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Car reviews - Hyundai - ix35 - Highlander CRDi 5-dr wagon

Our Opinion

We like
Styling, diesel/auto drivetrain refinement and performance, cabin layout, dash design, passenger space, one-touch indicators
Room for improvement
Highlander’s hard ride, road noise intrusion, rattles in the rear, skittish freeway steering, too-bright centre console illumination, protruding front-seat head restraints, no flip-up rear window, no telescoping steering column

15 Apr 2010

ATTENTION all other car manufacturers – Hyundai sure seems to know what’s going on right now, and the all-new ix35 has swaggered onto centre stage to show the rest how it’s done.

Even the striking Mazda CX-7 failed to cock this many eyebrows back in 2006, while memories of the very ‘meh’ Tucson melt away the moment the second-generation Korean compact SUV appears.

Curious onlookers and serious new-car buyers alike – even label queens who wouldn’t normally get out of bed for anything less than a Volkswagen Tiguan – stop and notice.

“So like, what is that?” and “how much?” are common queries. Stylistically, ix35 has hit a sweet spot.

Personally we find the flagship Highlander’s chrome-laden nose garish (unlike lower-line versions), and there is shameless Ford Kinetic design influence all over. Lucky the latter’s Kuga isn’t available here.

But the overall styling and proportions work well, so the lesson for rivals is to be bold and beautiful, not bland and boring. Go Hyundai!

Add low prices, lots of kit (but no Bluetooth yet – it’s in the pipeline for 2011) and a five-year warranty, and the ix35 looks very, very interesting indeed. And that’s even before a door is opened.

Seemingly slightly smaller than the rather koala-esque looking Tucson (a name that carries on elsewhere, by the way), the ix35 bucks the usual trend of evolutionary growth in compact SUVs. The key word is compact. Toyota RAV4, are you listening? This is more crossover than shrunken 4x4 and that’s a good thing for many people.

Not that interior space suffers really, for it feels spacious inside. Plus, Hyundai has worked hard to make the ix35 more appealing, thanks to a big infusion of its ‘Fluidic’ design magic.

The dash is dominated by a protruding centre console that looks like a WALL-E set castoff, with large ear-like side vents flanking the audio and clock display on top and the climate-control area below.

In the daytime their large buttons, crystal clear markings and effortless functionality are pure plus points, but by night the electric blue illumination is like a searing light sabre in the eyes.

At least half of it can be extinguished (but not reduced in intensity), yet the always-on bright light emitting from the climate-control display is as if you’re driving with an old cathode ray TV switched on – totally distracting.

There’s nothing wrong with the instrument binnacle though, looking smart with its digital odometer, trip computer, fuel and temperature gauges set between a pair of crisp analogue dials. Thankfully its night-time lighting – cool blue against red markers – includes a rheostat setting.

Yet we found it difficult to get comfy behind the agreeably-sized tilt-able steering wheel (finished off in a chintzy matt chrome effect on the Highlander tested here), since it lacks telescopic adjustment. Hyundai says reach-adjustment is coming – maybe by year’s end.

Compounding this are bulky front-seat head restraints that protrude too far forward changing the angle or the backrest didn’t help, and so our whole time in the ix35 felt like we had an overinflated pillow wedged behind our heads. Anti-whiplash restraints are a good thing but this was just a pain in the neck.

While we’re complaining, our Highlander had a persistent rattle emanating from somewhere out back the keyless entry system is so slow to unlock the doors you end up pressing the key fob anyway and the faddish raised side window line hinders rear vision. It’s a good thing then that our Highlander’s nifty reverse camera took the worry out of parking.

Don’t get the wrong idea though, for the Hyundai’s cabin excels in a variety of clever ways – such as in its ability to ventilate everyone easily the many storage areas (the box between the front seats is deep, as are the door bins and glovebox) via its unfettered cabin access the fine forward and side vision, and fresh overall ambience.

A gold star is awarded for the handy three-flash lane-change indicator (very chic), visor extenders that help blot out the sun (we do wish they’d do the same with the console flood lights come twilight) and generally fine cabin craftsmanship.

The rear quarters rate highly too, for a number of reasons: the very low centre-seat floor hump means people won’t feel too constrained sitting there there are grab-handles for all outboard occupants the rear windows fully retract all door bins can carry bottles while the elbow rests have an in-built phone holders and the rear bench is sufficiently comfortable. Hyundai’s done its homework and it shows.

A 70/30-split folding backrest opens up into the wide but shallow cargo area (a full-sized alloy spare lives beneath the floor, along with a few hiding spots for odds and ends), that features a sturdy luggage blind, a 12-volt outlet, handy shopping net (to keep stuff tied down) and a trio of child-seat restraints behind the back seat.

But the old Tucson’s very practical flip-up rear window has been junked for an ordinary fixed item on the ix35. That’s not progress. The loading lip is quite high too, although once that’s been negotiated, and with all seats flattened, the usable load area is agreeably long. Helpfully, Hyundai also provides a manual tailgate release to help would-be kidnap victims escape.

But there is no escaping the tedious road noise droning, or the brittle ride, and we put both qualms down squarely to the Highlander’s Kuhmo 225/55 R18 wheel and tyre package.

Hyundai calls this car an urban cruiser, so why is its ride quality such a bruiser around town? It crashes over regular speed humps and magnifies every single road irregularity. We ended up wishing for the base model’s modest (and suppler) rubber package instead.

And that’s a shame because the ix35’s drivetrain is brilliant thanks to the smooth and quiet new 135kW R-Series four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine, complete with a sizeable 392Nm of torque on offer.

Combined with Hyundai’s first in-house six-speed automatic gearbox application, it provides impressive take-off acceleration, strong mid-range punch (even with four adults and luggage on board), and ample highway performance, all wrapped in a shield of slick refinement. Clattery when cold as expected, this diesel settles down to an unobtrusive thrum when it gets warm.

Overall fuel economy wasn’t brilliant though – we averaged around 11L/100km around the ‘burbs, dropping to 8.3L/100km on a couple of long highway trips – but the air-con was always on and we had cargo aplenty to carry about.

Joining the firm ride, rattle in the rear and blinding dash lighting on our list of fixes is twitchy steering at highway speeds - our most serious reservation in the Highlander.

Even gentle lane-change manoeuvres at 110km/h with three adults and a child on board revealed an unsettling off-balance feel, resulting in a bouncy left-to-right motion that forces the driver to over-correct the vehicle. This also happens if you try to corner suddenly, like there is a shifting of weight somewhere within the car that ends up unsettling everything. Basically, at speed, the ix35 feels too top-heavy.

This dynamic issue detracts from an otherwise competent driving experience. Around-town manoeuvrability is good, with generally responsive steering, plenty of grip (the iX35 is predominantly front-drive until slippage forces up to 50 per cent of torque rearwards, although all-wheel drive can also be locked in up to a point), and brakes that react quickly and effortlessly.

And while you would never call it sharp or tactile, few compact SUVs are. To drive, this Hyundai is a damn sight better than its predecessor was.

But we are profoundly disappointed with the Highlander’s ride and road-noise issues, and are worried that the nervous steering at speed might not be isolated to only the big-wheeled variants.

These, along with the head restraint and centre-console lighting malaise, undermine the impressive packaging, design and drivetrain elements in what is undoubtedly one of the new car stars of 2010.

So, yes, in terms of looks, value for money and presentation, many of Hyundai’s rivals can learn from the promising ix35, but there are also important lessons to be heeded from irritating faults that ultimately mar the Highlander for us.

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