Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Hyundai's New N-Brand Performance Car Ready To Burn Rubber

Sometimes, given its fast climb over the past decade, it’s hard to remember that Hyundai Motor celebrates only its 50th anniversary this year. That’s one reason the brand can seem “late” to certain traditional milestones already achieved by other carmakers that have a 100-year history.

Hyundai will hit one of those milestones later this year with the introduction of the first vehicle in its N-brand performance line. Many automakers have performance lines. They are the fast-moving, tight-cornering versions of existing models, with souped-up engines, stiffer suspensions and other improvements targeted at buyers for whom driving is a joyful experience, not merely a method of getting around.

Typically, these performance brands also have a higher sticker price, which adds to the profitability of the overall lineup. In a larger sense, a performance brand adds prestige to an automaker and often goes hand-in-hand with, or is the outgrowth of, an automaker’s racing operation, which is another station of the cross of a mature automaker.

Mercedes-Benz has the AMG performance brand. BMW has the M badge. Audi has the S and RS lines. Nissan has Nismo. Now, Hyundai has the N brand. The N stands for “Namyang,” site of Hyundai’s biggest R&D center, about 45 minutes south of its Seoul, South Korea, headquarters.

Hyundai has promised that its first N-brand vehicle – a high-performance version of its i30 hatchback, one of its most popular cars in Europe – will hit the streets soon. It’s fitting that it’s the i30 and it’s Europe. Europe is home to the world’s most demanding, and probably most accomplished, driving enthusiasts.

If you’re a rich European auto enthusiast, you hit the autobahn in your $120,000 Benz AMG. If you’re like the rest of us, you chase the AMG in your hot hatch. A hot hatch is exactly what it sounds like – a hatchback that’s been tuned to go really fast. The king of European hot hatches forever has been the Volkswagen Golf R, though the Ford Focus RS gives it a good run.

If Hyundai is going to establish itself with a hot hatch as the cornerstone of its N performance brand, it has to go right at the Golf, and the i30 is in the same segment. The i30 has good genes – it was the first Hyundai to be a European car of the year finalist. Now, with a 2.0-liter, 275hp turbocharged engine and a dual-clutch racing transmission, the i30N looks to run with the Golfs and Focuses on the autobahn. To head its N-brand line, Hyundai hired Albert Biermann, the former head of BMW’s M division.

Hyundai’s launch of the N-brand is the third leg of its attempt to establish its performance bona fides. The effort began when Hyundai re-entered racing in 2013, when it announced its return to the World Rally Championship circuit. Hyundai had dabbled in rally car racing earlier in its life, but had outsourced the effort, had little success and gave up in 2003. Ten years later -- and 10 years more technically proficient -- Hyundai came back with an in-house motorsport team, built its own headquarters in Germany and hired the best personnel it could from other teams. This time, Hyundai has won races, and currently sits in second place in the WRC standings, trailing only – naturally – Volkswagen.

Hyundai’s second important step in proving its performance ambitions was the 2013 opening of a shimmering, polished-steel auto garage at Germany’s legendary Nurburgring, a 13-mile race track that twists and turns and climbs and falls through the forest. Driver Jackie Stewart dubbed the track “the green hell.” Hyundai’s i30N was put through its paces in last year’s Nurburgring 24 Hours endurance race.

Hyundai raised its garage on prime real estate at the track – overlooking the start-finish line – in a clear announcement of intent to the rest of the auto brands. Testing your cars at the ‘ring, as it’s called, is a high-performance stamp of approval for gearheads the world-around.

Now, finally, Hyundai completes the third leg of its performance strategy by putting performance cars on the street. Hyundai promises additional N-brand versions of its cars, including some in its new stand-alone luxury line, Genesis.


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