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Car reviews - Hyundai - i20 - hatch range

Our Opinion

We like
Equipment levels, refined engines, manual gearchange, supportive front seats, direct steering, good rear headroom
Room for improvement
Four-star crash rating on the Active, steering lacks feedback, high front lip on driver’s seat, revs flare on lift-off in manual, tyre noise through ventilation system, hard-backed seats, no cruise control, no diesel option

14 Jul 2010

HYUNDAI’S new light-car entrant, the i20, has been priced at a starting point of $14,990 for the three-door hatch, a solid $2000 above the strong-selling Hyundai Getz.

While that looks like it might be good news for Hyundai’s competitors, they should look again.

The i20 is not the replacement for the long-standing Getz it is the first prong of a two-pronged attack on the light-car sector and, as such, should be considered the up-market Hyundai light car.

The bad news for the competition is that Hyundai plans to run the Getz until the first quarter of next year before releasing another small car – either the i10 or the Verna – to compete in what Hyundai politely terms the “transactional” market, where it’s the lowest price that wins the sale.

Hyundai might be working hard on polishing its image and raising public perceptions, but it is not about to abandon the low-margin, high-volume sector just yet.

The i20 looks a bit like a fish out of water in the Hyundai range after the release of the i30 small car range, the ix35 compact SUV and the i45 sedan, which all carry the distinctive “fluidic sculpture” styling that Hyundai has adopted.

Designed in the Russelsheim design studio in Germany before those models were penned, the i20 looks more rounded, especially in the front and back views, which are neat enough but a tad on the bland side.

The side styling is more interesting, with convex and concave sculpting reminiscent of some BMWs but, overall, the i20 does not stand out in the crowd, at least not when compared with the Ford Fiesta or Mazda2.

As is the norm with Hyundai, the i20 stands out when the spec sheet is scrutinised and the price taken into account.

As a fully-equipped up-market model, the i20 does a credible job.

The formula looks the same as the Getz on paper: choice of three-door and five-door bodies, 1.4- and 1.6-litre petrol engines and manual and automatic gearboxes.

But that’s where the similarity ends.

The engines are from the new Gamma range and are more powerful, more economical and smoother, although they have to make do with multi-point fuel injection rather than direct injection as seen on the i45 Theta II engine.

The 1.4-litre engine is available only in the Active base model and comes with manual or automatic gearboxes. As a three-door manual, the Active costs $14,990. The automatic adds $2000 and the five-door body an extra $1000.

The best option in the Active is the manual transmission, as it is well suited to the game little 73.5kW engine, which is not overly endowed with torque.

The auto makes 1.4-litre Active a bit of a snail around town, while the manual is reasonably lively without being a tyre burner.

Indeed, the new manual gearbox is a highlight of the i20. The change is light and feels well-oiled and positive, with the driver able to make quick gear changes with a single finger, so easy is the action. It makes cog-swapping a pleasure.

The 91kW Gamma in the Elite and Premium models offers a noticeable lift in power, spinning sweetly to more than 6000rpm to make its 91kW.

But, while this is a 24 per cent rise in power, torque is only up 15 per cent from the 1.4 litre to 156Nm, and the driver is left wanting a bit more mid-range torque during highway passing.

A diesel would be a welcome on the spec sheet but, while Hyundai chief executive Edward Lee agrees diesel is an important and growing market segment, he says Hyundai Australia just doesn’t need the extra complication – and possibly customer confusion – that adding a diesel option to the i20 would bring.

The interior is where the i20 really gains on the Getz.

Hyundai has worked hard on those parts of the interior that the driver – and passengers – touch regularly.

The front seats are well designed, offering good lateral support with proper bolsters down the side of the back rest and good cushioning on the bench and backrest. Hyundai is proud of its new seat mechanism, which offers height adjustment as well as seat back rake.

The only problem is that the height adjustment does not go down far enough, at least for the manual model, as the front lip of the seat bench remains too high, forcing the driver to move the seat forward for ease of clutch actuation.

This leaves the driver a little closer to the dashboard than desirable and eliminates the benefit of the telescopic steering column, which ends up pushed back as far as it can go. It is also adjustable for rake.

The back seat is nothing to write home about. Access in the five-door is fine, but the bench and the backrest are flat and hard, and if you have Scandinavian friends, they’ll be fine.

The payoff is that the rear seats do lie flat when folded forward, although they are still 5cm proud of the back floor, forming a step.

Those who do ride in the back seat will be pleasantly surprised by the amount of headroom, a nice change in these days of fastback sedans.

The premium comes with leather/cloth seats, a fairly rare option in this class. But look out for ripples in the leather – surprising, given the i20 has been in production for more than a year in India.

The Elite and Premium models have a leather-covered steering wheel , which adds to the good-feel ambience. These wheels have audio controls in the spokes.

The manual and automatic shift knobs both have chrome top on a smooth black plastic gearknob and feel good in the palm of your hand.

The accelerator pedal is light but the ample travel makes control easy while the brake pedal is easy to modulate and offers progressive operation of the brakes.

The clutch pedal in the manual model is well weighted and easy to use.

The stalks controlling the lights and wipers work with a satisfying click, adding to the well-made feel in the cabin.

On the road, the i20 inspires confidence with its direct steering and a lack of slack in the straight ahead position. The electrically powered steering has a strong self-centring function built in, but, at slow speeds, this can encourage a sort of “twang” effect when the wheel is twirled fast, promoting a sort of rubbery feel.

This only occurs at slow speeds and never interferes with the steering feel on the move.

The steering lacks feedback through the electric power assistance, but the directness of inputs does inspire confidence when cornering and the chassis does the same, with the suspension offering a taut ride while suppressing most road irregularities.

There is no hint of body roll in corners and no noticeable understeer. The i20 is a tidy handler.

Hyundai engineers have focussed on noise, vibration and harshness and the interior is a good place to be on any road surface.

The 16-inch alloys and low profile tyres on the Premium model may add a fraction more road noise, but it never becomes intrusive or unbearable.

The front springs on the i20 have been stiffened and the dampers softened to make allowance for rougher Australian road conditions compared with Europe, which was the target market for the i20.

There is one curious aspect to the NVH efforts, however. Whenever the i20 is turned in to a corner at more than, say, 50km/h, the driver is suddenly able to hear the tyres working harder on the road. They can’t be heard when the car is travelling in a straight line.

It’s not tyre scrub, simply the sound of the tyres working on the asphalt, possibly coming through the vent system. And it’s not loud. You can only hear it because the cabin is otherwise well insulated, and you probably wouldn’t hear it with the radio on.

Despite the unquestioned advances achieved by the engineers in chassis and engine refinement, Hyundai has betrayed its new approach to premium quality in one aspect of the i20.

The Active model will only be available with two airbags from Monday (July 19), when the i20 goes on sale, until September. This means the Active will only come with a four-star ANCAP rating, until side (thorax) and curtain airbags are added to the standard Active spec.

The Elite and Premium models both come with six airbags and a five-star ANCAP rating.

Hyundai marketing director Oliver Mann said that, while past experience had shown people were not prepared to pay for safety items such as airbags, Hyundai Australia had wanted to make six bags and five-star ANCAP crash safety standard across the i20 range.

"This was not initially possible on the Active models due to a factory constraint," he said at the i20 launch.

"We have been working with the parent company on this issue, and six airbags will become standard on Active models from July production. They will be in the showrooms from September 1."

The bad news is Mr Mann also confirmed prices would be adjusted to take account of the extra cost, pushing the entry level price of the Active above the $14,990 in force now. He could not say how much the adjustment would be.

"Unfortunately, the slender margins within the light car category mean it will be a necessary cost to pass on."

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