THEY say good things come in threes. For Hyundai the third-generation i30 is hopefully the one to conquer rivals, including the Mazda3. But this all-new small hatchback from South Korea also delivers a trio of engines in an attempt to offer the broadest – and best – range yet.

Aptly, our time in the i30 starts in the $20,950 (plus on-road costs) Active manual, even in virginal white paint. Our last test of the second-gen i30 was for this entry model, while at the national media launch of the new car Hyundai had that outgoing model on display for cross comparison.

Initial impressions are tempered by a slight step back in perceived cabin quality, with the plastics of the previous model migrating to shinier, but still soft-touch surfaces, while hard door trims replace the former cloth inserts. Along with a plastic steering wheel, the i30 Active feels austere inside.

Turn the key, however, and the 8.0-inch touchscreen brings welcome colour as well as three outstanding connectivity features – integrated satellite navigation, digital radio and Apple CarPlay/Android Auto smartphone mirroring technology. It all works a treat, too, except for the nav occasionally displaying an incorrect speed limit on one particular road.

It is also a bit mean that Hyundai reserves rear-seat air vents for SR/Elite/Premium models only, as well as leaving auto up/down for all windows and wireless phone charging off the Active menu.

But now with auto on/off headlights, both rear parking sensors and a rear camera, and 16-inch alloy wheels, the i30 Active is better equipped than ever.

It is also slightly larger. The boot moves from 378 litres to 395L, and cabin space remains decent, if not to Honda Civic standards.

With a bigger boot, better infotainment and more equipment overall, these virtues are ultimately enough to overshadow the shift back in plastics quality.

The entry i30 is now more powerful, too, with a 2.0-litre direct-injection (DI) petrol four-cylinder reserved for the entry grade and replacing the old 1.8-litre engine. With 120kW at 6200rpm and 203Nm at 4700rpm, it is 13kW/28Nm more potent than before.

A kerb weight of 1251kg has stalled compared with the previous model, despite a new platform, but along with a slick-shifting six-speed manual the new drivetrain delivers solid performance and decent smoothness. While virtually silent at idle, it can lack torque and become loud when revved, although the sound it makes is silky rather than unpleasant.

At least the new i30 is quiet in terms of road noise on its standard tyres, certainly much more so than in a Mazda3 or Toyota Corolla. The new Elantra-based chassis has been tuned by Australian engineers, and the result is the most compliant and controlled entry i30 yet.

Gone is the sticky steering of the old car, replaced by a nicely light helm that gently adds weight when turning while remaining tightly consistent. Also vanquished is the restless ride, replaced by suspension that might still not be perfectly silken nor immaculately tight, but is now well-resolved.

A new Holden Astra or Volkswagen Golf driver would, however, feel a slight lack of ultimate ride suppleness, engine smoothness and torquey effortlessness.

Still, this Hyundai’s handling is rewardingly balanced and secure even at entry level.

It costs $2500 (manual) or $2700 (auto) to step up to the 1.6-litre turbo-diesel in the i30 Active, and brief time testing the diesel i30 Elite revealed that it solves the petrol’s slight noisiness and, with 100kW at 4000rpm and 300Nm from 1750rpm until 2500rpm, it proves far more effortless.

The downside is both the diesel-auto-only i30 Elite and i30 Premium are priced identically to the $28,950 i30 SR and $33,950 i30 SR Premium, with near-identical equipment, yet they use a more basic torsion-beam back-end versus superior multi-link independent rear suspension (IRS).

With a 1.6-litre turbo petrol four-cylinder, SR power moves from the diesel’s 100kW to 150kW at 6000rpm, while almost matching its 300Nm with 265Nm from 1500rpm and 4500rpm.

The petrol sounds sweeter and feels much faster than the diesels. The SR can also be purchased in six-speed manual trim for $25,950 and which we also sampled at launch.

The $5000 premium over the i30 Active seems like great value for the extra performance alone, but the fact a buyer gets grippier 18-inch tyres, bigger brakes, sports-tuned suspension and electronic stability control (ESC), as well as leather trim, leather steering wheel, dual-zone climate control, blind-spot monitor, rear cross-traffic alert and keyless auto-entry leaves the SR as stunning value.

By contrast a further $5000 only buys (in auto trim only) LED headlights, front parking sensors, panoramic sunroof, heated and ventilated front seats and electric driver’s seat in the SR Premium.

However, both SRs offer, in addition to the sweet manual shift and brisk, responsive drivetrain shared with the Elantra SR, an even better chassis tune than that sedan.

It errs appropriately on the firm side for a sporty hatch, yet delivers superbly agile handling for the price. Through S-bends its sharpness is near-hot-hatchback grade, complete with ESC that betters the 1.6-litre diesel and 2.0-litre petrol models that can skip and hop slightly over mid-corner bumps.

Only the seven-speed dual-clutch auto i30 SR joins the i30 Elite and i30 Premium with full autonomous emergency braking (AEB), lane-keep assistance and active cruise control, however, which is the only disappointment in the manual version.

Manual or auto, though, this is where sports and sensibilities best meet, and only the most committed economy buyer, or someone who prefers marginally quieter road noise (on 17- rather than 18-inch tyres) might consider a diesel Elite or Premium over the SR or SR Premium.

All of which brings us back to those three virtues.

Even the i30 SR does not have the light, frisky flavour of a similarly priced Astra RS, but it counters with arguably the most focused and impressive outright dynamics in the segment. Perhaps the i30 Active lacks the smooth turbo performance and rich cabin of a base Golf, but it is more affordable. And potentially the i30 Elite suffers from being diesel only, yet it challenges a Corolla Hybrid for efficiency and is lavishly equipped even without paying $30K-plus for the i30 Premium.

There are three competitors there, and while not perfect in active safety kit, cabin class and ultimate finesse of non-SRs, the tri-engined new-generation i30 is Hyundai’s most convincing – and least try-hard – small car yet.
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