IF IT COMES down to personal opinion, the greatest hot hatch of them all was my 1990 Fiat Uno Turbo i.e. which had doors that rang like church bells the first few times you slammed them, and then eventually just disintegrated into brown dust if you persevered.
It wasn’t particularly fast and had an insatiable appetite for not-particularly-cheap IHI turbos, but on the days it wasn’t masticating turbines and spraying them out the tailpipe, it was one of the most theatrically brilliant cars I’ve ever driven.
And the same goes for the car that inaugurated the hot hatch segment – the 1975 Volkswagen Golf GTI. By today’s standards, the 1.6-litre fuel injected Dub is not fast, taking a glacial 9.0 seconds to get from zero to 100km/h, but if you can find an original Mk 1 GTI and an owner willing to let you have a thrash, you’ll find it to be enormously good fun regardless of the era you are driving it in.
Perhaps that’s why, after 43 years and seven and a half generations, we keep comparing any newcomer to the hot hatch segment with the one that started it all. Or perhaps it’s because the Golf GTI is still bloody good to this day?
Conveniently, Volkswagen has recently introduced the GTI Original – a special limited edition version of the Golf 7.5 that doffs its cap to the Mk 1 with three doors, pared-back specification and a compelling price of $37,490.
So what is it this time that throws its gauntlet at the Golf’s feet, prompting us to stage the obligatory GTI face-off? Unless you have spent the last three years with your head submerged in oatmeal, you will have been anticipating the arrival of Hyundai’s high-performance foray as excitedly as us.
Not only does it arrive packing a 202kW/353Nm 2.0-litre turbo four, six-speed manual with LSD and looks only previously seen on WRC Hyundais, the South Korean brand is asking just $39,990 to put one on your driveway.
That compares with the Golf’s 169kW/350Nm output, which is also supplied in standard trim with a manual six, or optionally with a dual clutch auto with the same number of ratios for an extra $2500.
Unlike the N, you won’t find leather in the Golf as some pricier equipment has been left out to sharpen the Original’s asking price – that said, the chequered cloth is almost compulsory in a GTI. Hyundai gives more kit for the cash in the i30 N, but the Golf still has one of the best information and entertainment systems in the segment. Same goes for its interior quality and design.
Despite the Volkswagen’s strengths and superior experience, the Hyundai is already looking good on paper. Find a 1.4km stretch of unbridled blacktop with 15 corners and the afternoon to yourself and those early positive indications turn into a blatant reality.
Bryant Park Hillclimb in the Haunted Hills east of Melbourne is no place for prohibitively expensive supercars that trade on downforce and wind-tunnel tuned aero, with punishingly tight turns the circuit is the domain of nimble contortionists like the front-drive pair we have here.
And from the first bend, Hyundai’s foray into high-performance cars reveals it is going to be a thorn in the side of some established players.
On cold tyres, the tail is unbelievably light enabling the nose to be tucked into the difficult corners, not that it needs much help with the excellent LSD gluing the front end to your chosen line as you wind the power on.
As the rubber generates some heat, the i30 N digs its hooves in and finds mammoth amounts of grip especially rewarding trail-braking into the wider turns, which lightens the back end regardless of the tyre temp.
The Golf is no slouch here though, and its chassis is brilliantly stiff on an unblemished racing surface, resisting roll and allowing laser-guided precision. It too has a decent diff but clever electronics that apply vectoring don’t feel quite as honest as the Hyundai’s solution.
At times, the Hyundai could almost convince you it has a driven rear axle as well with astounding grip in corners and a straight-line drag alike, while the German is unashamedly front-drive. The latter feels lighter when trying to get power to the road and when cornering – mainly because it is.
Where the Golf outdoes the Hyundai however, is its delightful gear shift, offering light but mechanical cog-swaps that suck themselves into place as if the gearbox knew what you were thinking. By comparison the i30 shift is heavy and cumbersome.
The Golf can also be had as an auto which works well for driving enthusiasts with a weak left arm and leg – something the South Korean can’t offer at launch (a dual clutch is coming next year), and that is likely to filter its buyer type significantly.
The Golf also shows its experience in pedal spacing and driving position. It’s a little tricky to heel-toe the Hyundai (but it can automatically rev-match if you can’t be bothered) and its deeply bucketed seats take longer to wriggle into the optimum position compared with the Golf’s excellent ergonomics.
Both cars have impressive engines under the bonnet displacing the same 2.0-litres across four cylinders that are filled by a single turbo, but both offer dramatically different deliveries.
The Golf is velvet smooth from idle and loves to rev all the way to its limiter just under 7000rpm accompanied by a satisfying note that comes across as partially piped through the stereo. The Hyundai, on the other hand, is immense at all engine speeds and, with the N-button pressed, produces a noise that is more akin to a rally car with loud cracks on overrun and a laughably loud report inside and outside the cabin.
The result is a car that is faster than the Golf R on the track and with more sense of occasion, but at a price cheaper than the standard GTI manual, with which it more closely aligns with in specification terms.
And it’s the same story on the road. To save cost on the Golf’s bottom line, adaptive dampers were not included for the Original spec and that has translated to a more jarring ride on public roads. It’s liveable and gets better when loaded up with people or things but the Hyundai’s locally tuned adaptive set up was always going to be hard to beat.
Both cars demolish good driving roads with impressive vigour but the Hyundai has a versatility that doesn’t require a period of adjustment when turning from the perfect circuit to the open road.
If this was a downhill bike race, the Golf would be a BMX darting from burm to burm executing tricks and flair the whole way to the finish, but the i30 N would be the full-suspension downhill bike, smashing its way to the bottom of the hill with unstoppable momentum.
Like my dear old Fiat, which has no-doubt returned to the earth as iron oxide, both the Volkswagen and Hyundai come to the party offering levels of value and driving enjoyment that could make you forgive a multitude of sins.
The difference is that, in the short time I had with the brace of hatchbacks, neither blew its turbo internals into the atmosphere or lost a body panel to corrosion and that makes it harder to find a bad word to say about either.
The Golf, as always, is an undeniable adversary in the hot hatch arena offering a level of precision, familiarity and accessibility that would take a catastrophic change of direction to knock it out of the running for best in show. It’s incredibly composed and complete. But the Hyundai is spectacular in its deft tackling of an entirely new segment for the brand.
Not only is it devastatingly quick on the road and circuit, with an accomplished engine, handsome looks and the ergonomics and practicality to match, it offers an all-round brilliant driver’s car at a price that the equivalent Golf simply can’t match.