Why have one hot hatch in your range, when you can have two? That, it seems, was the logic behind Hyundai's decision to launch an N version of its i30 Fastback. Not that we had any problem with that, of course; the more hot hatches the better, as far as we're concerned.
However, as we discovered when we took one for a spin last week, it turns out the Fastback N's character is subtly different. Hyundai's altered the suspension settings to make it more pliant, with a view to enhancing its appeal to the more mature customers the company thinks will be interested in the Fastback.
The result is a car that rides better, seemingly without sacrificing involvement or ability. "While it's not night and day different to the hatch, the Fastback seems more settled, less intimidated by speed humps and ridges, and undoubtedly a more relaxing place to sit at road pace," commented Mr Sheehan in his review. "It is the sort of subtle change which reduces fatigue on a long drive; not one which subverts the character of the car." Throw in the extra boot space you get from that elongated tail, and the Fastback N makes quite a compelling case for itself.
All the more so given it isn't exorbitantly priced, too, coming it at a fiver below £30,000; a lot of car and a lot of performance for the cash - especially backed up by that five-year warranty. That's going to make it tough to find a half-price alternative that does everything the i30 can. So, can we?
Our first thoughts turn to something actually rather Fastback-esque in shape: the Skoda Octavia vRS. It, too, features a fastback tail, and as a result boasts a vast boot - one even bigger than the i30's in fact. It also replicates the i30's trick of combining an engaging drive with the sort of comfort that makes it liveable-with every day. This one's done a relatively low mileage, and looks rather good in bright red. But there's a catch: it's considerably down on power, at just 220hp, and while the Octavia's fun it's still a little way off being as involving as the i30. We can do better.
Especially given that it's now actually possible to get something that's just as powerful as the Fastback N for half its price. Namely, this Seat Leon Cupra. With 280hp to its name, it's capable of hitting 62mph even quicker than the i30 can, in just 5.6 seconds, and as this one comes with adjustable suspension it has the Fastback's 'everyday comfort' remit sewn up too. There's a smattering of extra options, too, such as ambient lighting - hardly a must-have, but still a very appealing nice-to-have. Then again, is the Leon really a rival for the Fastback N? Boot space is, after all, on a par with the standard i30 hatch. Perhaps we could let it off that minor inconsistency, but more troubling, is the nagging feeling that for all its outright pace, the Cupra suffers from the same problem as its distant cousin, the Octavia, in that it's just not quite involving enough.
So this week's trade-off hero takes a hit on outright power in the name of driving excitement. The flip side is that it manages to squeeze some extra boot space back into the bargain - more, indeed, than the Fastback N can offer. And it even ticks the same 'alternative body style' box, too, because it's not your common-or-garden hatch. In fact, it's not a hatchback at all, because our choice this week is this Ford Focus ST-2 Estate.
An estate instead of a hot hatch? A bit of left-field thinking there, admittedly. But hear us out. For starters, this Focus is a happy halfway house between the Octavia and the Leon, being more powerful than the former, more spacious than the latter - and more involving than either.
This example, being a 2016 car, benefits from the facelift, which brought significant improvements to the ST's already excellent chassis and steering that made it into a truly exciting car to drive. "The ST no longer feels overawed by its output, finding remarkable traction and retaining great composure where experience of the old car would suggest it shouldn't," scribbled Mr Bird when he reviewed it back in 2012. "The brakes are strong even when they get a bit smoky, the engine still torquey and responsive, the suspension striking an excellent compromise between comfort and control. And there's not a single damn thing to configure, which makes a pleasant change."
Yet despite this, being the slightly more laidback ST, this Focus should also be relaxed enough for day-to-day life, making it the perfect answer to the Fastback N's more comfortable character. What's more, as we've already touched on, that estate tail means it's every bit as practical - indeed more so, with an extra 40 litres of boot, not to mention a lower load lip and a squarer, more usable space. Oh, and if you'll help yourself to a squiz at the specs below, you'll spot that the i30's extra weight means the Focus is considerably more efficient - which is the sort of thing that's going to help if you're after a daily that can entertain.
Downsides? Well, it'd be remiss of us not to point out that for all its dynamic abilities, the Focus isn't actually as quick as the i30; it gives away 25hp and nearly half a second in the race to 0-62mph. The Focus's interior isn't much cop either, being a confused mess of plasticky swooshes, but then it is at least livened by bright red inserts on the seat - in contrast to the i30's rather dour affair. And while this ST is only three years old, it's a touch on the leggy side with 39,000 miles under its wheels already. You'll have to live without the Hyundai's whopping warranty as well.
There are sacrifices are to be made, then. But if you're willing to do so, the Focus ST offers you much of what's good about the i30 Fastback N for a £15,000 saving, which is not to be sniffed at. Question is: would you?
SPECIFICATION - HYUNDAI I30 FASTBACK N
Engine: 1,998cc 4-cyl turbocharged
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 275@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 260@1,450-4,700rpm
0-60mph: 6.1 sec
Top speed: 155mph
SPECIFICATION - FORD FOCUS ST ESTATE
Engine: 2,000cc 4-cyl turbocharged
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 250@5,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 250@1,750rpm
0-62mph: 6.5 sec
Top speed: 154mph