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Model Tested: Hyundai i20 Elite; 1.6-litre, four-cylinder petrol, four-speed automatic, five door hatch: $20,490
Late last year, Hyundai updated its small car, the i20, for 2011 with simple but effective upgrades. The addition of side and curtain airbags to its entry-level variant, the Active, meant that all i20s are now five-star safety rated - critics pointed out that the Hyundai i20 should have been launched like this to begin with.
All models now come with Bluetooth as standard, as well as ESC (which includes traction control), ABS and brake-force distribution (EBD). If it's a safe small car you're after, then you can hardly do better than the i20.
The other change from last years model? Blue instrument lighting rather than red. But unlike the Hyundai Santa Fe and the Hyundai i45, it's not a burning blue that envelopes the entire cabin; it's subtle and a little bit more calming than the previous red tone.
As far as the drivetrain goes, everything is unchanged. On test is the 1.6-litre Elite model, and with its engine producing a healthy 91kW and 156Nm, the i20 has plenty of pep in its step. That said, it's supposed to only consume 6.5 litres/100km. Unfortunately, we didn't come anywhere near that. At 9.2 litres/100km, it was well above even the city ADR figure which is 8.4L/100km.
Seeing as there's no diesel i20 on the horizon, an extra ratio or two in the gearbox would probably help in extending fuel economy. And you'd think that having a four-speed automatic would be a hindrance for day-to-day driving, but in practice, it's not. The auto will kick down when called for (a generous prod of the accelerator helps here) when climbing hills, but it never seems to run out of puff, unlike its 1.4-litre sibling, the Active. It's in hilly terrain that the 1.6-litre comes into its own, using that broad spectrum of torque to its advantage.
In fact, if you compare the i20 with its direct rivals, you'll see that almost none of them match the power and torque that this little car has. The Suzuki Swift has 75kW and 133Nm, the Toyota Yaris makes 80kW and 140Nm, the Ford Fiesta comes closes with 89kW and 151Nm, and the Volkswagen Polo produces 77kW but has more torque at 175Nm, courtesy of a turbocharger.
That said, some of the above are a bit more refined when you put your foot down - the i20 can be coarse at the top end while it buzzes away - but that extra grunt is certainly apparent in the i20. And yes, the manual is better, however for those looking for an auto that will still get away from the lights in a reasonable time, the i20 is good.
As is its handling. It's surprising how nimble this little car is. Threading through chicanes or small roundabouts, quick directional changes don't unsettle the i20 and there's a noticable absence of body roll. There's also a notably firm ride, but it's not too fidgety or crashy. Instead it feels very European in its behaviour, though it doesn't have the finesse of Volkswagen's Polo.
The steering is quick and very direct, though it does lack feel, and that probably suits the target market of this car, as it's easy to wheel around the place, especially in parking situations. And it brakes pretty well, too. Dynamically, the i20 is up there with the best in this segment.
Inside, the space is pretty good, with back seats that most adults would be fine with, and front seats offering plenty of freedom for movement. The cloth trim is plain, but looks nice, and the seats themselves are adequately comfortable, both front and back. The boot sneaks in at just under 300 litres, giving it room for a few shopping bags, but that's about it.
The dashtop has a nice grain to its plastic, despite being quite hard to touch, and the silver on the centre stack doesn't look like it's come out of a spraycan. The swoopy design of the dash layout suits the i20's modern but conservative styling, and against its competition, the i20 sits about middle-of-the-road in terms of flair.
Equipment levels are good on the i20 Elite, with an MP3/WMA CD through six speakers, plus stereo controls, full iPod connectivity using your white iPod or iPhone cable, as well as USB, heater ducting to the rear passenger footwells, leather wrapped steering wheel, a cooled glovebox, electric mirrors, power windows, and trip computer with distance-to-empty, fuel consumption and other info all displayed.
The i20's build seems pretty solid, but on our test car we had a screw cover inside the driver's door handle which would pop out each time you shut the door. A small thing, but at least it's covered by Hyundai's warranty, which is five years and unlimited kilometres - not bad for peace-of-mind. Another tick for Hyundai is the free roadside assistance included for the first year of your ownership.
And that may well be the i20's best selling point. Hyundai's warranty and roadside assist certainly makes the i20's case a bit stronger against its competitors. But consider this: for an extra $1860, you can have the Volkswagen Polo 77TSI.
The Polo's quality is light-years ahead of the Hyundai, you get a seven-speed dual-clutch gearbox which means your fuel consumption is better. For example, the i20's ADR figure is 6.5 litres/100km, while the Polo's comes in at 5.5 litres/100km, and the margin gets greater for urban use, at 8.4L/100km versus 7.2L/100km respectively.
It's not all about fuel consumption, though. The Polo feels quicker, sounds more refined, has interior presentation way above its price range, it rides better and its transmission shifts better. Interior room is almost identical between the two cars, but the Polo's seats are more comfortable, and trimmed with nicer materials. Volkswagen's warranty still can't match Hyundai, though.
You'll have to weigh up whether you've got the extra budget to afford the Polo, and if you can't quite squeeze out the extra dough, the i20 is still a good car, especially considering the backup you'll get for those five years.
While it may not quite be the best in segment, the i20 certainly has its place, and is well worth a look for light car buyers.