyundai comes with adaptive dampers, the Volkswagen does not.
There’s a difference in tyre specification too, with 225/40R18 Bridgestone Potenzas on the Golf and slightly wider 235/35R19 Pirelli P Zero rubber on the i30.
As sporty hatchbacks, both get a firm suspension tune. The Golf GTI feels Euro firm, which means initial compliance is rather abrupt, but over bigger bumps and potholes there’s more give. By contrast, the i30 N can dance over minor imperfections more easily, but at speed things feel much tighter.
Overall development work on the chassis tune for the Hyundai was led by Albert Biermann, formerly the head of BMW’s M division, but Australian-delivered cars get a slightly different final tune softened off just a touch to deal with the worst of local roads.
Impressively, though, the i30 N was able to generate face-tugging acceleration speeds out of corners: all grip, all the time. In its presence, the softer, slower Golf GTI failed to match pace or dynamic finesse.
The Golf isn’t off the pace, nor out of its depth by any means, but Hyundai’s new upstart goes further, putting day-to-day ease of use fractionally behind outright ability.
Steering in the Hyundai is near telepathic with a direct feel, although finer feedback gets diluted slightly. The Volkswagen doesn’t feel as direct through the wheel, nor as weighty in Sport mode, but does give the driver a touch more info about what’s happening under the tyres.
Perhaps not as vital to the dynamics picture, but worthy of consideration nonetheless, is road noise. Neither of these cars is whisper quiet over Australia’s coarse road surfaces, but as a big-mile cruiser, the GTI edges out the i30 slightly.
Hyundai’s selectable drive modes also make a genuine difference to how the car feels and reacts. Leave everything in Normal mode and you could be fooled into thinking you’re behind the wheel of a run-of-the-mill hatch. Amp up through the settings and the ride firms while steering requires more involvement.
You can turn the volume of the exhaust up to 11 (there’s some artificial noise in the cabin, but real gunfire effects through the tailpipes), the diff can lock up earlier, and the ESP can be loosened off should you wish to add a little ‘margin for error’ style slideability.
There’s no doubting the Volkswagen Golf GTI’s reputation as the hot-hatch benchmark. The German car has long led the way by combining exciting performance, approachable dynamics, and an almost unheard of level of poise.
Many have tried to topple the king, but few have been able to.
But can the GTI still be considered ‘hot’ when newer competitors have started pushing past the 200kW mark? Is the plush and polished side of the GTI starting to outshine its coveted fun side?
In this instance, yes. Hyundai has out-hotted the hot-hatch master, but only by adding in superior performance tech for a price that follows Hyundai’s traditional value standing, landing the i30 N at a whisker under forty grand.
As a driver’s car, Hyundai’s first-ever hot hatch shades Volkswagen and its GTI history. Misty-eyed nostalgics will no doubt be outraged. How dare Hyundai get its hot hatch so right on the first try!
That’s not to say the Volkswagen falls down, though. Far from it. The GTI is still a bloody great car to drive, but it simply isn’t the hot-hatch king any more.
That said, if you were considering your first sporty-hatch purchase, it is the user-friendly step we’d probably suggest.
But if you want to run at the head of the pack, the finely honed and utterly impressive (not to mention sharp value) i30 N takes home the silverware in this comparison.
We won’t rest there, though. A five-door versus five-door comparison mixes things up slightly, and you can find out how that review went right here.
225/40R18 Bridgestone Potenza
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