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Car reviews - Hyundai - i20 - Active 3-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Mature styling, cabin design, solid Euro feel, quick steering, high specification level, gear up-change indicator, next level up from Getz as an overall package
Room for improvement
Firm ride, a bit bland, inconsistent gearchange between different i20s, poor rear-side vision, brand discounting can hurt resale value

21 Apr 2011

MAKE no mistake. While shifting the bottom-end of the light-car class paradigm is Nissan’s aim with its $12,990 Micra, obliterating Hyundai just as its price-leading Getz is effectively replaced by the more expensive i20 (from $15,490) is probably the Japanese company’s other goal.

Until this year’s new K13 Micra, everybody expected sub-light babies like the Suzuki Alto and Holden Spark to be the new budget leaders now that the older cheapies (Getz, TK Barina, JB Rio) are in their death throes.

But then along came the Nissan with its big body, bulging spec and glowing reviews, so where does that leave Hyundai’s almost-as-new PB-series i20?

Launched last winter at a $2000-plus premium over the soon-to-die Getz, buyers have been apathetic at best towards Hyundai’s latest light-car offering, which has been averaging only a fraction of its predecessors’ monthly sales.

When we first drove an Active 1.4 manual we found it disappointing – especially the rubbery gearchange and hard ride.

To our surprise, it was one of the MY11 i20 updates, with added standard safety and a smattering of other mods, so we asked the kind folk at Hyundai for another try.

And sure enough, the steering felt better and the gearshift was much improved too. Can you imagine our surprise then when we were told it was the very same car, but with thousands of kilometres more under its belt?

The moral of the story? Very low-kilometre examples are not ideal press-test cars!

With our minds reopened to the i20, we wondered whether the MY11 Active is $2500 better than the enticing Micra ST?

The latter’s biggest advantage is its five doors. Add these to the Hyundai and the price chasm yawns to a whopping $3500. Advantage Nissan.

Fighting back for the Indian-built Korean is a longer warranty (by two years and unlimited kilometres) and an extra cylinder (a 1.4-litre ‘four’ versus a 1.2 three-pot).

Matching motor for motor by moving up to the $14,990 Micra ST-L with its 1.5-litre four-cylinder engine closes the i20 gap to just $500 (three-door) or $1500 (five-door). Either way, the Nissan is still in front.

How times have changed. We remember the 1995 K11 Micra was priced out of the market within two years because of the cheap-as-chips Hyundai Excel.

But the i20 strikes back in other ways.

While you might describe the Micra as light and tinny, the Hyundai feels solid and substantial, reflecting the firm’s German influence on a car engineered mainly for Europe. This probably explains the very Opel Corsa-esque styling.

The weighty door, which opens long and wide, reveals a Germanic, well-crafted and very tastefully presented interior that sticks with the Euro theme.

As you might expect, the equipment cupboard isn’t exactly bare in there. Every i20 includes air-conditioning, remote central locking, an alarm, electric windows, electric mirrors, MP3/WMA/CD stereo (with USB/MP3 and auxiliary input jack), Bluetooth, a chilled glovebox and a full-size spare.

Ahead of the driver is an attractive three-spoke wheel that tilts but does not telescope and one of the clearest sets of instruments (including tacho and the decreasingly popular temperature gauge) that glow a cool blue and white hue at night.

Smaller folk should find nothing wrong with the i20’s driving position, but even average-sized drivers may find the seat is perched up too high.

Nowadays Hyundai expertly integrates its audio/multimedia devices all in one, and again, a more obvious system would be hard to imagine. The sound quality isn’t bad either.

Flanking that is an effective pair of air-vents, while situated immediately below is a generic heater/air-con panel that feels at least as good as any we have tried at this price point.

You have to move right up to the premium VW Polo to find a classier (if not necessarily more sensible) fascia. By comparison, a Micra’s seems a bit Costco.

The quality theme continues out back despite the lack of any grab-handles or receptacle space, save for a map pocket and bottle-holder at the rear of the centre console.

The outboard seats are comfy, with sufficient space for all bodily extremities, while the centre pew (good for occasional adult use only) at least offers a head restraint – the Nissan does not.

Meanwhile, the cushion tips forward so the backrest can fall flush to create a sizeable load space – and it all does so without feeling flimsy and brittle (again like the Micra). It all works with German efficiency.

And every outboard occupant has airbag coverage. The i20 scores a five-star ENCAP safety rating, joining Polo, Swift and most Fiestas and Mazda2s.

But the Micra’s interior does not rattle as much on rougher roads. Its five-door body means the rear side windows open it is easier to get in (though the Hyundai is still okay, thanks to a passenger seat with a return memory function – but why not the driver’s) and it has deeper side windows that not only make the cabin airier but also helps the driver see out better: the i20’s fashionable window-line upsweep is at odds with its city-car practicality (as is the Fiesta’s).

Plus we reckon the Hyundai’s front seats are too flat, with an annoying bar in the small of the back that does not help at all with comfort.

Finally, the 185/60 15-inch Kuhmo Solus tyres are noise transmitters on our coarse bitumen, eroding the hard-earned quality feel that marks the i20 out in a manner we never thought possible in a Hyundai. We’re not fans.

Furthermore, while they provide good dry weather grip, we did not trust the rubber as much as we would have liked in wet weather, or on gravel roads.

And do the tyres contribute to the at-times sharp ride? Or does the suspension need a tad more travel and low-frequency bump absorption abilities in order to more fully cope with our inner-city road irregularities? Only on the smoothest surfaces does the i20’s springing seem supple.

Otherwise, dynamically speaking, the smallest Hyundai currently available in Australia is probably the most well sorted, with beautifully weighted steering that reacts in proportion to what the driver’s inputs are for confident, responsive handling. A tight turning circle is another bonus.

The electronic stability control system does not interfere too early or suddenly, inspiring confidence on loose roads or in heavy rain. And the brakes work in a well-modulated manner.

With that firm ride in mind, again, it appears that the Hyundai has created a cut-price German car in more ways than one.

If we had to rate the drive against other light cars, we would place the i20 behind the leading Fiesta, Polo, Mazda2 and Suzuki Swift, but ahead of rest. Imagine what a better set of tyres would do.

We only managed to get the Soluses to really squeal in the dry with the ESC turned off, so the lump up front is no powerhouse locomotive.

Yet the slick little 1.4-litre petrol unit is a little trier anyway, revving easily to the 6500rpm redline that it needs to nudge in order to really get the Hyundai to hustle along.

This engine does not sound strained or harsh in the upper ranges either, and feels livelier down low than the Polo (though, strangely, not the featherweight Micra).

There is sufficient torque for townsfolk to tootle in top gear without the car stalling, making the Hyundai a handy urban commuter.

Even when the i20 is given the thrashing it cries out for, there is reasonable fuel economy.

The five-speed manual gearbox – complete with that upshift indicator – is the best we have ever experienced in a small Hyundai (and much better than when this car was new), but it is not up to the class best. Our advice is to try before you buy, if possible.

Otherwise, the i20 Active exploded most of our preconceptions.

We expected a low-cost cheapie of modest ability and only a long warranty to woo the undemanding, but instead discovered a solid, spirited, accommodating, fun and well-built runabout that is as easy on the eye as it is on the wallet.

More suspension compliance, as well as silence, is a necessity, though, as are shapelier front seats and better-quality tyres.

While the Micra is happy to conquer the cheap and cheerful end of the segment, aspirational Hyundai is clearly striving to move from the bottom to the top tier within the light-car class. And in base Active guise at least, it actually succeeds in gaining a firm middle-ground foothold.

However, as the i20 does not shine bright enough in any one area like the Fiesta (dynamics), Mazda2 (style), Swift (attitude), Polo (quality and technology) or Micra ST, which offers bargain-basement pricing and charm, a mid-fielder it must remain.

But make no mistake: the i20 is a very good thing, possessing a cut-price Polo feel.

And, regardless of price, it also happens to be the best Hyundai available in Australia today.

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