Hyundai recently announced it would launch an N division that would produce vehicles to tackle the hot models from Ford, Volkswagen and Renault. This nameplate is still in the development stages, with just the Vision GT car and the i20 WRC models being released with the badge. Hyundai SA was a bit trigger happy in this regard as the i20 Sport is somewhat of a celebration to welcome the new division to the brand. Because of this, it would be inaccurate to label this model as a fully fledged N model, but does it fulfill its Sport characteristic?
In terms of appearance, the i20 Sport makes use of deeper side skirts and a boot spoiler, 17-inch alloy wheels and an oversized stainless steel exhaust. You'll also notice the N stickers on the front fenders and tailgate.
Annoyingly, there have been no revisions to the interior. It remains bland and drab, with an over-usage of hard plastics, which may be suitable for a standard i20 but a product such as this does need visual appeal both inside and out, even if it means trimming the steering wheel with some bonded leather or installing N logos on the gear shifter, headrests or dashboard just to make it feel a bit more special.
The 1,4-litre Kappa powertrain makes use of a UniChip together with the stainless steel CAT back exhaust for a claimed 11 kW and 27 N.m performance hike. This is a welcome addition to the i20 Sport because it minimises the annoying flat spot found in the standard model and when you take the substantial 17-inch Yokohama tyres into consideration it becomes an entertaining ride.
The i20 Sport doesn't have enough of a kick to give you butterflies when you mash the throttle, but it's faster than what you would expect from a naturally aspirated 1,4-litre engine. The droning exhaust won't be to everyone's liking, but it does start balancing out once the engine crests 4 000 r/min.
Thanks to the chipping, it has access to a lot of its power in the higher gears which means that downshifting becomes less of a necessity, a recurring issue with the standard i20. Bear in mind, however, that with its 160 N.m of torque delivered at 4 250 r/min, it still doesn't deal with steep inclines very well. The throttle is also more responsive, but despite that, it still takes its time to reach a reasonable speed.
The Yokohama tyres are effective and provide the i20 Sport with respectable levels of grip and impressive cornering capabilities. However, when you floor it through a corner, there's notable understeer, betraying the light-hatchback roots. It's best to wait until the corner opens before jumping on the throttle. Other than that, this tweaked setup makes this little hatch agile, responsive and simple.
The steering setup, however, does bring the team down. While it maintains the easy-to-park electric steering system which is great for an everyday commuter, it feels too vague for a performance-oriented product.
When you match the i20 Sport up against the Suzuki Swift Sport or the Chevrolet Sonic RS, it makes little sense. It's short 15 kW of power and it costs just about the same. The only edge that it does have over is competitors is its local flavour. The car screams South African street car culture and somewhat pays homage to the likes of the VW CitiGolf CTI and Opel Corsa GSI, something that a lot of petrolheads with a R250 000 budget might favour.
This local flavour can also be seen as a flaw, however. The stainless steel exhaust extension is of very poor quality and its paintwork on the new test vehicle had already started to bubble. Although the interior quality is of an acceptable standard, our test car had quality issues such as a blown front speaker.
Those failings aside, the i20 Sport has charm and you'll love it if you don't take it too seriously. In no way should it be considered a performance car, but what it has done is has whet our appetite for what N model Hyundais will be like...