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N versus M: our Hyundai i30N meets the BMW M140i
N famously nicked its boss from M. So how do their rival hot hatches compare?
M division versus N division. If Hyundai comes good on its promise, that’ll soon be a very fair and legitimate comparison. From a bunch of front-wheel-drive hot hatchbacks, a proper range of sports saloons, SUVs and (perhaps) a completely bespoke sports car will grow.
You could argue there’s a pretty compelling fight to be had now, though. In the blue corner, the BMW M140i, the latest iteration of a hot hatch that’s been around for six years. In the, um, lighter blue corner, our long-term Hyundai i30N, a hot hatch still in its infancy but with a similarly alphanumeric name and more than a few shared details.
Stepping into the i30N, prodding its starter button and pulling away is a process that’s startlingly similar to a full-bore M car. A woofly bark from the exhaust. An illuminated rev counter whose redline moves as the engine warms. A pair of mode selection buttons to choose how firm and fighty you want the chassis to be.
It’s no coincidence, of course. Albert Biermann, a senior figure of BMW M for years, was snapped up by Hyundai midway through the i30N’s development and clearly had plenty of time to bring his favourite ideas from his former employer.
The M140i it’s squared up to here isn’t a full-bore M car, mind, doing without the fabled M button to push it instantly into a more frenzied array of settings. Thus despite its 335bhp 3.0-litre six-cylinder engine considerably outgunning the Hyundai’s 271bhp 2.0-litre four-cylinder, that extra edge is chamfered away by a more mature demeanour. It’s a quieter, more relaxed car, a feeling only exacerbated by its now standard automatic gearbox.
It’s a good ‘un, mind; BMW’s six-speed manual isn’t the smartest, so I’ve always preferred the entry-level M with an eight-speed paddleshifter. It may lose a pedal, but it gains two extra two ratios, so you feel more involved, squeezing more gearchanges between corners. It’s as smooth and unruffled as you’d expect when you slot it back into Drive, too.
If all of that’s a surprise, then wait until you get to its handling. The M140i is rear-wheel drive, so you’d think the bookies would have suspended bets on it being more fun to drive than the front-drive i30N. And yet it’s the Hyundai that’s naughtier, friskier and more fun to be around. The BMW is still a good car to drive, and there’s naturally more than enough torque to work its rear axle hard. But note it’s ‘good’, not ‘great’. The harder you push the M140i, the clumsier it feels, and the sweet spot in its handling lies below its grip limits. Fitting an aftermarket limited-slip differential does help tidy things up, apparently.
Hyundai offers one of those at the factory, and the i30N eggs you on to drive it harder and harder until it starts doing things you wouldn’t think possible from a car with such a long warranty. It doesn’t slide under power like a BMW, but it will shimmy around excitably with lifts of the throttle or aggressive braking into a turn. It actively encourages you to play around with its balance and have fun.
A fair and legitimate fight, then? The M140i isn’t much different to the M135i that launched back in 2012, and it’s interesting to see how the market has changed around it. The quickest 1 Series has gone from being the most exotic car in the hot hatch class to something of a luxurious anomaly, with Honda, Seat, Peugeot and a handful of others all launching cheaper, more exciting rivals that offer at least as much with front-wheel drive as BMW does with its tried and trusted rear-drive.
It’s still a fine car and one with its own, grown up character. But it has a grown up price, too. Back in 2012 it was a headline £29,995, yet now starts at £35,240. That’s nearly ten grand more than a basic Hyundai i30N, and about £6,500 more than the i30N Performance we have here.
And it’s the one you want, too. There’s M division influence sprinkled throughout, but allied to a much more exuberant character than you’ll find in the car with an actual M on the back. Biermann has freer reign at N compared to M, and this feels like the hot hatch he always wanted to make. Imagine what that bespoke sports car could be like…
So far: 11,899 miles, 31.7mpg average (39.8mpg claimed)
Spec: 1998cc 4cyl turbo, FWD, 271bhp, 279lb ft, 0-62mph in 6.1secs, 155mph (ltd), 1429kg, £28,760 OTR (£29,345 as tested)
Images: Rowan Horncastle