To the eyes of those driving on Sydney's upper north shore, the dark blue Hyundai Elantra with the number plates BU-31-YC appears just like any other cookie-cutter small sedan doing the suburban rounds.
This middle-grade Hyundai Elantra Elite drives through the same 40km/h school zones, and passes the same groomed golf club and multiple traffic lights as thousands of other cars around Gordon, New South Wales.
It does that repeatedly, on the same roads day in and day out for months, before heading 20km up to the northern beaches suburb of Terrey Hills and the twisty roads that surround it.
But while the car and conditions are marked by their very ordinariness, BU-31-YC is anything but an ordinary Elantra.
At the nearby Hyundai Australia headquarters, it has had its interior pulled to bits, filled with monitoring equipment, then put back together. It has been lifted on hoists, every test day, and had sophisticated hardware (the gold vertical stick, below) installed that monitors each damper’s every stroke and how they deal with every bump on both an ordinary urban (Gordon) and twisty country road (Terrey Hills) test loop.
As with the interior, the guts of the car have been pulled off, tinkered with, inserted back, tested. Repeatedly.
CarAdvice is at Hyundai Australia headquarters for a behind-the-scenes look at the local arm’s six-month retuning program of its small sedan that came out in 2011 with limited local input.
We get the feeling that Kia’s spruiking of its local tuning hero Graham Gambold has caused Hyundai to bring out its own big guns and fling the garage door open to prove to journalists that it can tailor its cars specifically for our conditions.
Only Hyundai Australia quietly says it wants its engineering team to be known as more than just a one man band. Rivalries, may they live long.
So let’s meet some of the nine-strong crew that will turn Elantra into Elantra Series II.
There’s product planning manager and the bloke that gives the ‘backside’ testing verdict, Andrew Tuitahi (fourth from the right, below). Leading the team of engineers behind the roller door is senior manager product engineering and forthright critiquer of journalists’ dynamic assessment Hee Loong Wong (or ‘Wongy’, to the boys, and fifth from the right, below).
Sitting with Wongy on the computers beside the hoist is Philip Rodgers (far left, below) who started the Captec software and hardware company used by the crew and who in the eight years preceding 2010 was the team manager for Subaru’s Australian Rally Championship program.
In a smaller room inside the garage sits France-based consultant David Potter (third from the left, above) who (deep breath) wrote a thesis on the analysis and design of monotube dampers, helped engineer the E30 BMW M3 and various Renault Sport products among others, and was a consultant engineer on Subaru, Vauxhall, Honda, Mitsubishi, Ford, Peugeot, Nissan, Volkswagen and BMW touring car racing teams in Europe, just to name a few.
Here, Potter is hired to analyse the data, discover the problem that needs addressing and tell Young Chul Park (far right, above), the South Korean research and development manager from damper manufacturer Mando, exactly what bits to put on and pull off the damper.
As the team are out driving the Elantra past the school zones and shopping centres, so sophisticated is the Captec hardware and software attached that Potter knows exactly where the car is and what bumps it is hitting and its yaw angles and impact frequencies, as the car transmits data wirelessly to him and draws a line graph on his laptop screen.
Tuitahi’s backside driving feedback is important. He’s a consistent driver steering the Elantra over a consistent loop.
On the urban loop the first bump we encounter is a manhole cover that’s sticking awkwardly out of the road surface to one side. Worse for a car’s suspension, the manhole cover is positioned exactly on a 90-degree turn off a main road into a Gordon side street. Not only is the steering wheel turned hard left, but it has to deal with a quick, sharp impact coming off a 70km/h arterial.
People turn faster off this road than many side streets coming off other slower-sideposted side streets.
This particular side street then plunges into the valley and there’s three small quick speed humps that our very eyes quantify that yummy mummies rushing to school in SUVs smash over at about the 50km/h speed limit. So our Elantra does, too. The last hump is particularly nasty as there’s a secondary dip right after the speed hump.
Coarse chip surfaces are common to Aussie roads, but this road that continues past many houses and beside the Gordon golf course has plenty of ‘cats eyes’ markings, 20-cent-piece-sized divots, and little causeways. It narrows in places so residents are forced to drive close to heavily cambered gutters that raise sharply as they meet driveways.
It’s as real-world as testing gets, and very similar to the one that CarAdvice uses in Sydney’s inner west, just across the harbour.
A sensitive backside is as crucial during engineering development as it is for journalists testing the cars. But after first doing the urban loop in a current Elantra, then the wired Elantra, then taking a break to sit with Potter, it’s apparent that the softly spoken France-based engineer can weave quicker magic than his Harry namesake.
He identifies problems so quickly he can get Mando-man Park to drum up a new damper before Tuatahi even returns. Potter and Tuatahi then swap notes. They almost always find the same issues.
The results are tabulated on a whiteboard in the main garage, in addition to what has been done with the damper to solve the issues. By the end of the Elantra Series II program the team will have got Park to go through 22 unique damper builds (11 front and 11 rear) with 28 combinations tested.
When CarAdvice first joins the program, BU-31-YC is up to damper build five and six; we then rejoin in the teens; then drive the finished product, complete with revised three-mode steering weighting run by a faster electric steering processor.
Only the damper builds that satisfy Tuitahi, Wongy, Potter and co. on the urban loop can migrate, like a winning reality show contestant, to the next round of testing at McCarrs Creek Road, in Terrey Hills.
This road is a little slice of twisty road heaven, but here Tuitahi doesn’t drive the Elantra on the 55-aspect sidewalls of the Elite’s 195mm-wide 16-inch Hankook Kinenergy ‘Eco’ tyres.
Instead, its 60-80km/h speed limit is adhered to, but the awful surfacing is reflective of the majority of Australian country roads.
Hyundai Australia sells almost 30 per cent of its cars to rural customers, so it argues controlling body movements must be a priority. There’s a big sudden dip on this road, surfacing frayed at the edges, bumps after turn-in to a corner; it’s awful for drivers and perfect for testers.
Driving the current Elantra first, it’s apparent that what was merely acceptable in 2011 is now sub standard. There’s a stiff-legged fidgetiness to its suspension on seemingly smooth surfacing, the pothole of the urban loop jars through the dashboard such is the harshness of the impact, yet the body lollops over the 50km/h speed hump. On McCarrs Creek, the sudden undulation causes the rear end to slam into its bump stops.
Already, there’s way less shake and mumbo in damper number five. The jitteriness is gone and the car feels instantly calmer and more sophisticated. But bigger bumps elicit too much harshness.
Driving beside Tuitahi, we don’t swap notes, but back at home base on the whiteboard gets scribbled “Improved compliance/Suppleness – Front” then below it writes “Front dropping into bump -> Harsh”.
And so Potter has the fixes. “FR: Up bleed compression. Down bleed rebound” and same for the rear. Mando-guy Park plays with washers and oily bits of the damper to achieve the requirements (above), puts it in a machine that does the hard work, then BU-31-YC gets hoisted, ripped apart, fitted back, and goes out for another drive. It is a workhorse.
Potter believes that a good suspension set-up should work in any country, on any road. Neither he nor Wong and Tuitahi say they are particularly chasing increased handling performance on what is a small family sedan. But they insist country customers need to be looked after with good control.
Cousin to the Elantra, the European-tuned i30 Tourer has perhaps the most supple and calm urban ride of any Korean car tested, and it is truly Volkswagen Golf-challenging.
But the local engineering team told of how rough road body control simply wasn’t good enough. Yes, I argued, the i30 Tourer was a bit softer on rough roads, but some of the great-riding cars of our time have lacked a bit of body control but haven’t been nearly dangerous for it – the previous generation Suzuki Swift, Ford Kuga and Subaru Liberty come to mind. Allowing a suspension to ‘breathe’ isn’t bad, to my mind.
The final suspension tune of this Elantra program is dramatically improved compared with the original. It feels more sophisticated, deals with big undulations and speed humps better, and is just sweeter full-stop.
The itch that seemingly won’t scratch, though, is the slight lack of smooth road and patchwork arterial calmness that the Euro-tune i30 Tourer blissfully delivers.
Driving through Sydney’s ostensibly smooth Cross City Tunnel the car slightly fidgets and feels restless.
On the notorious Parramatta Road it can feel a fraction too abrupt, and that’s despite our finished-product tester being a base-grade Active on chubbier 65-aspect tyres that should assist with its ride. The top-grade Premium on thin-sidewalled 45-aspect tyres could just be too harsh, but we’re yet to test it.
Working with the simpler torsion beam rear suspension (with dampers mounted on an angle) of the Korean-made Elantra (and its i30 hatchback near-twin) makes ideal tuning more difficult than with the Czech Republic-built i30 Tourer, which uses vertically mounted dampers and an independent rear suspension (IRS).
No doubt the local engineering boys are barracking head office for the next-generation Elantra and i30 to return to the IRS they once had.
This Hyundai Australia engineering program should absolutely be celebrated, though. Many more established Japanese and European brands won’t determinedly tune suspensions for Australian conditions, and South Korea is now mostly their equal, and in many areas superior.
The revised suspension will contribute to making the Elantra Series II a more complete drive than its predecessor, and it's thanks to the factory backing an outfit of talented engineers passionate about making better products.
No doubt more backside feedback and line graphs are helping ensure future Hyundais hunt down the class benchmarks, particularly in terms of urban ride.