Is a hot hatch better with a manual 'box or flappy paddles? | Top Gear
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Is a hot hatch better with a manual 'box or flappy paddles?

Hyundai’s shoved a new DCT ‘box in one of our favourite hot hatches. Hmmm

Published: 21 Dec 2020
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Blah blah blah gearboxes. We’ve all picked a side. You either want a lightning-out-of-a-rocket-launcher-fast paddleshifter that swaps cogs quicker than you can blink shower gel out of your eye, or you’re a steampunk dinosaur after three pedals, a lever to wriggle around, and a house made of mud with a thatched roof and heated by a campfire in the dirt.

This isn’t that argument. Might I venture a little bit of nuance? Surely we can, car folk, agree certain cars suit a certain type of gearbox. A manual would be totally out of place in a Mercedes S-Class, for instance. You wouldn’t spec a CVT in a Lotus Exige. If you’re feeling brave, you could even argue while it was sad the likes of Ferrari and Lamborghini dropped the open-gate click-clack manual, cars like the 812 GTS and Aventador S&M are so savage and highly-strung, it’s a lifesaver to keep both hands on the wheel. Or one hand on your phone, Instagrammers.

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The Great Gearbox Mass Debate is over in supersaloons (all automatic) and the last lonely outpost of the manual shifter will be lightweight British track day fodder – stuff like Ariel Atoms and Caterhams, and probably Morgan, who only heard about central locking last week.

Here’s where I think things get sticky: hot hatchbacks. Is a hot hatch – surely the quintessential all-things-to-all-people machine – better with three pedals, or two paddles?

Again, there are certain members of the go-faster-shopping-car scene that just wouldn’t suit a manual. The Mercedes-AMG A45S, for instance. Too peaky, too frenetic – it wouldn’t match the technofest IT nerd personality. Or the Audi S3 for that matter. The S3 isn’t really a hot hatch. It’s more of a shrunken RS4 estate – quick, effective and easy to point about, but about as memorable as your online banking password.

Clearly then a manual gearbox suits the up’n-at’em, cheeky character of a less grown-up hot hatchback. This tiny pool is teeming with talent: the Toyota GR Yaris, Ford Focus ST, Mini Cooper JCW and – of course – the mechanically mesmerising Honda Civic Type R are all a joy to change gear in.

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However, friends… the invasion’s coming. Mini’s fluffed GP Works is now auto-only. More new Golf GTIs will be sold packaged with DSG than the dimpled gear lever. Heck, the GTI Clubsport and Golf R are DSG-only.

So’s the new BMW M135i, and the newer, better, supposedly back-to-basics BMW 128ti. And with the hot hatch stumbling towards a hybrid electric future (step forward Seat Leon Cupra, Golf GTE and so on), the writing is on the wall for DIY-shift everyday supercars.

Then there’s one of TopGear.com’s very favourite fast cars at any size or price: the superb Hyundai i30N. Recently made even superb-er thanks to a ridiculously big-budget facelift. New LED lights and bumpers we expected. Lightweight forged rims, bucket seats, extra power and a mildly more cultured ride, we didn’t.

Chief among the upgrades was an all-new 8-speed twin-clutch gearbox. As per, it makes the i30N a bit quicker against the clock and a bit more economical on the rolling road. But what’s clever from the N Division is how (unlike fitting a fast Ford or a rapid Renault with an automatic, both done not-so-cleverly of late), the i30N DCT doesn’t suffer a character-ectomy.

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The new gearbox has its own sense of humour, because it’s crammed to the brim with gimmicks. 'N Grin Shift' is basically a push-to-pass overboost shortcut. The shorter gearing helps the i30N charge forward with more gusto than its 275bhp output would have you expect. And it feels like a quality installation too: expensive metal paddles, bright change-up lights, and Hyundai was adamant you should be able to shift sequentially on the PRND lever as well, as approved by Dom Toretto and literally no-one else in the world.

Which would I have? The new DCT gives me pause for thought – much more than a Focus ST auto, Megane RS EDC or Golf GTI DSG would. The i30N manual suffers a woolly bite-point that makes it easy to stall in town. I like having both hands on the chunky steering wheel to help quell the torque-steer. And with eight speeds instead of six, this might finally be an i30N that’ll average more than 30 miles per gallon. Imagine that.

… Ah, who am I kidding? Hot hatches unsullied by plug-in batteries are an endangered species, so I’d have the old-fashioned stick-shift with the rev-blip set to the maxtreme. Sorry to have wasted your time. Serves you right for stumbling into an argument on the internet.

Photography: Mark Riccioni

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