It’s time for a fight, and it’s going to be a very interesting one. It’s a performance hatchback brawl and our two contenders are frothing to get their names at the top of fans lists in Mzansi and all over the world. First up we have the ultimate farewell to a perennial favourite the Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR, ahead of the Golf 8 GTI being launched later this year. It is the result of a simple recipe. Take the planet’s most popular fast family hatchback and make it go and handle as best it can.
The TCR is meant to be a pure GTI experience and we have the privilege of getting behind the wheel of model 299 out of the 300 that will come to SA. Next up we have a vehicle from South Korea, Hyundai’s very first attempt at a serious performance car – the i30 N. Last year we drove it on road and track, and we were certainly impressed. It signaled a new era for the brand and now we have the chance to drive it back-to-back with its closest competitor (keep in mind that a facelifted version is due this year).
Same but different
These fire breathing hatchbacks are very similar on paper but in reality they are very different in their execution. They are both front-wheel drive only and have six-speed transmissions; one is a quick-fire DSG while the other is a meaty manual. The pair are also identical in size, at around 1 799 mm wide and with a wheelbase of 2 625 mm for the TCR and 2 650 mm for the i30 N, while sharing familiar five-door body shapes. Each has electronic limited-slip differentials with identical tyre sizes and the units we had on test were even fitted with the same brand of rubber.
Both are powered by 2,0-litre turbocharged petrol engines. The TCR offers a potent 213 kW between 1 950 and 5 300 r/min, and 380 N.m from as low as 1 950 r/min. To put the latter figure into context, the 3,0-litre turbodiesel Isuzu D-Max that’s capable of towing 3 500 kg produces 380 Nm too. The Hyundai counters with a less impressive but strong 202 kW at 6 000 r/min and 352 Nm from a bizarrely low 1 450 revs. How the boffins at Hyundai managed this is simply incredible.
The pair also offer impressive standard kit, such as panoramic sunroofs, heated front seats, adaptive suspension, front and rear park distance control, LED headlamps and partial suede trimmed bucket seats. However for the Hyundai there isn’t a single option you’ll need to tick where, as is custom with German brands, you can easily add R50K to the TCR by adding on options.
As you can tell, these two machines are more alike than they are different in terms of the specification, but the Hyundai does trump the Golf when it comes to its class leading 7 year/200 000 km drivetrain warranty.
Practicality wise, both offer decent usable luggage room, with about 380 L of packing space, and both are more practical and usable than your average sports car, but we’re more interested in how they drive on the road.
GTI TCR On Road
At 35 kg lighter and 20 mm lower than the regular Golf GTI the TCR has been honed to offer a more focussed and thrilling drive. The already impressive electronic limited-slip differential on the GTI has been recalibrated here to further minimise understeer. The chassis balance is more playful than you’d originally expect from a Golf as it rotates under braking into corners, but you can never get too far out of line before the ESP kicks in, even though you made the choice to turn it off. Volkswagen engineers, I know that you certainly are better qualified than me on the subject of vehicle dynamics, but please at least allow me to make my own irresponsible decisions, especially in a performance car.
If you don’t drive like an utter moron and travel at 90%, the diff works incredibly well at tucking the nose in, with grip to spare. However, if you get over eager by accelerating too early on the exit of a corner the 380 Nm on tap can easily overcome the front tyres. You need to drive TCR neatly to get the best out of it. It’s not as wild as something like a Honda Civic Type R nor a Renault Megan RS. Blast down the straight sections of road, hit the brakes hard before a corner and gently turn the car in on the throttle while patiently waiting to really get the hammer down near the exit of the corner and repeat, corner after corner.
It’s an effective way to drive a car seriously quickly but it’s not particularly fun in the TCR.
The well-loved EA888 motor is strong and in conjunction with the six-speed dual-clutch transmission the package feels responsive and immediate and the highlight on the road must be the suspension calibration. The TCR breathes the road with control and confidence and I’d dare say that it’s actually comfortable. The body-hugging seats certainly have a part to play in this and as a daily commuter the TCR is hard to ignore.
I30 N On Road
With little time to muck around with the dozens of driving modes and suspension settings I simply hit the N button on the steering wheel and set off. N mode automatically selects the most aggressive drivetrain settings and like a triple shot of tequila you quickly get to know what the i30 N’s performance is all about. The engine pulls with serious vigour through all six gears, and although on paper 353 N.m is the claim, with an overboost function the motor can deliver a meaty 379 Nm. The manual shift is direct, tactile and meaty in its operation and if you couldn’t be bothered to blip the throttle with the side of your right foot, the rev-matching system will synchronise the engine speed with the wheel speed during downshifts, contributing to brisk, smooth changes.
The steering is a joy; developed at the Nurburgring, the i30 N offers the best steering feel in its class. The feel is well weighted, if not a little too hefty, and feedback impressive. In 2021 it’s incredibly rare to find a car that offers real steering feedback. The rim chatters, communicates and vibrates the message from the road to the palm of your hands.
Thanks to the pin-sharp steering and clever electronic limited-slip differential, direction changes are conducted without hesitation. Unlike the TCR the i30 N can turn all of its nannying safety systems completely off. Thank you Hyundai for understanding that off does indeed mean off. Step off the throttle mid-corner and the rear of the car lightens to rotate you into a corner. It’s an utter joy to play with the adjustability of the rear of a front wheel drive car and if you so desire you can get away with some serious angles.
Despite the playful nature it’s how this hot hatch grips and goes that we enjoy the most. You can accelerate out of tight corners extremely early, second gear hair pin bends can be exited with your foot flat midway through the corner and the i30 N simply puts its power down. You can’t help but laugh like a six year old when this car is driven hard. The noise it makes is raucous and the way it flows down a road makes you feel as though you’re piloting a Hyundai WRC rally car. Sure it’s slower than the TCR but the thrill on offer is up there with the Supra’s and Caymans of the world.
What we have here are two brutally fast family hatchbacks in what has proven to be one of the closest twin tests we has ever featured. We are grateful that cars like these exist as they give the middle-aged family the opportunity to spice up their lives without losing out on the mundane practicalities of everyday life. These two vehicles share so many of the values that make for an epic hot hatch experience. From the high levels of steering accuracy, sweet chassis balance, face bending stopping power and serious punch under the bonnet what more could you possibly ask for?
Both machines come in at under R700k and offer over 200 kW. In today’s money these limited editions offer superb levels of performance for the cash and both have enough room for four adults plus luggage. We are thoroughly impressed by the breadth of ability both the GTI TCR and i30 N offer, yet we need to choose a winner for this test.
With ‘only’ R13 000 between the two it’s an incredibly tough call to make. Yet, due to the hardcore rally-car persona, thoroughly engaging six-speed manual, lively chassis and a better sorted electronic differential and traction control system it’s the less-powerful Hyundai that takes the win today. It’s the sort of car you get into and simply want to drive regardless of the destination.
The GTI TCR on the other hand is a car we deeply respect but we don’t adore it. A special edition car should give you a reason to wake up early and go for a drive and in this test the Golf isn’t that car. It’s impressive and it has serious power while the DSG offers lightning quick shifts but it lacks some character despite this being a final hurrah for the Golf 7. What Hyundai has done here is completely rattle the cage of the hot hatch market and we couldn’t be happier that it’s available with a quality shifting six speed manual.
Volkswagen Golf GTI TCR
Engine: 2,0-litre, 4-cylinder, turbopetrol
Transmission: 6-speed automated dual-clutch
Power: 213 kW @ 5 000 – 6 200 r/min
Torque: 380 Nm @ 1 950 – 5 300 r/min
0-100 km/h: 5,6 sec (claimed)
Top Speed: 264 km/h
Economy: 7,5 L/100km (claimed), 9,8 L/100 km (tested)
Hyundai i30 N
Price: R679 900
Engine: 2,0-litre, 4-cylinder, turbopetrol
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Power: 202 kW @ 6 000 r/min
Torque: 353 Nm @ 1 450 – 4 700 r/min
0-100 km/h in 6.1 sec (claimed)
Top speed: 250 km/h
Economy: 8,5 L/100km (claimed) 10,2 L/100 km (tested)
Words: Damian Adams
Photography: Peet Mocke
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