Ford Focus ST-Line vs Hyundai i30 N-Line
If you’re after a stylish, sporty-looking car without the running costs that are usually associated with them, you’re spoilt for choice these days. BMW’s M Sport trim has been around for years, as has Mercedes’ AMG-Line and Audi’s S-Line equivalent.
And now other manufacturers have started to catch on offering their own Diet Coke versions of their sportiest offerings. Volkswagen’s R-Line, Seat’s FR and Peugeot’s GT-Line are fine examples. And we can’t forget Ford’s effort – the ST-Line. Even Hyundai has cottoned on now, offering its i30 in N-Line guise.
On paper, these cars offer all the economy and practicality as any other trim, but mix in a bit of street cred borrowed from their respective sporting editions. Having driven the latest Focus ST-Line and sampled Hyundai’s i30 N-Line in recent months, we decided to put them head to head in an automotive equivalent of Coke Zero v Pepsi Max.
And we’ll start with the reason this kind of trim has become so popular: the looks. It’s actually an incredibly simple formula: the style of a performance car, without the performance. In the Ford’s case, it does this courtesy of larger 17in alloy wheels, a twin exhaust, a black honeycomb-effect grille and of course a smattering of ST-Line badges.
A 10mm drop in ride height completes the look. Doesn’t sound much, all in, does it? The revisions might seem small, but they’re surprisingly effective. Park up next to a lowlier trim and you’ll see what we mean. On the surface at least, it’s a lot more ST than entry-level Style. So how does the Hyundai compare?
It’s far from the first to stick the word ‘Line’ on a middle-of-the-line model, but that doesn’t mean it’s incomplete, as such. You’ll notice it gets the same bumpers as the i30 N, although it swaps glossy trim for a subtler chrome look. Other performance-inspired tweaks don’t stop with a few false vents, either. The 18in alloy wheels are standard, as is the twin exhaust round the back. Screw on a few ‘N-Line’ badges and voila.
It might get larger alloy wheels, but overall the Focus is probably the better looking of the two, partly because the latest Focus is the prettier car to begin with, and partly because we prefer those subtle black touches and body-coloured door handles to the chrome pieces on the Hyundai.
In the cabin
Internally, these cars are much the same as the exterior. They aren’t as focused as the cabin of the performance cars, but there are some neat touches that make all the difference compared to lowlier trims.
The new Focus delivers a quality, well-thought-out interior that’s a serious improvement over its predecessor. Design-wise, it’s more like a Golf than before, and in ST-Line’s case you benefit from niceties like titanium-effect trim adorning the dash and doors. The biggest leap forward is the infotainment. Lower trims make to with a 6.5in touchscreen, but the vivid version in the ST-Line is 8in and comes coupled with Ford’s latest SYNC3 software.
Inside, the i30 N Line looks a little more ordinary, although it gets some sports seats, a leather steering wheel complete with ‘N’ badging and an aluminium gear lever – just like the full fat N. An 8in touchscreen is present and the infotainment system is extremely easy to use. In fact, ergonomically, the i30 impresses. There are one or two bits you notice that don’t particularly look as plush as the Ford, but generally the tactile elements feel like a well-screwed together, quality product.
Behind the wheel
So we’re clear from the outset, you shouldn’t expect either of these two cars excel in the performance department. But they do offer a more engaging, enjoyable drive than their equivalent lesser trim levels. So how do they pull it off? The i30 N-Line is available with one sole engine – a 1.4-litre turbo-petrol producing 138bhp; not enough to worry a true hot hatch, but enough for a 0-62mph run of less than nine seconds. If you want to get a move on though, you do have to put your foot down.
What else has changed about the N-Line? Well, not much, aside from a drop in ride height and the addition of Michelin’s Pilot Sport 4 tyres, the latter making all the difference in the handling stakes. It’s still no go kart, but with less lean and a lot more grip, that 138bhp is precisely the right amount. The ride isn’t harsh or crashy in the way you’d expect, either.
And now the Ford, which as we found out when we drove it, is back on top as the go-to hatch for a keen driver. For a start, ST-Line models get a much more sophisticated suspension than other trims. Aside from the drop in height, there’s an independent rear suspension. This results in a far sportier feel and a much more well-controlled ride. And then there’s the engines…
Unlike the Hyundai, you’ve actually got a choice. Quite a wide choice. Things kick off with the 1.0-litre Ecoboost petrol that produces 123bhp. A more potent 1.5-litre petrol is available with 148bhp, while a 2.0-litre diesel is offered with 118bhp and 148bhp. For those who want performance that’s more in-keeping with the car’s looks, you might want to consider the ST-Line X, because this adds the option of a 180bhp petrol. Our choice, however, would be the 1.5-litre petrol in 148bhp form. Why? It offers the best combination of performance and economy – exactly what this kind of car aims to offer.
Which one wins?
Both iterations of the Focus and i30 are decent choices if you’re after a practical, ‘ever-so-slightly-sporty-but-not-quite-a’ hot hatch, but which should you choose? The latest i30 is a quality product, and the N-Line ups the ante with a (relatively) powerful engine, a sportier-looking interior and of course those all-important tyres. However, it’s fair comment that Ford has been producing this kind of car for longer, and it knows what people want.
The Focus offers a much wider range of engines, meaning that you really can have the sporty looks with an extremely frugal drivetrain should you want to. There’s also monthly lease rates to consider, and the Ford trumps the Hyundai here too – average ST-Line prices are between £25 and £50 per month less expensive on average for a comparable rental profile. All things considered, it’s the Ford that wins for us.