Carmakers get a bit funny about prototype builds – and with good reason.
Those mules you see running around adorned with psychedelic vinyl wrap are about as far from PR-worthy and sales-ready as you can get.
They are beaten, they are battered, they are slapped together with haste, zip ties, and necessity, and their fate is to be mercilessly thrashed for months before ending their days at the hands of a 25,000-tonne press.
It's unusual, then to see one in the pit lane of Wakefield Park Raceway, about 20 minutes outside Goulburn; a black-and-white paisley printed smallish hatch wearing a taped-over Hyundai badge.
A production-spec wing is affixed to the hatch lid and stylish black rims sit right out at all four corners.
The wrap spreads like a weed through the cabin and across the dash, as well, creating a convincing illusion of a skunkworks prototype that’s been through the ringer.
This, folks, is the first i20N in Australia, and it’s all ours. Well… for five laps, anyway.
What is a Hyundai i20N?
Not on your nelly.
“We’ve made no secret of the fact that we want to bring every N model we can get our hands on to Australia,” says Hyundai’s head of PR, Bill Thomas.
That includes the smallest N of all, the i20N.
It hasn’t been the work of a moment to make the ducks all line up nicely for the i20N to stamp its passport, though. The majority of Hyundai’s product comes from Korea, which is a relative hop, skip and jump away in terms of shipping cars to Australia.
The i20N, though, comes from Hyundai’s European base in Turkey, which… complicates matters.
As cars get smaller in size, the price balance between affordable and unattainable becomes tighter for both head office and Australian HQ; it’s why we don’t see a stock version of the i20 on Aussie roads.
Exchange rates, a convoluted supply line and potentially strong demand also give product planners on this side of the world late nights.
How much will the Hyundai i20N cost?
As well, there is a pretty specific number that Hyundai is aiming at when it comes to pricing the i20N.
That number is $32,290, and it’s the manufacturer suggested retail price of the Ford Fiesta ST, the car that will become the i20N’s primary competition.
The relatively old VW Polo GTI is just $600 dearer, as well, though on first impressions, it’s destined to be a two-horse race.
The i20N prototype sitting before us in the spring haze is all-but production-ready, save for a few mismatched door handles and interior trim pieces.
Mechanical specs of the Hyundai i20N
It uses Hyundai’s ubiquitous 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbo engine, tuned to around 150kW and 280Nm in this form (line-ball with the Fiesta ST), and it’s mated to a six-speed gearbox that sends the drive to the front wheels via a good old mechanical limited-slip diff.
There’s an N button on the steering wheel a-la its big brother i30N, but it can’t change much; the i20N relies on a fixed-tune suspension set-up that is based on big-buck Sachs dampers, a MacPherson front end and a torsion-beam rear.
Those stylish 18-inch rims hide large rotors and sliding calipers from a bigger Hyundai product; again, it’s a trick learned at the feet of the i30N.
Tying the chassis together is a set of N-specific Pirelli P-Zero tyres that, to be fair, won’t be cheap to replace when the time comes.
Hyundai i20N interior
Inside, the i20N is a small hatch with a surprising amount of room.
The stubby manual shifter feels a little low and offers a longish throw but the tiny steering wheel feels purposeful.
A small screen replaces the dashboard dials, and it’s complemented by a sizable multimedia screen that rises from the console.
All this screen real estate means it’ll be easy to tap into the car’s computer to call up temperatures of various bits on command, too.
Hyundai also tells us that lighter fixed-back seats will be offered as an option, but the stockers are, at first blush, pretty damn decent.
How does the Hyundai i20N drive?
With just five laps of the short but bumpy Wakefield track allocated to us, it takes about half of one to realise that Hyundai is onto something here.
A bloody good something, if I’m honest.
Straight away, it’s easy to access the i20N’s fun side, with tonnes of grip from those expensive tyres, a suspension tune that dances right on the line between compliance and support, big-ass stoppers and sufficient oomph delivered in an (almost) straight line.
It feels like a safe pair of hands, too, shrugging off some deliberately ham-fisted ploys to upset its balance.
I never feel a restraining tap on the shoulder, either, even in N mode and at full noise.
In short, the i20N is hilarious fun.
The gearbox’s action needs empathy – bow your head briefly in deference to the hard life this prototype has had – it’s a little conservative on turn-in and third gear feels moonshot-long, but in all, the i20N is a modern take on an old-school hot hatch.
A lap at four-tenths also reveals a deftness and suppleness to the suspension tune, while a quick sit in the back seat shows that you can take a couple of big buddies with you to your next track day.
Hyundai i20N verdict
If Hyundai can keep it this simple, and if it can keep it affordable, the i20N will undoubtedly prove to be a great gateway drug into the rest of the N line-up.
Pros Too much fun, even in prototype form
Cons Long third gear
Model Hyundai i20N
Engine 1591cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo
Power 150kW (est)
Torque 280Nm (est)
Weight 1150kg (est)
Transmission 6-speed manual
0-100km/h Not tested
Economy Not supplied
Price $32,500 (est)
On sale H1 2021