The Hyundai i30 SE is, for the moment at least, a genuine special edition. The company won't tell us exactly how many they've brought in, but the idea is to see if Australians are interested in a three door version of the smash-hit i30.
It has divided opinion in the office - some of us (okay, me) think nobody will buy it, despite its many charms while others think it will sell like crazy. Only time will tell, but we can tell you that the i30 SE was predictable in some ways but in another way, sprung a huge surprise.
The i30 SE is a very simple proposition - $19,990 for the 1.6 litre manual and $22,190 for the six-speed automatic. For that you get a six-speaker stereo, air-conditioning, cruise control, keyless entry, rear parking sensors, a 5-inch touchscreen, power windows and a cloth covered interior. There's no leather but the plastics used throughout are pleasant enough, like any i30 (gearknob excepted).
The stereo distinguishes itself by being quite good and very easy to use. It accepts a normal USB cable as well as Bluetooth streaming. The interface is simple to use but probably too simple when in Bluetooth mode as you can't change playlists.
The obvious difference with the SE is the lack of rear doors. Everything from the A-pillar back is new, with new front doors, a slightly re-profiled roof, new bumpers and new, fixed rear windows. It gives the i30 a sportier, more purposeful stance, especially on the standard 16-inch alloys.
There's a bit of chrome pinched from i30s higher in the range and a pair of boomerang-shaped daytime running lights for a bit of class. It looks pretty good. Inside is standard issue i30, albeit bottom of the range spec, with flip-forward front seats to allow access to the rear. Access could be a little better but once you're in there, there's plenty of space, almost as much as the five-door.
The i30 maintains its five-star safety rating with seven airbags, ABS, traction and stability control, brake force distribution, brake assist and hill-start assist.
Under the bonnet is Hyundai's Gamma 1.6 litre GDI directed injected petrol. Its 98kW of power come high in the rev range at 6300rpm while the modest torque figure of 163Nm arrives at 4850rpm. Hyundai claims 6.3l/100km for the manual and a 5 star green rating. We got closer to 7.5l/100km. The automatic will do a claimed 6.9l/100km with 4.5 green stars.
This is where the big shock came. While it's never going to win any races, except against an automatic i20, the manual car is much more fun to drive than you could reasonably expect. The job of being fun is supposed to fall to the Veloster Turbo, but the i30 SE trumps it for feedback and driving character.
It still has its problems - the throttle response is woefully slow (to help less attentive drivers achieve smooth progress) and the gear ratios are too widely spaced, but once you're moving and on a good piece of road, it's unbelievably close to hot-hatch fun.
The key is the suspension tune. In this case it's the UK setup, which delivers a smooth, quiet ride with excellent body control and heaps of grip from the Hankook tyres. It's not necessarily better than the Veloster Turbo - the quirky four-door is faster and will stop and go more quickly - but the SE is just more fun.
Because the SE is a long way down on power, you have to work the gearbox, but the box itself is much more willing to play than the Veloster's and lets you shift faster. The clutch isn't afflicted with the usual Hyundai problem of being far too light. The electric steering, when switched to Sport mode, doesn't just add weight but also modest amount of feedback.
You always know what the car is doing but more to the point, you can feel it. The Veloster is like an extra passive-aggressive cat in comparison. Most people who buy this car probably won't care, but it's worth knowing that it is the best chassis of any Hyundai on sale in Australia and everyone reaps the benefit - passengers and drivers.
It's also very quiet inside the cabin, as long as the road surface is reasonable. Coarser surfaces cause a bit of a roar, but halfway decent roads mean a quiet journey. At 110km/h there's a faint rustle around the wing mirrors, but apart from that, relative silence.
The i30 SE is a bargain hatch with the added bonus of being enormous fun to drive. Yes, it's slow and there's still a way to go before the i30 meets the VW Golf on level terms, but if the Korean company can keep this up, the rest of the competition has an even bigger job on its hands.
Hyundai i30 SE
Price: from $19,990
Warranty: 5 years unlimited
Engine: 1.6-litre 4-cylinder, 98kW/163Nm
Transmission: 6-speed manual, FWD
Thirst: 6.3L/100Km, CO2 147g/km
Kerb Weight: 1320kg
Safety: 5 stars