For near enough 20 years now, the Skoda Octavia vRS has offered a hot hatch package that has won it many UK fans, in both showrooms and the media. By bringing together proven VW mechanicals with huge amounts of space, understated good looks and conspicuous affordability, it has never been difficult to understand the appeal. For anyone that's needed to move a lot of things a lot of distance discreetly but rapidly, there has always been a lot to say for the big Skoda. Once the swap had been made for the second generation from Golf Mk4 to Mk5 underpinnings, it was even quite good to drive.
Therefore the arrival of a direct competitor on the Octavia's patch is fairly big news, because nothing thus far has offered such a broad array of talents: rivals were smaller, slower, more expensive or more obvious. While perhaps never the most exciting, the vRS has delivered on a lot of fronts for a lot of people, hence its continued success. And, presumably, why Hyundai is keen to muscle in on its patch.
The i30 N is a car we're already familiar with, having impressed since its 2017 launch and already surpassed one VW group hot hatch in the shape of SEAT's 300 Leon Cupra. Here, though, we have the new i30 N Fastback, a car that - while not exactly cavernous - does sit alongside the regular hatch in the N range as ostensibly the more practical alternative. And if it's a functional, sturdy, unassuming yet still entertaining hot hatch that you're after, there's really only one rival to call on...
Hence a PistonHeads twin test of grey Skoda and darker grey Hyundai, on a day greyer than both in the middle of winter. You want real world? This is it, down to cleaning cars with kitchen roll, slogging down the M4 in torrential rain and desperately hunting for a bit of B-road space to see how the two compare on a Friday afternoon. Still, a representative test if nothing else...
The day begins in the Hyundai, here in Performance guise that will be the sole specification offered to UK buyers. Given how much is shared with the extremely likeable hatch, it should come as no surprise to hear the Fastback is immediately more than passable company. Much is made - probably too much in fact - of Albert Biermann's influence on Hyundais and Kias since his transfer from BMW M, but there really are areas where a link between M and N can be detected.
Now, obviously, this is not a six-cylinder, rear-wheel drive German saloon - we get that. It should be noted, however, that like recent M cars the i30 N has a front end of great tenacity and response, an electronically controlled mechanical diff that is great for traction and, most pleasingly, a slightly loutish (and rather naughty) character. The Hyundai makes more noise than it probably should, goads its driver into pushing that bit harder and, while of a different kind, will indulge anyone's penchant for skidding around a bit.
There are more subtle influences, too. See the drive mode buttons within easy reach on the steering wheel, as the M1 and M2 presets are in BMs; the shift lights that mean your eyes can stay ahead, found in in the HUD on M cars and a permanent part of the dash here; and the clever calibration of a mid-way traction control, ensuring the driver never feels that much is being lost out in terms of fun with one eye on safety. They've all made it across, and make a difference.
That said, the Biermann effect does have its less positive impacts as well. Like in any M cars you care to mention of the past decade, the i30's steering wheel is too chubby and connected to a system that prefers weight to feel, up to and including a chronically over-assissted sporty setting. It also features a stiffest suspension mode that feels very nearly too much on all but the smoothest UK roads - sound familiar?
Finally, the plethora of driving modes has to be mentioned. There's clearly a faith in them that's carried over, but in the same way that an M3 doesn't requite three different steering modes, neither does a Hyundai hot hatch need different strengths of rev matching. It's overkill, and not to the benefit of the experience. A Custom mode of more focussed powertrain settings with less intense chassis ones suits most situations, with Normal there for pretty much every other scenario. Don't forget the total number of dynamic configurations is 1,944, which is quite a few to get through in an afternoon on the A338.
It won't come as much surprise to discover that the M link feels most vague to the point of invisible when it comes to the i30's engine. The 2.0-litre turbo under the Fastback's snout is tuneful, potent and effective enough, but fails to match others in this segment - Skoda included - for response, eagerness and efficiency. It does the job, as does the gearbox, though not an awful lot more. It says a lot about the commendably high standards of the class, really, because there's not a great deal to fault it for. And anything that makes this much of a juvenile racket (when the situation suits, of course, and the right mode is selected) will always find fans on PH.
Despite the smorgasbord of settings, the joy of an N is in its relatively simple approach to thrills; it doesn't revolutionise expectations of a hot hatch (or hot fastback), rather it delivers on all the criteria we've come to use in classifying a good'n. The brakes are progressive and strong, the performance plentiful and the damping adept, if not class leading.
Get on the throttle too early and the wheels will spin; come out of the throttle too abruptly and it will oversteer; push and push and the Hyundai largely continues to deliver, surely testament to an exhaustive testing regime and proper investment in the hardware. To drive the i30 quickly feels old school but not old fashioned (to steal a catchphrase) and all the more likeable for it.
In comparison, the Skoda's obvious maturity feels a little subdued, and - to be honest - a little plain. The upside of that, naturally, is a more restful nature when the journeys are less interesting. A calmer, less punishing ride around town is easy to appreciate; although perhaps not its less boisterous attitude generally. Even as a range topping variant with power matching the Golf GTI Performance, the impression of the Octavia being the sensible, demure hot hatch in the VW empire never subsides.
That's not to say it can't be entertaining - not at all. Indeed there are areas where it's demonstrably better than the Hyundai. The steering has less unnecessary resistance but no worse a sense of connection (and a much nicer wheel), and this 2.0-litre turbocharged engine feels keener at high revs and it doesn't appear to be any slower than the more powerful i30 - which can be credited to a lower kerbweight and higher peak torque figure.
What the Skoda lacks - indeed what's always been missing, but is brought into sharper focus here - is some excitement, that point where competence becomes flair and talent morphs into something more memorable. Even in its most aggressive Sport mode, the Octavia is fairly meek; the sound is uninspiring, the VAQ diff still nowhere near as precise as the Hyundai's mechanical unit and the damping lacks conviction. It's a fine set up for everyday use - but what's the point of configurability if there's not some genuine, tangible differences between the modes? Certainly that's not a criticism that could be levelled at the i30, even if its array of choice verges on the bewildering.
Put simply, the vRS never quite ups its game to the level of a really decent hot hatch. It's perfectly pleasant, with an accurate manual gearbox, pleasingly neutral balance and laudable agility for something so large, yet it never comes alive in a way that it arguably should, and which the Hyundai certainly does.
Now before the Octavia army come charging in, we get it - the vRS has lots of similar cars rivalling it on the same architecture that it mustn't tread on the toes of, a problem the Hyundai doesn't have. It must strike a balance between performance and practicality (that's different to other VWs) which, by and large, it does very well. It shouldn't be forgotten, either, just how vast the Skoda is - for some buyers the very fact of the i30's pokier dimensions will discount it.
But if that can be tolerated, the i30 N Fastback delivers a compromise more appealing than that of the Octavia vRS. The chassis modifications made in the light of hatch buyer feedback have made it a tad more liveable, albeit not at the expense of that car's up-and-at-em enthusiasm and fun. What that means for this comparison is that Hyundai can't quite offer the sort of mellow, detached comfort of the Skoda, but that it offers greater reward for those who like driving. That it manages the latter feat without being anymore more taxing to use as a family car - albeit a slightly smaller one - is more than enough for it to win out in our book.
SPECIFICATION - SKODA OCTAVIA VRS 245
Engine: 1,984cc, turbocharged four-cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 245@5,000-6,700rpm
Torque (lb ft): 273@1,600-4,300rpm
0-62mph: 6.6 seconds
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 1,445kg [EU, including 75kg driver]
Price: £27,625 (price as tested £29,345, comprised of Canton Sound System for £510, Electrically adjustable, heated, folding auto dimming door mirrors for £210, Lane Assist and Blind Spot detection for £400, Temporary space saver spare wheel for £150, Virtual Cockpit for £450.)
SPECIFICATION - HYUNDAI FASTBACK N
Engine: 1,998cc, turbocharged four-cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 275@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 260@1,450-4,700rpm
0-60mph: 6.1 seconds
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 1,516kg (including 95 per cent fuel and a 75kg driver)