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Hyundai i30 N 2018 review: driving Grossglockner High Alpine Road

  • By Andrew Chesterton
  • 3 November 2017

The fog hangs heavy over Austria's mighty Grossglockner mountain; an impenetrable woollen blanket so thick and dense it doesn’t so much obscure your vision as it does completely obliterate it. And around these parts, vision is important. European mountains aren’t like the speed bumps we ski down in Australia, and the Glossglockner High Alpine Road is just that; very, very high.

The sensuously smooth tarmac climbs more than 2500 metres from the postcard-perfect village of Lienz, past wide and snow-white fields, up through a prehistoric hill climb section known colloquially known as the 'village of eternal ice', and all the way to the frost-bitten peaks.

See our Hyundai i30N 2017 review
See our Hyundai i30 2017 review

In summer, the views are said to be life-changing. But here and now, on the cusp of a European winter, this endless fog means you can’t just not see the The Sound of Music landscape, but you also can’t see oncoming traffic, the edges of the road or the impossibly steep (and almost certainly fatal) drop back to ground level. So more life-ending than life-changing, then.

Grossglockner High Alpine road. One of Europe's finest bits of tarmac. Grossglockner High Alpine road. One of Europe's finest bits of tarmac.

It’s the adult equivalent of building one of Donald Trump’s fences around Disneyland, or finding out the reason Jeff can't wake up is because he's been shot in the face: one of the world’s finest driving roads is at our disposal, but it's hidden just beyond our reaching grasp behind this impenetrable fog. As a result, speeds are limited to about 30km/h (and even that feels too fast) and tempers are fraying at the sheer unfairness of it all. 

Still, it at least gives us some time to explain what we're doing here. See, we’re not piloting what you might traditionally consider one of the go-to cars for this kind of road. Ours is not a RenaultSport, and it’s not an RS. There’s no GTI or R badging either, and nor is has it rumbled straight out of Stuttgart. Nope, we’re driving a Hyundai hatchback; an i30. 

this is no ordinary i30... this is no ordinary i30...

And yes, there was a time - and quite recently - when travelling all the way to Europe to tackle one of the world’s greatest roads in a Korean hatchback would have been like taking an automotive Ambien, and would have had you, dear reader, hurriedly searching  for something less boring to consume on the internet.

But this is no ordinary i30...

This, you see, is the i30 N, and it’s so unlike any Hyundai to have gone before it that it's hard to believe it has been made by the same company. The Korean brand’s first genuine attempt at a rorty and roaring hot hatch (there have been earlier, less-convincing efforts, but, like rolling Lord Voldemort's, we dare not speak their names) is a fantastically fun little beast.

And better still, we’re steering the top-spec 'Performance Pack' car, which ups the power, the performance kit and exhaust note, and sets the 130 N on a bang-for-bucks collision course with go-fast royalty like the Volkswagen Golf GTI.

Under the skin lies a mechanical limited-slip differential. Under the skin lies a mechanical limited-slip differential.

So while we’re waiting for this cursed fog to lift, let’s talk numbers. Nestled under the bonnet of the i30N is a turbocharged 2.0-litre petrol engine that, in this Performance Pack model, has been tweaked to produce 202kW and an (overboost-assisted) 378Nm. That’s enough to send the i30 N hurtling from 0-100km/h in 6.1 seconds, and on to a 250km/h top speed. 

How does that compare? Well, it puts Hyundai right in the thick of the front-drive action (but it is monstered by the all-wheel drive antics of the Golf R or the Focus RS), with the Focus ST putting out 184kW/340Nm, the Volkswagen Golf GTI good for 169kW/350Nm and the Honda Civic Type R producing 228kW/400Nm.

Under the skin of this performance-focussed version lives a mechanical limited-slip differential, bigger tyres and better Pirelli P Zero rubber. There's also launch control and a rev-matching system for the only gearbox on offer, a six-speed manual. Adaptive suspension with four ('Eco', 'Normal', ‘Sport' and hardcore ’N’) modes also finds a home on Hyundai’s first N car.

The rev-matching feature on the six-speed manual is one of the best we've used. The rev-matching feature on the six-speed manual is one of the best we've used.

So, about that 'N'. Despite the misconception that it stands for the Nurburgring, it in fact represents Namyang - Hyundai’s development centre in Korea. That said, this car was also developed on the ‘Ring, largely with Albert Biermann behind the wheel. 

While that name might not immediately ring any bells, it’s important. This is a man who knows what he’s talking about. Biermann was a 32-year veteran of BMW, and spent most of that time spear-heading the brand’s M division. He was poached to Seoul n 2015, specifically to improve the (then non-existent) performance credentials of Hyundai’s group of brands.

The N Division is his baby. And it shows.

Of course, spec sheets only tell part of the story, and any good hot hatch lives or dies in the excitement of the driver, and with the fog finally lifting from the Grossglockner High Alpine Road, this driver is very excited indeed. 

There is so much about Europe that reminds Australians that we’re living under the oppressive boot of the nanny state. Bars that are open past midnight, for example, or riding a bicycle without a helmet, but none turns us so green with envy as the region's finest alpine roads. 

Think 47.8km of absolute driving bliss that somehow blends all your favourite corners into one sublime stretch of smooth tarmac. From the tightest switchbacks to fast and flowing sweepers and absolutely everything in between, all framed by one of the planet’s most amazing vistas.

It's a toll road, but it puts our Australian ones to shame. It's a toll road, but it puts our Australian ones to shame.

Yes, it's a toll road (and will cost you about 35 Euro to use it) but once you're on it, there are no police speed traps, no cameras and very little in the way of slow-moving traffic.

And it’s here, rather than a racetrack, that the i30N makes so much sense. Albert Biermann himself describes the development of this car as more focussed on fun than the furious pursuit of lap times, and it's hard to think of more fun location than this empty alpine stretch.

With the fog cleared and the road surface dry, the easy nature of the i30N begins to shine. The acceleration, while not outrageous, is rich and constant, and is joined by the ever-present orchestra of the fantastic bi-modal exhaust, which growls its way through acceleration before launching into a series of spine-tingling explosions every time you back off the gas.

The joy of the N isn’t in its outright performance, but in the engaging nature of the drive. Everything works together so beautifully, and it is so communicative, that you're always acutely aware of when you’re about to run out of grip, or when to pull another gear via the notchy manual gearbox. And when it is time to downshift as you're braking into a corner, the rev-matching system is the most mind-readingly intuitive system we’ve used to date.

But while the car is a key player here, it's the road - this glorious sinew of silky-smooth tarmac - that steals the show. Arguably Europe's best driving destination, the Grossglockner should be on your must-visit list. 

Hell, you can even take a Hyundai.

If you had told me, even a year ago, that I'd be climbing out of a Hyundai at the top of the Grossglockner Pass, and smiling from ear-to-ear, you'd have been talking to me from the other side of a padded cell. 

But the times change fast in Seoul, and this i30 N is the near-perfect car to take to one of Europe's finest roads.