Volkswagen Golf GTI 2021 review
VW's iconic hot hatch returns for its eighth iteration, but where has VW managed to improve on the already very good Golf 7.5 version?
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When Hyundai launched its N spin-off performance brand, eyebrows were raised.
Was Korea’s number one automaker, hardly associated with performance in the past, really ready to take the fight to a German great like the Volkswagen Golf GTI?
Yet, to the surprise of many and the delight of even more, Hyundai took its shot and didn’t miss. In its original incarnation, the i30 N was manual-only, track-ready and warranted, and sharp in all the areas where it counted. The only issue? While it launched to critical acclaim, its sales potential was ultimately held back by the lack of an automatic transmission.
As three-pedal enthusiasts will tell you, this is where things can go very wrong for a performance car. Many (quite rightly) curse Subaru’s continuously variable automatic WRX as an example of a car that trades away its soul in favour of chasing sales, and while the Golf GTI has only gone from strength to strength after converting itself to dual-clutch automatic-only, many still lament the loss of one of the best three-pedal setups for daily driving on the market.
Fear not, though, if you’re reading this and thinking the i30 N’s new eight-speed automatic won’t be for you, you can still buy it in manual guise for the foreseeable future.
For everyone else curious to see if this auto version still has the chops, read on.
The i30 N now has a few variants in its range, with buyers able to select a base car wearing a before-on-road cost sticker of $44,500 for the manual, or $47,500 for the eight-speed dual-clutch automatic version we tested here.
That makes it more affordable than its most direct rivals, like the VW Golf GTI (seven-speed DCT auto only - $53,300), Renault Megane R.S. Trophy (six-speed DCT Auto - $56,990) and Honda Civic Type R (six-speed manual only - $54,990), landing more on-par with the Ford Focus ST (seven-speed auto - $44,890).
Standard stuff on our base automatic includes 19-inch forged alloy wheels clad in Pirelli P-Zero rubber, a 10.25-inch multimedia system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity, built-in sat-nav, a 4.2-inch TFT screen between the analogue dial cluster, full LED headlights and taillights, cloth-clad sport bucket front seats with manual adjust, leather-appointed steering wheel, a wireless phone-charging bay, keyless entry and push-start ignition, dual-zone climate control, LED puddle lights, bespoke styling to separate it from the rest of the i30 range, and an expanded safety suite from the pre-facelift model, which we’ll look at later in this review.
Performance touches include a front electro-mechanical limited-slip differential, bespoke ‘N Drive Mode System’ with performance-tracking system, performance brake package, electronically controlled suspension, active variable exhaust system, and a bump in performance for its 2.0L turbo engine compared to the previous version.
What does it lack? There’s no all-wheel drive, nor is there a steep increase in tech items like a full digital dash, for example. Then again, you can trade away some of this car’s sharp attitude for the more creature-comfort laden VW Golf if you’re so inclined…
This gets to the core of the issue defining ‘value’ for a hot hatch like this. Yes, it’s cheaper than some of its notable rivals, but potential owners will care more about which one is more fun to drive. We’ll get to that later, but what I’ll allude to for now is the i30 N finds a brilliant little niche of being better equipped for fun than the focus ST whilst falling short of the refinement of the Golf GTI.
The i30 N only looks meaner for this facelift, with a new grille treatment, frowny LED headlight profiles, more aggressive spoiler and flair designs, which make up its bodykit, plus aggressive new forged alloys.
It’s perhaps more eye-grabbing and offers a more youthful flair than VW’s toned-down but quietly attractive GTI, whilst not being as obviously wild as Renault’s Megane R.S. As a result, it aesthetically slots into the i30 line-up seamlessly.
Clean lines typify its side profile, and the black highlight trims either make for big contrast on the hero blue car, or a more subtle aggression on the grey car we had for our test. The tweaked chunky exhaust pipes and new rear diffuser round out this car’s rear, in my opinion, without overdoing it.
As good looking as this Korean hatch is on the outside, it approaches its interior design with surprising restraint. Aside from the bucket seats, there’s nothing about the i30 N’s interior that screams ‘hot hatch’. There’s no over-use of carbon fibre, no visual overload of red, yellow, or blue highlight trims, with the only real hints of the N’s potency being the two additional buttons on the wheel, and a subtle strip and N logo adorning the shifter.
Otherwise, the interior is the standard fare for the i30. Simple, subtle, pleasingly symmetrical, and totally no-nonsense. While it’s missing the digital flair of some of its rivals, I appreciate the interior space feeling mature enough to be as pleasant to use every single day as it will be on the track.
The new bucket seats deserve a mention, because they’re clad in a smart, hard-wearing and uniform cloth trim, rather than something with an alcantara strip or leather highlights, which will potentially date poorly.
To round it out, the new, larger screen helps to add just enough of a modern touch to stop the N from feeling out-of-date.
As a result of not straying far from the mainstream i30 on which it is based, the N loses pretty much nothing when it comes to its cabin space and ease-of-use.
The driver’s position, which felt a little high in the previous car, seems a bit lower, perhaps thanks to these new seats, and the design of the dash itself provides front passengers with superb ergonomics.
The screen, for example, has nice big touchpoints and shortcut touch buttons, and there are dials for volume and the dual-zone climate system for quick and easy control.
Adjustability is great if you’re happy with manual seat adjust in this base N, while the leather-clad wheel offers both tilt and telescopic adjust. The dash is a basic dual-analogue dial layout – which just works - and there’s a colour TFT screen for the driver’s information.
Storage includes large bottle holders in the doors, two in the centre console next to the suddenly old-fashioned looking manual handbrake (I wonder what this is for…) and there’s a large bin under the climate unit for your phone. It also houses dual USB ports, the wireless-charging bay, and a 12v power outlet. A basic armrest console box with no extra connectivity also features.
Rear passengers are granted decent space despite the chunky bucket seats in the front. I’m 182cm tall, and behind my own driving position I had a little knee room and decent headroom. The seats are tilted back for comfort and space, and rear passengers are offered a single large bottle holder in the doors, or two smaller ones in the drop-down armrest. On the downside there are flimsy nets on the backs of the front seat (these never wear well…), and rear passengers get no power outlets or adjustable air vents, which is a bit of a shame given some lower variants in the i30 range do get vents.
The rear outboard seats have a pair of ISOFIX child-seat mounting points, or there is the required three across the back row.
Boot space comes in at 381-litres. It’s wide, useful, and great for the class, although there’s space-saver spare under the floor, in place of the full-size alloy which appears in lower i30 variants.
The pre-facelift i30 N was hardly wanting for power, but for this update some extra has been squeezed out of the 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo, thanks to a new ECU tune and a new turbo and intercooler. These tweaks add an extra 4kW/39Nm to what was available before, bringing the total to a punchy 206kW/392Nm.
Further to this, at least 16.6kg has been trimmed from the N’s kerb weight, thanks to lighter seats and forged wheels. The auto transmission in this particular car adds a little weight back, however.
Speaking of the transmission, the new eight-speed dual-clutch automatic was specifically developed for application in N-branded products (rather than pulled from another model) and has plenty of neat software functions, which both remove some of the more negative attributes of this type of auto and add a launch control and specific performance functionality for track use. It’s great. More on that in the driving part of this review.
As a hot hatch you can hardly expect it to be the last word in efficiency, but with an official consumption of 8.5L/100km, it could be worse.
We all know that this will vary greatly in a car like this depending on how you drive it, but this auto version returned a decent 10.4L/100km in my largely urban week with it. For the performance on offer, I’m not complaining.
The i30 N has a 50L fuel tank regardless of which version you choose and requires mid-shelf 95RON unleaded petrol.
The i30 N’s facelift has brought an increase in standard safety equipment, and as it turns out, opting for the automatic version will give you a little extra gear, too.
Standard active items include city-speed camera-based auto-emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane-keep assist with lane-departure warning, driver-attention alert, high-beam assist, safe-exit warning, and rear parking sensors. This automatic version also gets the proper rear-facing gear, including blind-spot monitoring and rear cross traffic alert with collision avoidance.
It’s a real shame there’s no freeway speed auto emergency braking or adaptive cruise control here, as the N apparently lacks the radar system required to enable these technologies on other variants.
Seven airbags make up the i30 N’s complement, featuring the standard array of six front and side, plus a driver’s knee.
The i30 N is specifically excluded from the standard car’s maximum five-star ANCAP safety rating, which dates back to 2017 when it was awarded to the pre-facelift model.
It is notable that VW’s Mk8 Golf GTI has many of the up-to-date features this car misses out on, as well as a current ANCAP safety rating.
5 years / unlimited km warranty
ANCAP Safety Rating
Now here’s a good story, Hyundai covers the i30 N with the standard five-year and unlimited-kilometre warranty, which is specifically inclusive of non-timed track usage, with track tyres, too – something other brands distance themselves from with a barge pole.
It’s also setting the standard for hot hatches on the market, given its Korean and Chinese rivals don’t offer a car in this class.
Servicing is required once every 12 months or 10,000km, and the most affordable way to service it is with the brand’s new pre-paid service plans, which can be chosen in three-, four-, or five-year packages.
The five-year pack, covering the time limit of the warranty and 50,000km of distance, costs $1675 or an average of just $335 a year – excellent for a performance car.
Your 12 months of roadside assist is topped up with each genuine service visit.
Now to the important stuff, does the updated i30N, and more importantly, the new automatic, live up to the high standards set by the original version?
The answer is a quite confident "yes". Things have been improved across the board, in fact, and the new auto is a thing of glory.
Snappy, responsive, and importantly void of any of the annoying glitches often associated with twin-clutch setups, the new eight-speed unit is to be applauded for keeping the original spirit of the car.
For obvious reasons it’s missing that mechanical connectivity you’d experience with the manual, but with the instantly responsive paddle-shifters there’s still loads of fun to be had.
Unlike some early or particularly performance focused DCTs that rival brands have offered in the past, this transmission is particularly smooth from a standstill and between the first, second, and third gears.
This appears to be thanks to a software-controlled ‘creep’ function (which can actually be turned off, if you want to make the most of the hard start on the track) to make it behave more like a traditional torque converter in low-speed scenarios. It still does suffer from a bit of roll-back when you introduce a steep incline, as well as a bit of a delay engaging reverse, but other than those issues, which dual-clutch units are mechanically pre-disposed to, it’s generally devoid of skipping or grabbing incorrect gears.
Not bad for this car’s first shot at going automatic. Transmission aside, the i30 N formula has been improved in other areas. The new ride retains the rigid, raw feeling on the road the previous version was famous for, whilst injecting a little extra comfort in the dampers.
The whole package feels better balanced, with the nastier characteristics smoothed out enough to make for a more friendly daily drive, while also imbuing it with what feels like less body-roll in the corners. I only say ‘what feels like’ in this instance because the worst of the body-roll in the previous i30 was only really identifiable at track speeds, so it’s hard to really tell without having this new version at track-speed to compare.
The new forged alloys look the part and trim a whopping 14.4kg of weight, and the corresponding roughness in ride they should bring on the suddenly slim-looking tyres has been counteracted by the suspension improvements.
The steering is as heavy as it is accurate, providing an enthusiast driver with the feedback they crave, although I will say with the auto it is hard to discern the bump in power granted by the extra 4kW/39Nm of the improved engine. I’m sure it’s there, it’s just hard to compare to the old car with the new transmission. Like the previous car, however, there’s plenty of pull on offer to overwhelm the front tyres and have the steering wheel tugging against you.
Things aren’t as rosy in the cabin as they are in Volkswagen’s new Mk8 GTI, however. While the i30 N’s main German rival has a sublime ride and all the creature comforts and high-tech refinements daily drivers will expect, the i30 N is comparatively unfiltered.
The steering is heavier, the ride is still more harsh, the digitisation takes more of a back seat with analogue dials and a manual handbrake is still offered to the driver.
Still, it offers a balance between the comfort of the VW and the all-out roughness of something like Renault’s Megane R.S. I think it will keep many an enthusiast happy by treading carefully between the two extremes.
The i30 N is still an absolute cracker of a hot hatch in a contracted but tightly contested field of players.
For those seeking a more raw and unfiltered experience compared to the sandpapered gloss of VW’s latest Mk 8 Golf GTI, without dipping too far into the realms of track-focused discomfort, the i30 N auto hits the mark.
It has lost very little in gaining a performance-oriented automatic transmission, which I predict will only exponentially increase its sales, and for 2022 it also gains a slew of welcome but not overly digital refinements.
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