Where Ford and Vauxhall once dominated, Kia and Hyundai have their sights set on the blue collar performance car, while also aiming to take some more premium scalps. Text by Antony Ingram. Photography by Aston Parrott.
KOREA HIGH / WHY KOREA LOVES THE PERFORMANCE CAR We explore Hyundai and Kia’s grand plans to dominate the performance car sector so many of Europe’s elite have left behind
A year or two ago KIA stretched the definition of ‘United Kingdom’ to absurdity by holding the ‘UK launch’ of its then-new Optima Sportswagon in… South Korea. Driving the Optima was something of a sideshow to the main event, though, which was a tour of the firm’s Namyang test facility and a chance to speak to the man Kia and Hyundai had recently poached from BMW M to lead its car development: Albert Biermann.
Two things stick in my mind from that day. The first was that the Optima Sportswagon was surprisingly adept around Kia’s wet and dry handling circuits, benefiting greatly from the fitment of Michelin Pilot Sport 3 tyres, a new rack-mounted power steering set-up, a much stiffer bodyshell and heavily revised spring and damper settings, all changes made at Biermann’s request.
The second was a comment by the man himself that explains a great deal about cars such as the Hyundai i30 N Performance and Kia Stinger GT S that currently reside on Drive-My’s Fast Fleet: ‘At Kia and Hyundai I spend more time actually driving and discussing dynamics with engineers than I did with BMW M – there, it was all meetings and arguing about money with accountants.’
At the time such remarks were to be taken with a pinch of salt; clearly you’re going to paint your current employer in a positive light. But they were understandable, too, from a man clearly frustrated that BMW’s M division no longer had the focus it used to have in its early days. At the time, the i30 N and Stinger were in their infancy – little more than rumours – but Biermann’s comments that his first mission at Kia had been to restart the Optima GT project from scratch after driving an unremarkable prototype suggested he wasn’t going to settle for ‘nearly’ cars.
The i30 N and Stinger GT S are not ‘nearly’ cars. The Hyundai is already an Drive-My group test winner, showing established players Volkswagen and Peugeot a pair of noisy exhaust pipes over the roads of Dartmoor, and while we’ve not yet put the Kia alongside its rivals, we’ve a sneaking suspicion it might do rather well against cars with propellers, stars or rings on the bonnet.
Of the two, the i30 N is closest to our hearts. It’s a thrilling, rowdy, but carefully considered car, one that matched the 308 GTi’s excitement with the Golf GTI’s everyday common sense in our recent group test, while never feeling second-best in either category. The key is that the base car, the regular Hyundai i30, has itself been steered under the new Biermann regime and is itself impressive. Leave the £28k i30 N in Comfort mode and the regular i30’s attributes shine through, albeit with unsubtle hints as to its new purpose: snug seats, a firm but well damped ride quality, and steering very similar in weight and response to… well, a BMW’s.
The ability to adjust the car’s characteristics down to the smallest detail (you can choose how aggressively the auto rev-matching responds, for instance) is another trait carried over from BMW, as is the option to assign your favourite set-up to a single button. We’ve heaped scorn on driving modes in the past, but Hyundai is doing them right: few other cars allow half a dozen drivers all to find their perfect B-road hero waiting for them in the car park.
Character and ability are what separate standard i30 from ‘crikey, where did that come from?’ N, though. It starts with a growling exhaust that does a passable impression of the i20 WRC car’s and crackles like a New Year’s Eve celebration every time you back off the throttle or punch from one gear to the next. It’s a joy to extend the 271bhp 2-litre unit, which is as happy to rumble around in its mid-range as it is nudging the limiter, and is responsive to tweaks of your toes and deft movements of the chunky gearshift.
Then there’s the handling, which is so far removed from that of any Hyundai we’ve driven before that it could be from a different manufacturer entirely. All the characteristics that define our favourite hatches – keen turn-in, front and rear axles that share the work in cornering, closely stacked gear ratios – are present and correct. Resist the temptation to knock the dampers into their firmer modes and the N doesn’t feel too troubled by rougher surfaces either, rarely skittering across bumps and quickly regaining composure on the rare occasions it does.
Some are edgier, many are faster and others still deliver more feedback to your fingertips, but the i30’s relatively compact size and kerb-sniffing front axle give it a wieldy feel increasingly alien as cars in this class grow in footprint. Our preferred Civic Type R, for all its rampant excitement and blistering pace on road and track, feels more like an Accord in comparison.
The Stinger? It’s grander, far more grown up than the i30 N, aimed at a market that Kia hasn’t approached before – and possibly an even more difficult one to breach, given competitors’ badges here carry more kudos than those of even the best GTIs or Type Rs. But the moment you send it down a stretch of road it justifies its existence, as much for what it doesn’t do as what it does. Audis feel beautifully built but also often stiff-legged on patchy UK tarmac. BMWs, recently at least, have hidden their true dynamic talents behind gloopy, unnaturally heavy steering and spiky power deliveries, while Mercedes wow with their technology but grumble and creak in a way that makes you fear for their longevity.
Like the i30, the Stinger seems to have found a balance of its competitors’ most desirable points but erased many of their weaknesses. The GT S feels composed and graceful on the road where all but the tallest-sidewalled Audis make you wince. The steering’s natural weighting and progression off-centre and linear throttle response feel more organic than those of a 4-series. And there’s clearly a Mercedes influence in the cabin, from the round air vents to the slightly clumsy location of the central touchscreen, but the Stinger’s standards of build have more in common with Mercedes of yore than Mercedes of 2018.
There’s a Jaguar-like flow to the Kia’s gait, one that Jaguar itself could learn a few tips from. The distinctive styling, with its grinning grille and bulldog haunches, certainly out-Jags the Brit brand’s unremarkable XE and XF, and makes you wonder whether even Alfa Romeo played things a little too safe with the pretty but relatively generic Giulia.
Come to think of it, the 365bhp, twin-turbo V6 Stinger could probably take a pop at most cars in this segment without bloodying its ‘tiger nose’. It’s a mark of how far Kia has come that it’s only a diet and quick steering rack away from matching the Giulia’s fun-factor, but throw in Kia’s more traditional attributes (like seven-year warranties and equipment lists bursting at the seams) and the GT S’s £40k price tag makes the Brit, Italian and Germans look slightly risky as long-term propositions.
That Kia and Hyundai make competitive mass-market cars should no longer come as a surprise. The brands are relatively young, but they’ve still had several decades now to get the basics right – the days of Ponys and Prides are long gone. But tempting people like us into performance models against competitors with a century or more of history? That’s no mean feat, and with several other hot models due in the next few years the barrage isn’t over yet. Never mind BMWs and Golf GTIs; whose scalp will the Koreans take next?
Below: the i30 N Performance has shaken up the hot hatch market, becoming a favourite in the Drive-My office.
Below: Stinger GT S enters uncharted waters for Kia, going up against the might of Germany’s ‘big three’.
‘THE MOMENT YOU SEND IT DOWN A ROAD THE STINGER JUSTIFIES ITS EXISTENCE’
BLUE THUNDER / THE RISE OF HYUNDAI & KIA
Road-going i30 N not enough? Bring on the £109,000, 350bhp TCR race car. Words by Adam Towler.
Hyundai n’s peculiar signature shade of light blue is already becoming burned into our consciousness: this i30 N TCR is part of a burgeoning range of performance road and motorsport cars that include WRC- and also now R5-spec i20s, and, of course, the admirable i30 N Performance hot hatch.
According to its chief engineer, Matias Brutos Schmidt, the i30 N TCR ‘retains a lot of parts and concepts from the road car, including the front and rear subframes, the steering arms, many suspension parts, and the bonnet, doors and windows. From a dynamic point of view, the kinematics of the suspension are along the same lines. This is the philosophy of the series. The engine [block] is exactly the same – we use a lot of road-car parts. It was very important to have a friendly, reliable car – this car has now done 7000km on its engine and gearbox with no problem’.
I mention this first, because when you stand next to the i30 N TCR any thoughts of the N road car are a long way from your mind. The body has those brutal, aero-led box wheelarches so ubiquitous on contemporary racing cars, while the roof-high rear wing is supported by twin struts unimaginable even to a mid-’90s Max Power reader. It’s all very crisp, and beautifully done, and that continues inside with an exacting standard of build and a seating position that sets the driver in line with the B-pillar.
The steering wheel juts right back into your chest, so your inputs are driven from your elbows, and a small, all-digital display is mounted on the far end of the column. The trick to a reasonably graceful entry to the i30 N TCR is to defeat the challenge of the roll-cage’s sidebar. Once you’re over that and you sink into the Sabelt bucket seat, there’s a letter-box view out the front and through the window net by your left shoulder.
The raucous 2-litre turbo engine’s metallic thrash sends tremors through the bodyshell, and the note is loud even with a balaclava and helmet on. The clutch pedal is only for pulling away from the garage, and the AP Racing cerametallic twin-disc item is sharp but manageable, the car chuntering and clonking away as we amble up the pitlane. With 350bhp hauling little more than 1200kg, the i30 N TCR is predictably potent. It makes the Brands Hatch Indy circuit shrink to little more than a few corners appearing in quick succession, while the Xtrac sequential shift, activated by some beautiful carbonfibre paddles behind the steering wheel, snicks in the next ratio almost instantaneously.
It’s a more physical experience than I was expecting, not just because of the noise and harshness, or the unflinching solidity of the suspension, but also because of the wilfulness of the limited-slip differential, perhaps exacerbated by very quick steering, which means that as a driver you have to keep a very firm hand on where the i30’s nose is pointing.
It brakes really well, with awesome power and feel from the 380mm front discs with six-pot calipers developed with Brembo. What I can’t really feel is how much grip beyond ‘not much’ is out there – fine for slower stuff, but sobering through Paddock Hill. In the dry the i30 will generate immense amounts of grip, but it’s a formidable mental leap to push harder on a cold, damp track. A couple of times I brake a little too deep into the corner on entry, and the resulting snap oversteer needs quick correction.
The real beauty of the i30 N TCR is that for around £109,000 you get a turn-key factory racing car that allows you to compete all over the world with little more than a change of tyre brand. It’s not hard to see why interest in the TCR has been so high.
‘WITH 350BHP HAULING LITTLE MORE THAN’ ‘1200KG, THE TCR IS PREDICTABLY POTENT’
THE BIERMANN FACTOR
Hyundai’s performance boss reveals what we may, or may not, see in the future. Words by John McIlroy. Photography by Alex Tapley.
Just as KIA (and now Hyundai) have harnessed the kudos and power of design boss Peter Schreyer over the past decade, so are the Korean brands’ dynamics being transformed by Albert Biermann, who joined from BMW’s M division at the end of 2014.
N is Biermann’s baby, through and through – although on the day Drive-My meets him, he’s in the UK to assist with development work on some far more humdrum Hyundais. It’s a sign of how highly the German is rated by the Koreans, who promoted him to a president-level post at the start of this year, allowing him to bring in another ex-BMW man, Thomas Schemera, to oversee the business and technical cooperation between N and Hyundai’s motorsport team.
On the dynamics front, you suspect that Biermann has forced plenty of engineers’ jaws to hit the floor these past three years. ‘I’m constantly pushing on steering,’ Biermann admits. ‘Every time they give me a new setting, I seem to still want it a bit more direct around the centre. I think we’ve made improvements already on regular Hyundais and there are more to come, I know.’
First and foremost, though, Biermann was hired to build credibility for Hyundai in performance vehicles, so the response to the i30 N has given him pleasure and a not-insignificant amount of relief. ‘We’re actually sold out with the car in some countries,’ he says. ‘In Germany the waiting list is more than 1400 orders; that’s awkward, in a way, but a nice problem to have.
‘It also shows, I think, that we hit a nice balance with our first N car. You always have to think about the mix of power, performance, handling and the fact that this is going to probably be the person’s one car – that they use every day. The reaction shows that we got this right, I think.’
The i30 N is the first of three N models as the sub-brand ramps up. The next should be an N version of the Veloster coupe, which will not be sold in the UK, and then an i30 N Fastback, which will. As we talk, Biermann is constantly dipping between what’s theoretically possible and what’s actually happening. He won’t confirm internet speculation that a dual-clutch gearbox version of the i30 N is coming later this year. But at the same time, he suggests that were such a car to exist (ahem), it may need a few more horses to cope with the auto gearbox’s extra bulk.
How about an i30 N Tourer? ‘Possible, but not planned.’ An i20 N? ‘We have to go there, with the WRC programme, but it may not be for a while.’ (The next generation of the car, in 2020, is the smart bet, although Biermann declines to confirm this.)
What we’re not going to see any time soon is an i30 with much more than the current N’s 271bhp. There are technical reasons behind this, we’re told; the base motor for the car’s 2-litre turbo powerplant isn’t the freshest in the Hyundai line-up, making a Civic Type R-rivalling figure out of the question. At the same time, Biermann doesn’t see a need to even go there – for the time being. ‘The reason the i30 N is doing well is because of that balance,’ he says. ‘So what happens if we start to add more power? The character starts to change; you gain a few tenths at the circuit, but you lose some everyday liveability. I’m pretty happy with where that car is right now.’
Outside of N, Biermann has spotted some extra potential in the Kia Stinger. ‘Would you like to see a Stinger with a manual gearbox?’ he asks. ‘A slightly more focused one, with the four-cylinder turbo engine and a bit less weight? There’s a related vehicle in the US [the latest Genesis G70] which has the right components for this.’
Sounds like a Kia Stinger ‘CS’ to us – and that shouldn’t really be a surprise, given Biermann’s CV. And in case you’re wondering, yes, we’ve urged him to get on with developing it.
‘IT SHOWS THAT WE HIT A NICE BALANCE WITH OUR FIRST N CAR’