Interview: Hyundai's Hot Hatch Boss

Interview: Hyundai's Hot Hatch Boss

This bloke has said too much, but he’s not about to disappear – not when you’re the boss.

Cheerful German Albert Biermann, once head honcho at BMW M Division and responsible for cars like the current M3 and M4, is now spending a little more time down Korea way these days. And he has the swagger of someone firmly in charge and knowing what they want.

Hyundai’s hired Biermann to give its cars some proper balls. None of this half-baked warm hatch malarkey – the mysteriously-dubbed upcoming N Division is writing big cheques and making all the right noises. And it sounds to us like punters playing in the sub-$50K market are about to get even more spoiled.

 We’re chatting to Biermann at the Paris Motor Show, MOTOR scoring an audience along with about half a dozen other Aussie motoring journos. And Biermann is giving away dots, in close, easy-to-join proximity. We didn’t know much about the upcoming i30 N hot hatch but now we know so much we’re having to temper expectations.

Hyundai i20First, it will be front-drive with a proper mechanical LSD – “the real thing,” smiles Biermann. Initially it will be manual only but there’s talk of potentially an eight-speed wet dual-clutch 'box down the track.

The i30 N will have a bespoke front axle presumably to handle the extra grunt. It will have more lenient, sport ESP settings. And we are almost imagining the Toyota 86 of hot hatches – not necessarily the fastest gadget around, but it must be fun, must withstand a scalding on a racetrack and it must be cheap.

“I’m not so much excited about zero to 100,” admits Biermann. “I’m looking more how is it driving on the track and how much fun is it to drive on some nice winding road.”

“I gave clear directions,” Biermann adds. “This car has to be track-going, and very enjoyable. Pushing it to the limit, it has to be consistent on the track, and not just die after two laps, the tyres and the brakes and everything, and that’s what it is, we just make the car what we think is our strategy."

Hyundai RM16 concept rear“It has to be consistent, it has to have good quality, like every other Hyundai – yeah? This is what we stand for. And it has to be affordable, like any other Hyundai. So it will have a strong value for money point, and it will have very good quality, and it will be very robust so you can really push it on the circuit.

“And of course, it will be fast, yeah – it might not be perfect in some area, but I don’t care. I mean, first of all it’s about the fun, and enjoyable, tossing it around.”

So the i30 N will concede some outright pace for affordability but it must be fun and have on-track stamina. And there will apparently be two versions of the i30 N – one built for weekdays, and one built for weekends. “The customer has a choice,” Biermann explains. “If you want to go a little more wild, more track-focused – or more road-focused.”

All music to MOTOR’s ears but we confess we have a feeling of wanting to see it before we believe it. We’ve been here many times before – car company crows A, we drive it only to find B. But Biermann is keen to stress that the N cars are nothing like the tepid SR-branded Hyundais we’ve seen in Australia – and he comes back to the track thing again.

RN30 concept car pedals“The key difference is the high performance cars are really developed for racetrack driving,” says Biermann. “You can take them out on the racetrack. And you can just drive it, brake. They can survive. The sports models, they cannot survive on the track. They can survive one or two or three laps, depending on you, maybe three, that’s it.”

So we’ve established that much: the i30 N is coming and it sounds like it’ll deliver the goods. But what about after that? Biermann basically confesses Hyundai is working on multiple new N products. And in our group discussion with Australians, the inevitable question comes up: will we see an N version of a V8 rear-driver? (Please say yes, please say yes, please say yes…)

“We have a V8,” confirms Biermann with a not-particularly-promising puzzled expression. But he neither opens nor closes the door to a V8 N car.

Hyundai RN30 interior“I think we can continue for some time with the V8. It’s a nice engine. I don’t know if you could ever [give it a] makeover but, it could also happen. In this luxury segment, in the Genesis in the US, it’s a good situation to have a V8 in our G90. I think the V8 does a good job. I mean I personally like more the 3.3 turbo…”

“N is for all Hyundai,” says Biermann. “But that’s it, not for Genesis. I’m not saying there can be no high-performance car for Genesis, but if there was one, it was not an N, it would be something different. But at this point, there is no name, nothing for Genesis.”

Okay, what about the RN30 concept car – the gullwing-doored track concept as seen at the Paris show? Surely that’s hinting at Hyundai’s own road-going A45 AMG fighter – presumably for much less coin. But Biermann, with a pragmatic air, stresses N Division must walk before it can run.

“We have a test car with exactly that performance (280kW and all-wheel drive), and all the driving eLSD and all this stuff, but this is just advanced prototype,” he says. “So this is not close to any production, mass production or something. But then we [do] have cars testing already at Namyang with that technology in there.”

Hyundai RN30 concept car“But there’s no decision, not even close yet to decide about it,” says Biermann separately. “Technically we are getting closer and closer but, you have to understand – we come [to] this point from like almost nowhere, yeah?

So we decided to go into the C-segment and make a high performance car and that will be the i30-based high performance car that will be launched next year. And that is not on the upmost level of high-performance [in the] segment. So that is some ‘mid-area’ of high performance in that C-segment, so… I think such a high-power car, this is just too much to put this out now.”

Boo. If anything, Biermann hints, it’s cars like the Ford Fiesta ST and VW Polo GTI that should be looking over their shoulders – and an i20 N makes sense given it’s the car Hyundai has based its 2017 WRC challenger off.

Hyundai i20 WRC car“As you know there is a whole lot of nice hot hatches out in the B-segment, so maybe at some point we might decide at some point to go there, but there is no decision yet.”

And we can’t help but ask, but what about the poor old Veloster?

“Ah yeah, I love it. It’s one of my favourites. It’s a really characterful car. And yeah, it’s one of my favourites, I like it a lot. Not the way it’s driving now, but it has a lot of potential for the future.”

Either which way you look at it, until now and even for the next little while, Hyundai has not cut it at as a performance car manufacturer. But it sounds like they’ve got the right people in the right places and crucially as an organisation, want to inject some pizazz into the brand by way of some cut-price performance cars. Watch this space – we will be.

BIERMANN ON...

Hyundai RM15Drift Mode
"It’s still a front-wheel drive car but I am thinking about it!"

Electrification
"Right now in this first step of cars there is no electrification. But we are ready for [it] whenever the customer [asks], or when it’s needed to meet some regulations."

Local tuning
"[There will be] no tuning for Australia. But we will invite Australian engineers to join us. This car will all be tuned in Nurburgring – that’s it, period."

Real LSDs
"[We are not going to use] torque vectoring by brake. This is the real thing. Just electronically controlled."

Fast SUVs
"They are not so much sophisticated as the coupes and the sedans. A little bit later we might make [one], but there’s no plan now. I would love to make a really hot Tucson, but nobody wants this."

Get your free weekly report from the world of fast cars - subscribe to the MOTOR newsletter!