Given the UK's obsession with hatchbacks, it was a surprise when the last generation of small, fast, four-doors hit the market. It seemed cars like the previous S3 saloon were niches within niches, but seemingly the business case could be made. And now there's more of them than ever: the Audi has returned, Mercedes-AMG sells both A-Class saloon and CLA models and BMW has entered the fray with the M235i Gran Coupe. When Hyundai can justify bringing back the i30 N Fastback, its sort-of saloon version of its first hot hatch, there's clearly something in the small saloon segment.
In fact, look a bit closer and what appears a new fad makes a lot more sense. In 2004, an Audi S4 was a little over 4.5m long, about 1.8m wide and 1.4m high; it was four-wheel drive, hit 62mph in five seconds or so and had a top speed of 155mph. The S3 saloon here is 4,504mm long, 1,816mm wide and 1,415mm high; it's actually faster from rest than the old V8 bruiser, reaching 62mph in 4.8 seconds. As the S4 has become bigger, quicker, and more expensive, so the S3 has evolved to occupy the void. The newer car even looks good value by comparison; an S4's asking price in 2004 was £37,200, which is more than £58k in today's money...
To the test at hand. With slightly more mature remits than their conventional hot hatch siblings - there surely won't be many S3 saloons in Python Yellow - so the design of Audi and Hyundai can be considered differently. And where the i30 N maybe works better as a regular five door, with the ducktail looking a bit strange on the pinched rump, the S3's super-subtle approach suits a saloon. What was arguably plain as a hatchback proves subtle and nicely reserved with a boot, even with a fussier front end than before and, still, 100 per cent more exhaust pipes than it really needs.
Every cliché and preconception there might be about these two cars is realised inside. The Audi is cool and clean, the touchscreen infinitely better than those in related cars and the experience improved markedly for - you guessed it - having physical ventilation controls. Perhaps quality isn't sensationally good, but the aura is spot on for a small Audi: contemporary, uncluttered and highly satisfying. A well sorted driving position is a welcome bonus - VW, SEAT and Skoda, take note.
The Hyundai is noticeably less plush by comparison, as might reasonably be expected. But there are still some details that grate even allowing for that; the handbrake looks like it belongs in an Accent from 2002, not a new £35k car. The touchscreen can be fiddly, especially when configuring drive settings, and a few buttons, notably around the gearlever, feel plasticky. They aren't dealbreakers, though are worth noting; this car launched in 2017 at £27,995, remember, a price point where those irks aren't so bothersome. With the DCT, the Sportback starts at £35k, and the Hyundai becomes a different proposition as a result. You only need look at the popularity of seemingly every Audi on sale to know the importance of a good interior.
But this is PH, and we cabin ambience is only so important. The script goes out of the window on the road; the car with the contrived, overbaked and stiff-riding sporty mode is the Hyundai, for example. The Audi does modest and mellow as well as anything, free from gratuitous steering heft or unnecessary damping force, the optional sports suspension worth every penny given how unsettled the passive hatch was. The S3 even does a manipulated engine sound moderately well, with just a hint of five-cylinder warble under load.
Even when cranked up to Dynamic, there's a degree of subtlety about the Audi. The ride retains some pliancy, and the steering is uncorrupted by 'sporty' amounts of assistance. It's trustworthy from the off, responsive to every input and able to keep its composure in all but the most testing situations. With the dual-clutch transmission out of its occasionally sleepy standard setting plus this engine's expansive torque, the S3 can very quickly be... well, travelling very quickly. Without the driver keyed into much feedback, yes, but again, that seems less of an issue when considering a small saloon rather than a dedicated hot hatch. There's enough in the experience to appreciate - the speed, the willingness to turn and the ride, for example - if little to be totally enamoured by. Crucially, by virtue of the improvements to the steering and (optional) damping, this feels a better S3 to drive than before - and that wasn't necessarily the case with the hatchback.
If the Audi is immediately and impressively agreeable, the Hyundai takes time to show off its best. Where the S3's drive modes subtly adjust this and ever so slightly tweak that, the i30's approach is blunter: Eco is torpid, N mode little short of torturous given the punishing ride, fiercely heavy steering and hair trigger throttle. They do what's said on the tin, at least... A little configuring sees it right; you'll never want more than the standard steering or damping and a powertrain one down from the maximum keeps the energy without the hyperactive responses.
It ought to be noted, however, that even at its optimum, the Hyundai isn't suddenly leagues ahead of the Audi. The confidence the all-wheel drive gives probably makes it faster; everything from the front axle behaviour to the throttle response making you more certain about steering here, accelerating there, and getting to point B from point A quicker than expected. The i30, with more lag and steering that feels less natural - always heavier but no more feelsome - takes a bit more time to get in a rhythm with.
But boy is it fun when you do. It's everything the Audi isn't, and probably will never be: raw, raucous entertainment, a little uncouth and the better for it. Perhaps this facelift has smoothed off a few rough edges, the ride just a little more supple and the engine not quite so boomy, though the N experience remains a boisterous one. Which, in its own way, is great, as the car makes a whole heap more sense driven fast. As the diff locks tighten and wrench the car from a bend, so the steering comes to life and relays something about it; light shifts and lovely aluminium paddles make revs so much more exciting than in the S, while the brakes bite with a nicer feel under your right foot (or left, for those feeling fancy) and so on. The Hyundai driver won't be travelling any quicker - in fact the Audi may well edge ahead, such is its ability to just draw performance from nowhere - but they will remember the experience a whole lot more vividly. Even if part of that memory will be a slightly coarse engine and a chassis that still wants for some sophistication.
An i30 N any other way wouldn't really be an i30 N, though. Its maker has repeatedly made a virtue of the slightly old-school approach, from decent value and a simple options list to a rowdy exhaust and a bit of waywardness. It makes for an immensely likeable hot hatch, but in remaining so faithful to the standard car's formula, it's hard to know quite what the Fastback offers that isn't there with the ordinary i30 N. It's still a hatchback, truth be told. But what do we know? Hyundai has brought it back, now with the DCT option as well, and it's better than ever for those who want it.
From a sports saloon perspective, the S3 better fulfils the brief. It too is fairly similar to the hatch, but its character traits are made to seem more appealing in the grown-up body. The Hyundai feels like an i30 N squirming to get shot of a weird boot, whereas the Audi is like a slightly smaller S4: smart, stylish, capable, and just about entertaining enough to warrant its flagship billing. In any colour other than Python Yellow, nobody would notice it, yet the S3 would be faster than almost everything. It drives like a Golf R, yet looks better and has an interior that actually works. Just imagine what it might be like with five cylinders and a Drift Mode...
SPECIFICATION | 2021 HYUNDAI I30 N DCT FASTBACK
Engine: 1,998cc 4-cyl turbo
Transmission: 8-speed dual-clutch auto, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 280@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 289@2,100-4,700rpm
0-62mph: 5.4 seconds
Top speed: 155mph
Price: £35,695 (price as standard; price as tested £36,280 comprised of Shadow Grey paint for £585)
AUDI S3 SALOON VORSPRUNG | SPECIFICATION
Engine: 1,984cc, turbocharged inline four
Transmission: 7-speed dual-clutch S-tronic auto, all-wheel drive
Power (hp): 310@5,450-6,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 295@2,000-5,450rpm
0-62mph: 4.8 secs
Top speed: 155mph (limited)
Weight: 1,505kg (DIN unladen)
MPG: 35.3 (WLTP combined)
CO2: 181/km (WLTP)
Price: £45,945 (price as standard; price as tested £47,320, comprised of Python Yellow metallic for £575, 19-inch '5-Y-arm structure' wheel for £250 and Dinamica upholstery for £550)
1 / 23