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There's more to the Hyundai i20 than a nice price. It's the first toddler from the Korean carmaker not being built on a bargain-basement bottom line, although a starting sticker of $14,990 is still good value in 2010.
The i20 follows the line from Excel and Getz but goes a new way with more style and substance, picking up everything from ESP stability control and anti-skid brakes to Bluetooth connectivity. It's part of a plan to bring younger owners to the brand, as well as weaning Hyundai buyers from the price-first strategy which dominated its business until the arrival of the latest generation of i-badge models.
The i20 has an easier start-up because the Getz runs through until sometime next year, with the smaller i10 already on standby to take up the price slack in the sub-$13,000 bracket. Hyundai is playing conservatively at first with the i20, only forecasting 5000 sales by the end of the year - against 20,000 for the Getz in 2010.
Hyundai Automotive believes the i20 will bring sub-35 buyers to its brand, in contrast to the older bargain hunters who go for the Getz, and sees it as a better introduction to a company with i-car aspirations.
"You cannot be retrograde about new entries. i20 will sit by itself in the mainstream. It will be against Toyota Yaris, Honda Jazz and Mazda2," says Damien Meredith, director of sales at Hyundai Automotive.
The i20 is not a typical Korean car because it was designed in Germany and is built in India, at a Hyundai factory in Chennai. It is aimed primarily at Europe. It's been tweaked for Australia in the suspension, with changes to the front springs, dampers and steering.
Around 60 per cent of the sales are expected to be the base model, a three-door, 1.4-litre called the Active. There is also a five-door model, with Elite and Premium specifications, as well as a 1.6-litre engine and a four-speed automatic gearbox that puts an extra $2000 on the price of the five- speed manual. The top-line Premium auto - with trip computer, 16-inch alloys, auto aircon, folding electric mirrors, leather trim and more - tops out at $23,490.
The engine options open with 73.5kW/136Nm from the 1.4-litre engine, and economy from 6.0 litres/100km and CO2 from 142grams/ kilometre, jumping to 91.1kw/156Nm and 6.1/144 for the 1.6-litre motor.
Safety is handled by the ESP and ABS, with twin airbags in the $14,990 car - to be upgraded in September - and six airbags for five-star safety in the rest of the range. The car has independent front suspension and four-wheel disc brakes, while Hyundai touts its long wheelbase and a cabin package with more space than the Getz. And improved quality in every area.
The i20 is a significant step forward from the Getz, but you expect that. It's much more stylish, there is more space and substance in the cabin, and safety is finally more than just an afterthought. The big surprise is the engines. The latest Gamma-series motor is the best yet from Hyundai, with real pep and the sort of efficiency that brings great economy and good emissions. It's an engine you can enjoy revving, while retired rally ace Ed Ordynski proved its miserly qualities with a 4.2 litres/100km run from Sydney to Gladstone, Queensland.
The new look of the i20 is right in line with younger buyers, as Hyundai proves with a pair of cars that have been painted by two of Australia's brightest young artists. Even the basic car has a classy look that's way down the road from the boxy Getz. Inside, the design is smooth and integrated, although Hyundai has not moved to soft-touch plastics on the dash. The instruments are clear and effective, the trip computer in upscale models is worthwhile, and even the Active has more than enough standard equipment.
The flagship Premium opens my drive and is light and response through inner-city Sydney. It gets along well, the suspension is well controlled, and the car is comfy and quiet. Switching to a 1.4-litre Active shows how well the Gamma engine performs, although there is more suspension noise and some thump from the tail end - perhaps thanks to different tyres on the 15-inch steel wheels to the 16-inch alloys on the Premium.
It's good that Hyundai tweaked the suspension for local conditions, because its alright but not great. Without the work it would have been in trouble, particularly against the Ford Fiesta. The i20 is not a great car, but it's good enough for the price and its job in Australia. It's not a revelation but it moves the story forward with all the improvements you expect.
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