The Hyundai i20 Sport is the first vehicle to bear the badge of Hyundai’s N Performance Division – not even the Golf GTI-targeting Veloster Turbo wore the brand on its tailgate.
But a source within Hyundai SA tells us Hyundai HQ weren’t too happy with the badging on the i20 either, to the extent that the i20 Sport’s name was changed from N-Sport to just plain Sport within a few hours of its details being released locally. “It isn’t a true reflection of N Performance,” we were told, and would, “dilute the N brand with sub-standard models”.
If you’re not au fait with N Performance division, you should be. They’ve engineered highly competitive WRC competitors in the last two years, and they’ve poached Albert Biermann from BMW’s M-division to head up affairs in Namyang; pair that with designs from Peter Schreyer, and Hyundai want their N brand to be something special – a challenger to the greatest performance sub-marques from Germany.
The i20 Sport isn’t that, nor does it even vaguely worry the likes of Renault Sport or Ford’s ST division – so even leaving the “N” badge on the back is a risky move.
Upgrades to the i20 to warrant the Sport moniker are few. In the way of performance upgrades the Hyundai i20 Sport features remapped software tuning to the existing 1.4-litre engine found in base i20 variants – upping outputs to a claimed 85kW @ 6000rpm and 160Nm @ 3500rpm from – as well as a free-flow exhaust system and up-rated suspension.
The engine hardly feels more potent than the standard tune on the 1.4, and any gains near the 6000rpm peak are hard to find through the engine’s refusal to rev out. It gets there, but it feels laboured and is far from enthusiastic about it. The noise that accompanies it is equally as awkward – the free-flow exhaust hums monotonously at higher engine speeds, and at low speeds its dull, bassy drone permeates the cabin in a most annoying fashion.
The front wheels are driven via the same bog standard 6-speed manual transmission as the regular i20 1.4. The throw is too long and too light for a Sport model; it’s all in a sloppy transmission setup for a ‘sporty’ car – acceptable on a commuter model, but nothing more.
Equally dismal is the steering setup – the Hyundai i20 Sport again features an unrevised rack from the standard car. The rack is slow, painstakingly so – large amounts of lock are required to negotiate quick, simple turns, and feedback is largely absent. The lack of weight also fails to inspire confidence in the front wheels resulting in over-reliance on the assumption that front-end grip is present.
But it isn’t, and the front end frequently washes out wide in moments of sudden understeer. The wider 205/45 profile tyres (195/55 on the standard i20) and uprated suspension only marginally aid the handling of the Hyundai i20 Sport – but with that said, they aren’t entirely a waste, and of all the upgrades made the suspension is the biggest improvement.
The upgraded dampers filter out imperfections in the road surface with greater efficacy than before – but rather than helping handling, it does a greater job of improving ride quality. Stiffer springs give the Hyundai i20 the support it deserves over the standard models, reducing body roll and sudden dips and dives over large changes in the road surface.
Visually there are a few more upgrades. A sports body kit, featuring new front and rear bumpers and side skirts, accompanies a roof-mounted rear spoiler. The free-flow exhaust gets an almost comically large tailpiece, and the 17-inch alloy wheels look distinctly aftermarket – the kind you’re likely to find on a modded Citi Golf. It looks more ricer than OEM Sport, with only the N badges on the fenders and tailgate identifying it as a factory model.
The interior is identical to the standard i20 with no differentiation for the Sport model. No Sport-specific seats, steering wheel, or gear shift lever are to be found, and aluminium pedals are notably absent. The interior quality is the same harsh plastic we bemoaned in our test of the i20 1.4 Fluid last year, and the inclusion of only 2 front airbags is also worrisome – competitors like the Suzuki Swift Sport and Opel Corsa Sport boast a full complement of 6.
The features list apes the lesser models too, featuring ABS, EBD, automatic climate control, a CD/Radio audio system with Bluetooth streaming and telephony, steering wheel-mounted controls, and electric mirrors.
As Sport models go, this is far from competing with the class leaders. At best, it’s a mediocre attempt at a marketing ploy; and festooning the hatch with N badges feels like a cheap representation of a performance brand wanting to break through. It’s a poor reflection of the N badge, but according to our sources it was never supposed to wear the badge to begin with.
The Hyundai i20 Sport lacks genuine sporting attributes and misses out on the finer nuances of agile handling and an involving drive. The sloppy gear shift, slow steering and cheap appearance do little to win my favour, and it feels like a genuinely rubbish attempt at a sport hatch.
Then there’s yet another point of contention; the price. Hyundai are asking R253 900 for the i20 Sport – R12 000 more than the simply superb Suzuki Swift Sport and a mere R3 900 less than Opel’s Corsa Sport, both of which simply outclass the Hyundai in almost all aspects. The Hyundai i20 Sport is found wanting on pace, dynamic ability, spec, and overall appeal. It doesn’t warrant the Sport moniker, let alone the N-Sport one.
If you want a Hyundai hatchback with some performance and ability, forget N Sport, or even Sport. For R8 000 more the Hyundai Accent Hatch is dynamically superior, more spacious, and offers better spec, without looking kitsch in the process.
Or if this is your price and size bracket and you want a proper sport hatch, the answer is always Suzuki Swift Sport. Hyundai, you never even came close with this dismal attempt.