First drive: 2021 Hyundai i20 N prototype

If you want to know how serious Hyundai is about making driver’s cars, there are 12 places on the new Hyundai i20 chassis that will be reinforced – with additional welding and bracketing – over and above the regular supermini to create the i20 N, the hot hatchback variant.

Hyundai’s N division engineers wanted a more rigid car, so they asked the question of their bosses. And management signed-off the considerable nuisance and expense of adding additional components and procedures onto the production line, as the new hot supermini rolls down the same line as what will otherwise be a regular small hatchback. I admire the commitment.

And I like what Hyundai is doing with its N division, named equally after its Namyang, Korea, test facility, and the Nürburgring, where it has a development hub – but where, you should note, it doesn’t just develop cars for the track. The i30 N is a giggle on the road, too, and as Hyundai’s director of high performance vehicle development Klaus Köster says, “drivers need to get out of the car with a grin. It’s not about being the fastest”. I’ve got a lot of time for the i30 N as a result.

The i20 N, though, driven here on the roads and on the Nürburgring’s 2.25-mile ‘sprint’ circuit (not quite the full GP loop and not the Nordschleife) in early prototype form, could be even more up my street. The Ford Fiesta ST is one of the greatest driver’s cars, little or big, on sale today, and the i20 N takes a similar formula.

It’s a front-wheel-drive supermini, five-door only, with a 201bhp, 203lb ft 1.6-litre turbo petrol engine under the bonnet. The gearbox is a six-speed manual only, and it drives the wheels through a mechanical limited-slip differential, which will be optional depending on market demands – which I imagine means it’ll be standard in the UK, because we like that kind of thing.

The car will weigh a touch under 1200kg, have a 0-62mph time of 6.7sec and go on to 143mph. If you were creating the blueprint for a small hot hatchback, I don’t think you’d end up far from here.

That’s not to say a manufacturer couldn’t balls it up from this point on, though. Even really good car makers could miss the mark, but Hyundai has not, because this “95% finished” i20 N is terrific.

There’s no star rating on this drive because the car’s still a prototype, wearing an unfinished interior and exterior – less finished than cars we’ve seen months ago, oddly – but mechanically it’s representative of where development has reached.

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Back onto the power and the i20 generates strong levels of traction. You can feel the LSD at work, just keeping the front end stable, preventing the inside wheel from spinning but nibbling ever so lightly at the steering while it does it – just enough to remind you it’s there.

There might be 5% still to do but I wouldn’t be unhappy if I unboxed an i20 N like this ready to go. I think, though, that the passive bits of the experience are more engaging than the changeable ones. But in having a set N mode, as well as Comfort and an individually tunable mode, in the i30 N, and now this, Hyundai clearly wants to give drivers a lot of choice.

There are three different stability control states, including all-off, three rev-match modes for downshifts – off, on, or really vibrantly on – and different steering weights. There aren’t as many options as an i30 N – which my fag packet calculations I think gives 1458 different ways to set it up – but still, there are quite a lot.

The nice thing about Fords is that they tend to present just a couple of preferences and then let you get on with driving it. Hyundai’s engineers are sufficiently talented that, if they told me what was best, I wouldn’t be inclined to argue. This has the makings of a cracking hot hatchback.

Hyundai i20 N prototype specifications

Where Nürburg, Germany Price £20,000 (estimated) On sale Spring 2021 Engine 4cyls in line, 1.6-litre, turbocharged, petrol Power 201bhp (est at 6000rpm) Torque 203lb ft (est at 2000-5000rpm) Gearbox 6-spd manual Kerb weight 1190kg (estimated) 0-62mph 6.7sec Top speed 143mph Economy 40mpg (est) CO2 158g/km (est) Rivals Ford Fiesta ST, Mini Cooper S