Hyundai i30 - First Drive

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Hyundai i30 Style Nav Blue Drive


Engine: 1.6-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel
Transmission: Six-speed manual (optional six-speed automatic)
Power: 128 PS at 4000 rpm
Torque: 260 Nm at between 1900 and 2750 rpm
Fuel consumption (combined cycle): 74.3 mpg
CO2 emissions: 100 g/km
Top speed: 117 mph
Acceleration (0-62 mph): 10.9 seconds
Price: £20,295

Life should be getting a lot harder for Hyundai. In the last five years the Korean company has completely transformed its range, with each new model representing a huge step forward compared with its undistinguished predecessor. The reason? Hyundai finally decided to get serious about Europe, home to the most demanding and technically knowledgable car buyers in the world. As well as the introduction of new products, that involved setting up design studios and R&D facilities at the heart of the continent's motor industry in Germany, and building a huge green-field assembly plant in the Czech Republic. The factory was opened in 2009 to make the Golf-sized i30, the first of Hyundai's breakthrough models which had been launched in 2007 - and this is where the bit about life getting harder comes in.

The original i30 is now giving way to a new second-generation model, which means that Hyundai finds itself in the thoroughly unfamiliar position of replacing a car that was already pretty decent to start off with. That should make it more difficult for the company to keep up the blistering rate of improvement it has maintained for the last half-decade, and yet an initial taste of the new i30 provides plenty of evidence of continuing progress, albeit of a different quality to that which we have seen from Hyundai before.

If I had to characterise that shift, I would describe it in the following terms. With the original i30, Hyundai produced for the first time a car that was, in objective terms, as good as established European and Japanese models, a car that was as quick, as economical, as roomy and as comfortable as the alternatives – and, if the company's confidence in its generous five-year warranty can be taken as a guide, at least as reliable too. As if that weren't enough, the i30 was, from the beginning, keenly priced as well. Against that, the Hyundai badge didn't have much magic back in 2007, and the i30's rivals probably still had a little more style. It is mainly these areas of subjective appeal which the company has addressed with the new model.

So where the exterior of the original i30 was neat and functional, that of its replacement is positively voluptuous, the latest example of Hyundai's dramatic so-called fluidic sculpture design philosophy first seen on the big i40 saloon and estate. It's a similar story inside. Materials have been improved and the overall effect is much more stylish than before, if a bit less funky than in the case of the company's recently introduced Veloster coupé. And that badge? Most buyers still aren't bracketing Hyundai with Audi or Mercedes but years of hard work and improvement by the Koreans are starting to pay off in terms of perceptions, too.

The entry-level engine option for each of the four (generous) trim levels is a 1.4-litre (100 PS) petrol. Apart from the solitary case of the 1.6-litre-engined automatic petrol paired with the one-up-from-the-bottom trim Active trim (120 PS), it's all diesels after that, at least for the UK – a 1.4 delivering 90 PS, and two 1.6-litres offering 110 and 128 PS respectively. All manual 1.6 diesels sold in the UK will be eco-oriented Blue Drive variants with fuel-saving measures such as stop-start, delivering impressive CO2 emissions of between 97 and 100g/km, better than the 109g/km achieved by the 1.4 (non Blue Drive) diesel. All cars, whether automatic or manual, have six-speed transmissions, a welcome advance on the old four-speed autos as well as the five-speed manual previously fitted to 1.4-litre petrol versions of the i30 and its near-sister, the Kia cee'd, which was quite lowly geared in top and therefore offered a rather buzzy motorway experience.

On the road, the new i30 is exactly as you would expect it to be, marrying the capable nature of the first-generation model with a bit of extra polish and refinement. I drove 1.6-litre diesel Style Nav top-spec models (which have satellite navigation as standard) in both manual and automatic forms. My testing of the i30 was bracketed by long stints in the excellent new BMW 320d, and I was struck by the fact that the Hyundais were a lot less 'diesely' in character than the BMW, with a much quieter, smoother start-up and, subjectively at least, a less narrowly concentrated power band, even if they couldn't hope to match the 320d's vastly superior outright shove. The automatic works well but most customers will find the manual the more attractive option; automatics are limited to the less powerful 110 PS 1.6-litre engine as opposed to the 128 available on the manual, and the diesel automatic has much higher CO2 emissions than other variants at 145g/km. Overall, the impression is of reassuring competence rather than sportiness, although continental buyers will be able to choose a more powerful direct-injection petrol engine (similar to the one fitted to the Veloster coupé) that won't be coming to the UK. I sampled this version too, and while it is quite lively it would be hard to recommend it over the diesels, given their economy and (automatics apart) low CO2 emissions.

The first i30 really made Hyundai's competitors sit up and take notice. Will the new one do the same? Probably – and not just because it's a good product. The original model was launched in the UK just four-and-a-half years ago, giving the i30 one of the shortest replacement cycles in the industry. That Hyundai has the resources to renew its cars so frequently must surely terrify the competition; the current Skoda Octavia, for example, a strong rival for the i30 in the emerging brands sub-category of the Focus class, has been around in the UK since mid-2004, and there is no successor in sight. With prices starting at a very attractive £14,495, the new i30 can only build upon the success of the original.

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