Battle Royale: Hyundai i30 N vs Honda Civic Type R

Can the i30 N upstart challenge the current king of the hill?

The Fender Telecaster is one of the great sounds of rock, but too often it’s playing rhythm while the Stratocaster takes lead. Serena Williams brought the world a whole new kind of tennis. But then Venus has won more matches. Istanbul is a captivating Turkish city, but Ankara is actually the capital. The Hyundai i30 N with the Performance package is a hot-hatch of awesome engineering depth, and 275bhp for 0-62mph in 6.1 seconds. Its only issue is the car whose triple exhausts it is currently chasing. The Honda Civic Type R, ditto ditto, but with 320bhp and 5.8.

Hyundai’s argument goes that the i30 N isn’t about chasing numbers or headlines. It’s got the engine that its chassis wants, and the chassis that its hot-hatch driver wants. Follow that line of reasoning and at its terminus is the assertion that you actually can have too much power.

The Civic Type R, on the other hand, has absolutely no patience with moderation. Its engine, like its bodywork, cleaves to the philosophy that too much is very seldom enough.

Words: Paul Horrell
Photography: Mark Riccioni

The Honda isn’t only rocking an extra 45 horsepower. It’s also 2017’s Top Gear Car of the Year. It’s also got generations of Type R breeding, while the Hyundai’s bloodline is a whole lot shorter. Still, let’s not be snobs. If the Hyundai doesn’t quite manage to emerge fully from the white car’s jagged shadow, there’s no disgrace. Really it’s competing more with the Peugeot 308 GTI and various VW Golfs, but we put it up against the Honda because these are the hatches of the moment.

The Hyundai is £5,000 cheaper. Let’s get that out of the way. Mind you, Liberty Walk or Mansory would charge all that and more for making a base Civic look like the Type R, and never mind the engineering changes Honda has made. To be clear though, this body kit isn’t just high-street attention-seeking, but a manifestation of a comprehensive aerodynamic makeover.

Some of the details – air breathers for the arches, the black blades ahead of the wheels that give drag-free downforce, the vortex generators – are gorgeously, spoddishly, right. The size of the rear wing, on a street hatch, might be a little wrong. It’s a plank that gives you rear-view issues, and makes the driver behind think you’ve got self-esteem issues.

I wish the Type R kit had wiped away that silly blanked-off fake mesh, also used on the normal one-litre Civic, around the front fog-lights and rear reflectors. And why are some of the parts fake carbonfibre, not just black plastic? Without that nonsense the rest of the kit would seem more authentic.

If you love the white car’s single-mindedness you’ll probably think the blue one’s a bit wimpy. The N’s bodywork is no wider than standard

Still… I guess I’d be looking for every last Newton of rear downforce if I were pinning it in sixth down into Kesselchen on the way to my seven forty-three point eight. Fat chance; I’m lacking in both skill and bottle.

Your personal attitude towards the Honda’s looks will be a good bellwether for the way you think about the Hyundai. If to you the Civic is de trop, you might enjoy the i30’s subtleness. OTOH, if you love the white car’s single-mindedness you’ll probably think the blue one’s a bit wimpy. The N’s bodywork is no wider than standard. Wider tracks and a bit of arch bulge might argue its case more, but while the R is about lap times the N is about feel, so maybe doesn’t need a wide track. In fact the Honda’s width, and the lowness of its seat, are great for tracks and wide open roads, but the Hyundai can feel more compact and handy on a thin road.

The Honda even has an aluminium bonnet with an air vent. Under which reside those crazed 320 horses. Well, not that crazed actually. Not unless you give them a bootful of encouragement. Up to at least 4,000rpm, it’s a performer, but with the downside of perceptible lag. But if you take the express lift via the fifth and sixth floors to the big seven, it’s a storm, and it has your arm flailing at the gearlever like a white-water canoeist’s.

So, yes, the i30 N is left behind. But hey people, 275 horseradishes are still pretty saucy. Especially as the lag is marginally less of an issue, and with the variable exhaust and electronic sound enhancement in their most liberated settings, the soundscape is perhaps the most satisfying in all of hot-hatchery. And it has a manual box, with a superb shift. As good as the Honda’s – and neither of them are as insanely light and clicky as the old N/A Type Rs were. That’s presumably because in both the new cars you’re shifting cogs that have to be more robust and heavier to cope with the torrent of torque.

Let’s move further down the chain towards where this rotational force meets the road. To try to ameliorate the corruption of torque on steer, Honda has given the R double-pivot front suspension instead of the usual Civic struts. That’s a badge of honour for premier-league front drivers. Hyundai didn’t go that far, but it did re-engineer itself a tighter, lighter front suspension versus the base car. The Civic has a helical limited-slip differential, the Hyundai a fancy electrically controlled job (no, not just cross-axle braking; an actual e-diff, with three user-choosable setups).

So what we’re saying here is, both sets of engineers bust a gut to get the power to the road without the commotion of a spinning inside tyre or the rim-yank of torque steer.

The Honda is more successful. On the wet roads of our test, it ekes out a load of unlikely traction, so full credit to its combination of tyres, diffs and damper settings. In the dry it’s plain amazing. And when the roadway is lumpy, the first time your right foot goes adventuring it’s suddenly apparent the Honda has the torque steer business better sorted.

The i30’s wheel yanks and frets in your hands and the nose darts around as its tyres sniff the hollows and lick the lumps. Let’s not get this out of hand, mind. Versus an Astra VXR or Focus last-gen FWD Focus RS (both of which sported Honda-like double-pivot struts), the Hyundai is a model of decorum. But the Type R is by some way better again, and has more feel too.

The Honda has a borderline insatiable gluttony for corners, as well as the straits between them. You bear down on a bend with the massive brakes clenched, pitch it in, mash the throttle improbably early, and off it catapults. The drama lies in the combination of extraordinary precision with sky-high g-loads. The ferocity is eye-widening.

Both these cars steer quickly (but not too quickly) and roll little. Both are fundamentally well-balanced. But the Hyundai, because it clings slightly less hard, is a subtly different proposition. It’s a dance for two. Driver leads and car follows, then car leads and driver follows. Actions and reactions on both sides. Lift off and it’ll oversteer (even in the ESP’s on-but-loose mode). Get on the throttle too soon and it’ll wash the front tyres out. It doesn’t just give you more options than the Honda, it feeds you more communication. On the track, it’s prepared to trade lap times for fun. So it goes on the road.

In the setup of its electronics, the i30 N goes beyond interactivity into parody. On its steering wheel are two blue buttons. The left one cycles through the driving modes affecting eight parameters. Here goes: throttle map, downshift rev-matching, exhaust flaps and sound enhancement, dampers, diff, steering weight, ESP. The right one, the one with the chequered flag icon, calls up the N mode. That cranks all those systems one louder.

Finally you can configure, via the main screen, all those eight parameters through up to four stages to form a ‘custom’ mode. Well, you can, but trust me after a while you won’t, because picking your ideal from among those combinations will do your head in. My perms and combs theory days are long behind me, but I tentatively calculate you have 1944 possible options. If you devote yourself to the task you might eventually find one setup that feels dead right, but then the road or your mood will soon change and you’ll have to start again. By which time you’ll have forgotten to look through the windscreen and crashed.

The Honda has comfort, normal, sport and R+. Sometimes you might feel deprived of a way to combine livelier ESP with gentler dampers. But as an escape route from the Hyundai’s tyranny of choice, the R’s simplicity is just fine thanks.

The Type R operates on a plane where you didn’t think FWD hatches could ascend

Anyway the Honda provides its own driver distractions. On the steering wheel are menu buttons to control its entertainment and driver info. It’s a howling lash-up of counterintuitive ergonomic inconsistencies. Its main central touchscreen isn’t a whole lot better, and it runs horrid, garish graphics. Fortunately you can just mirror your Apple or Android device.

That though won’t cover up the rest of the cabin’s visual clutter, or its mishmash of materials and subtlety-free rude redness. But then, the Hyundai goes the other way. As with its outside, the basic hatch is never buried. Maybe that’s what Hyundai wanted. This is the first N car, and it has to give you a mental trackback to the rest of the range, giving the whole Hyundai brand a lift.

The Hyundai might have a strut brace in the back but it doesn’t ruin the boot. The Hyundai back seat is the more habitable, but the Civic’s is OK. Their powertrains don’t shunt and cough in town, and their exhausts quieten down on motorways. Their springing is stiff but they don’t convulse you to a pulp. Both of them, in other words, will operate as normal cars.

But they are also fabulous machines for pure driving. The Type R operates on a plane where you didn’t think FWD hatches could ascend. It’s focussed to a pixel-sharp philosophy: get there quicker. The i30 N isn’t such a mad intrusion into your visual field, and its power and lap times reflect that. But for simple rumbustious hot-hatch fun, it has enough, maybe even more, going for it.

Sure the R is the Strat, but the N, the Tele of this pair, is music we love to hear too.

What do you think?

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