Aside from one or two flashes in the pan, the Ford Fiesta ST has reigned supreme since the seventh generation was launched eight years ago. It picked up where the old Renaultsport Clio 200 (the manual one) left off in 2012, and while cars like the 208 GTI by Peugeot Sport and various iterations of the Mini have challenged it sporadically, it remains the front-drive supermini to beat. Even the change to three-cylinders didn't unduly alter the status quo. In fact, the ST got better.
No disrespect to Ford - quite the opposite, in fact - but no-one's time at the top should come so easy. Even Roger Federer needed Nadal to keep him honest. Step forward Hyundai N, the bullish newcomer to the segment. The newfangled performance division has already shaken things up with the i30 N in Europe, and done the same thing in America with the Veloster N. If our recent prototype drive is anything to go by, the division could also be onto another winner with the Kona N crossover. Next up, superminis.
The humble i20 might not seem like the most auspicious way to challenge Ford's bestseller, but let's not forget that Albert Biermann - the former boss of BMW M and the man originally charged with making the i30 N great - is now responsible for Hyundai R&D across the board. Not only was the i20 developed under his watch, he also oversaw the arrival of the new TGDI 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine that powers it with an ST-rivalling 204hp and 203lb ft of torque. In fact, all of the numbers are on the money: the i20 N comes with a six-speed manual, hits 62mph in 6.7 seconds and weighs a competitive (though still not officially confirmed) 1,200kg.
Elsewhere, the springs and dampers are unique to the N model, with new knuckles and bespoke kinematics, as well as a stiffer beam at the rear axle. The steering has been retuned for greater feel and there's an optional mechanical limited-slip differential with electronic control - ensuring the i20 N comes with the same bragging rights as the ST. The exhaust, oval-tipped and poking out of the right of a fake diffuser, gets a valve to vary the note depending on the drive mode (although the pops and bangs delivered by the i30 N are conspicuously absent in the downsized model).
While the car gets passive dampers (so there's no ultra-brittle N chassis mode), you can adjust the aggressiveness of the engine, rev-match and steering, as well as the ESC software. The latter can be switched out completely, but there is also the choice of pre-set Eco, Normal and Sport modes, as well as the most hardcore N setting. These can obviously be cycled through at your leisure - or you can click one of the wheel-mounted buttons for default N. Or click the other to access individualised N settings. Hyundai's fussiness when it comes to drive modes has not dissipated, in other words.
Neither has its taste for fussy styling. It's also impossible to miss the wider tracks or the P Zero-shod 18-inch wheels. Or the fixed rear spoiler. No doubt its appearance will be as marmite and colour dependent as they come - but it looks better in the metal, and there's not much wrong with the basic proportions. Same goes for the inside; it's hard to fault the functional dash, especially when the digital instrument cluster switches the boring default screen to funky, data-filled N mode graphics. You even get physical buttons for the volume and climate control.
Fiesta ST aside, seating positions tend to be disappointing in this segment, yet the i20 N does an admirable job of placing its driver low in a supportive part-leather sports seat, within good reach of all controls. Expect to get comfy quickly, which is always important for a supermini's ease of use. The clutch is light but easy to modulate, the throttle appropriately quick and the steering light but direct. It's a fine start, helped along by a crisp gearchange familiar from the i30 N and a nicely progressive brake pedal.
The car is not particularly hard riding, either. There's an inherent firmness that means you'll get jiggled about over bumps and cracks at low speed, but with more load comes more give. The i20 N is one of those cars you tend to drive quickly the second you leave town, if only to keep the chassis where it was intended. In corners, it hunkers down with serious intent, but not so much that all of the communicative body roll is taken out. It feels more earnest than the ST at speed - where the Fiesta bobs and weaves with its ultra-quick steering, the i20 N hunches and leans in a more considered way, rotating gradually at its centre. That means it doesn't feel so lairy, or as keen to cock and inside wheel, but is more mechanically linear. It has a surefootedness that encourages you to play at its limits, bend after bend.
Handily, the steering - which is at its most natural in the Normal setting - offers more feedback than the hyperactive rim of the ST. Despite having a slower rack, the i20 N's chassis, intrinsically neutral in its balance, is no less primed to react to mid-corner inputs. Trail the brake into a bend and the car tightens its line; pin the throttle and the diff splits the torque effectively but without tugging at the wheel. Overall it's a more intuitive, tidier process than in the Ford.
Which isn't to say it's boring. There's oversteer there if you want to dab the brake pedal at the pivotal moment. But it doesn't feel like the i20 N's natural state, even with the gargle coming from the more aggressive exhaust setting. Like the chassis, the 1.6-litre engine feels quick in a grown-up way, with a linear delivery that builds to (an estimated) 6,000rpm peak and the kind of snarl that ought to satisfy fans of proper four-cylinder engines. Dare we say it, the motor feels better resolved than the i30 N's burly 2.0-litre unit. Perhaps it's to do with the i20 N's lighter weight, but it's certainly more eager from low revs, meaning the supermini just gets up and goes, albeit without the shove the i30 N provides on boost. We tried the launch control software and it was surprisingly good, with a hard limiter and a tiny per cent of off-the-line slip, before the fronts hooked up. The engine and gearbox are good enough to have you extinguishing the auto-blip function - not because it's bad, but because there's fun to be had from doing the heel and toeing yourself. Which always speaks volumes.
The car around it deserves the same accolade. This plainly isn't the occasion for a definitive verdict - not least because the car we drove is a left hooker, and technically pre-production (hence all the guesswork in the spec box) - but it feels like the real deal, and a serious threat to the Fiesta's crown. Interestingly, while it shares the ST's unyielding attitude to slow speed ride, its handling temperament is notable for its differences. There's the distinct impression that the i20 N would be a step up on circuit, and ultimately the faster car. That doesn't make it 'better' in a broader sense, obviously - although it conveys some of the fundamental ability that Hyundai N has plumbed into the chassis of its smallest offering. It will likely need every ounce of that talent if the car ends up costing the nearly £25k rumoured. The ST's belligerent starting price has seen off more than one worthy challenger. But the i20 N is well equipped and very cleverly branded; it's easily good enough for Ford to worry about looking over its shoulder. About time, too.
SPECIFICATION | HYUNDAI I20 N
Engine: 1,598cc, inline four, turbocharged
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 204@5,500-6,000rpm (est)
Torque (lb ft): 203@1,750-4,500rpm (est)
0-62mph: 6.7 secs
Top speed: 143mph
Weight: 1,190-1,220 (est)
Price: £24,995 (est)
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