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Not everyone wants a full-on ‘hot’ hatch. Some people just want something with a bit of poke, contemporary tech and a reasonable price tag packaged into the right body style.

It’s actually quite a cluttered segment, full of viable options. We’ve assembled three of the newest here, with a goal of finding the car that balances the key attributes of performance, handling, comfort, tech and value best.

There’s the Ford Focus ST-Line from Germany, and the Korean-made Hyundai i30 N Line Premium and its Kia Cerato GT twin. The similarities are disarming, the overall quality high, and the areas of divergence very, very minimal. But we’ll highlight them nevertheless.

Pricing and spec

Cheapest here is the Ford, at a recommended retail price of $28,990 before on-road costs. The Kia is priced at $31,990, and the Hyundai $34,990.

Common equipment to all three includes a proximity key, 8.0-inch touchscreen, reverse camera, satellite navigation, DAB+, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, auto wipers, climate control, a Qi wireless smartphone charger, lane-keeping aid and autonomous emergency braking.

Five years ago much of that list was either the province of luxury cars or didn’t exist.

As you’d expect, the more expensive Kia and Hyundai offer more equipment than the Ford. Both get leather seats with heating, ventilation and electric adjustment (driver). They also get LED headlights, rear cross-traffic alert, active cruise control and 18-inch wheels (the Ford rolls on 17s).

Above this the Kia alone gives you driver seat memory presets and a handy blind-spot monitoring system – a notable absentee on the Hyundai – while the i30 N Line Premium alone offers an enormous glass panoramic sunroof as a standard feature.

It’s also possible for buyers to specify their Focus ST-Line to be as luxurious as the others, though it erodes the cheaper price. A $1250 Driver Assistance pack adds adaptive cruise control, blind-spot monitoring an evasive steering assist. The $1800 Design pack adds 18-inch wheels, LED headlights in place of the standard yellow halogens and auto high-beam. A panoramic sunroof is $2000.

If you tick these boxes suddenly your Focus ST-Line has everything the Koreans do, and a little more. But then it’ll cost you $34,040. We wish Ford Australia gave us a vehicle with these options, but sometimes that’s how the cookie crumbles… We’re glad it’s available.

Metallic/prestige paint costs extra on all three cars: $550 on the Ford, $520 on the Kia and $495 on the Hyundai. That’s a reasonable impost.

There’s a reasonable argument for saying the Kia wins the value equation on balance. Ditto the Ford. Probably not the Hyundai. Though none of this trio are bad value.

Interiors

The Focus’s interior is notably less cluttered than its predecessor’s was, with better-quality materials and a fascia that doesn’t protrude like before. Instead, the centre screen sits proudly atop the dash, and runs Ford’s excellent Sync 3 infotainment system that couldn’t be easier to use.

The seats may lack leather trim and electric adjustment, but they’re relatively well-bolstered, and finished in nice fabric. Behind the flat-bottom wheel is a set of clear analogue dials flanking a digital trip computer with speed readout and a host of other data menus to scroll through.

The button layout on the steering wheel comprises your active safety (more on this later) and audio volume switches on the left spoke, and voice control activation, track listing and trip computer scrolling buttons on the right.

Pictured: Kia Cerato

The only unusual element of the interior, and that’s a good thing since it plays things pretty safely, is the rotary dial fitted in lieu of a gear shifter, which gracefully spins to Park when you turn the engine off.

Most owners of these vehicles are, statistically speaking, unlikely to use the back seats very much. The Focus’ rear lacks air vents or a centre armrest, though there’s a 12V input. There is, however, sufficient headroom and legroom for anyone my height (193cm, about 6ft 4) or shorter. Tick.

The Focus’s 375L boot is the smallest here, though still bigger than a Mazda 3’s or Toyota Corolla’s. It’s also the only car here available with a more practical wagon body style, which might actually be the pick.

Pictured: Ford Focus 

The Kia’s interior feels the most ostensibly ‘sporty’ here, with a dark headlining, red stitching and back-lighting, a preponderance of black plastic and leather, a GT-labelled chunky wheel and circular vents. There’s a fair slab of Stinger about it. It’s the sole car here with a manual handbrake.

A number of small touches are winners: the steering wheel buttons are tactile, the driver seat has memory presets and the headrests are embossed with GT lettering, there’s a little shelf for your phone with the integrated Qi pad, and the contrasting silver and gloss-black trims are tastefully minimalist. It also has a ripping eight-speaker JBL sound system.

The back seats offer rear air vents and a flip-down centre armrest with cup holders, and equal headroom plus narrowly superior legroom to the Ford. The boot’s 428L capacity is also largest here, and the loading area the longest thanks to the elongated body. You can also get the Cerato as a sedan.

Pictured: Cerato top and Hyundai bottom

In terms of substance, the Hyundai i30 and Kia Cerato are damn-near identical. However, the i30 N Line Premium’s interior offers a lighter, brighter feel and fewer ‘boy racer’ elements. Those lairy red seat belts preclude it from feeling Euro chic, but it’s closer to, it out of the two Koreans.

The plastics on the dash and doors appear a lighter shade of grey, as does the digital temperature readout screen. There are red surrounds on the vents as well as the seat piping and stitching, and the panoramic sunroof is simply massive. More importantly, it has a solid sliding interior cover, not a flimsy piece of cheese cloth like some Euros.

The infotainment is interchangeable with the Kia, though the screen lacks the handy shortcut buttons of its rival/stablemate. Its soft-closing cubby cover under the fascia is helpful, while the presence of an electric park brake switch liberates more cabin storage. Just.

Pictured: Hyundai i30  

The new gear shifter design and subtly labelled seats are new touches, and again, add some freshness.

The issue with that sunroof is reduced back seat headroom, though again my height makes me an outlier. Anyone under 180cm will be more than catered for. Like the Kia, you get hard front seat shells that are easy to clean but not so friendly on the knees, plus rear vents and cupholders in the arm rest.

The boot space sits in the middle of the road and, like the other pair, there’s a temporary spare wheel/tyre under the loading floor. You can’t technically get the i30 as a wagon or sedan like the Ford and Kia respectively, but the Elantra sedan comes in a very similar specification.

Powertrains

All cars here use small turbo-petrol engines, automatic transmissions and front-wheel drive. If you want a manual… tough, unless you opt for the less well-equipped i30 N Line (non-Premium).

All also get various driving modes that lightly adjust the accelerator responses, gear shift points and steering resistance, albeit largely in a mild fashion.

The Focus ST-Line uses a turbocharged three-cylinder engine, but it’s not anything like your preconceptions may suggest. Yes, it has a characterful little thrummy engine note that’s super engaging, but it’s well balanced and largely free of vibrations. In this way it offers the best of both worlds.

Like all small force-inducted units its peak torque is on tap from just above idle point, giving it a muscular and responsive feel, which its small displacement keeps weight over the nose down, enhancing the sharp steering responses that we’ll touch on in a sec.

Peak power and torque figures are lower than what you get in the others though, at 134kW and 240Nm, though the Focus is also between 50 and 90kg lighter than the Korean pair, and slightly more economical (6.4L/100km versus 6.8L/100km for the Kia and 7.1L/100km for the Hyundai).

It also runs a newly developed eight-speed automatic gearbox of the torque converter variety, though it oddly behaved much like a DCT, with rapid shifts under dynamic driving but hints of fidgetiness and indecisiveness in urban driving. Nothing alarming, just not the slickest out there.

The Hyundai and Kia share the same engine, which it must be said has been around for two generations of product without changing its outputs. The 1.6-litre turbo four makes 150kW/265Nm in both cars, and comes mated as standard to a seven-speed dual clutch gearbox.

It’s a decent ‘warm’ engine that acts as a bridge between a regular petrol for the class and something properly hot like the 200kW-plus i30 N or Golf R, enabling a 0-100km/h sprint time in the mid-7s.

The only real differences are aural – the Kia pipes a gruff, somewhat artificial note into the cabin under throttle whereas the Hyundai is more subdued. This befits the positioning where the former is targeted at a younger, edgier buyer than the latter.

Dynamics

None of these three cars are slouches on a twisting road, as befits their sporty positioning. All three have fixed dampers, various driving modes to tweak the throttle and gearbox calibration to be sportier or more eco-friendly, expensive European tyres (Continentals on the Ford, Michelins on the Korean pair) and paddle shifters behind their steering wheels.

The Ford retains the nimble nature of previous Focus’, with the most direct steering here, and a super darty front end. You sit low, and feel connected to the road. It also retains its composure against cornering forces at most speeds.

Despite having small wheels with a bit more sidewall, doesn’t feel any smoother at low speeds. It irons out potholes and corrugations relatively well, but its dampers sit on the firm side. Amplifying this were the squeaks we heard coming from the plastic surrounding the steering column. Press car blues!

Unlike the ST-Line wagon or either the Cerato and i30, the hatch uses a torsion beam rear suspension setup that is cheaper and easier to package, but inherently more basic and in need of extra tuning to maximise roadholding. Yes it’s the same twist beam as the new Fiesta ST rocket gets, but there are different elastokinematics at play.

Ford has gambled that most buyers wont care, and it is likely to be correct. In most situations you won’t notice, until you’re at nine-tenths. Yet philosophically its a shame since Ford is pushing this car’s premium credentials.

One thing that really impressed me was the active safety suite. The steering assist system keeps you between the white lines on highways as well as anything BMW offers, and if you don’t respond to prompts to grab the wheel, the car will slow down gradually and stop, presuming you’re incapacitated. The active cruise control and blind spot monitoring systems also worked perfectly.

The Kia clearly targets a younger and edgier buyer than the Hyundai does, most exemplified by the raspy engine and exhaust note that’s sent into the cabin, especially in sport mode activated by shifting into manual override mode. It’s much louder than the others, though it’s not entirely unpleasant. Just artificial.

Like the Hyundai, Kia’s engineers were given suspension parameters and parts (springs, dampers, bushes and bars) to choose from and were able to tweak to suit local roads. I prefer the steering weight to the Hyundai, and have an inkling that the ride is a smidgen firmer than the i30. But there’s little in it.

Still, the way it held on and stayed flat through corners while remaining largely unworried over potholes or speed bumps or corrugations impressed me. As did the active safety suite, with a lane assist system as impressive as the Ford’s. Love that steering wheel too.

Because Hyundai has the hardcore i30 N Performance it’s been able to dial back the N-Line and target refinement, compared to the edgier Kia.

So its tune feels a touch smoother over the bumps, befitting the car’s premium aspirations. That refined engine note fits the same agenda. On the other side of the coin, the steering is too resistant in sports mode for my liking. Weight doesn’t equal feel.

Commendations to the body stiffness, since the massive sunroof elicited no creaking or groaning over B roads. Even the most recent Audi I drove was inferior in this area.

The active safety systems are the same as the Kia’s, with the exception of the curious lack of blind-spot monitoring.

If I could have the Hyundai’s comfort with the Kia’s optional raspy note and the Focus’ brilliant steering tune, we’d be set! Honestly none of the cars drop the ball here. The Hyundai suits my tastes, while the Focus and Kia are similar shades of ‘boy racer’ by comparison. Split em at your peril.

Ownership

Both Ford and Hyundai offer five-year warranties without distance limits, roadside assist for the term, and capped-price servicing. Kia offers all of the above but a superior warranty of seven years – market leading among high-volume players.

Hyundai, like all car brands, wants you to service your car at a dealership, and makes it quite attractive. A five-visit/50,000km servicing package costs $1595 at an average cost of $319 per visit.

The Kia shares these annual or 10,000km servicing intervals, with the first five visits total capped at $1741, averaging $348.20 per visit.

Finally Ford’s intervals are a superior 12-months or 15,000km, with the first five visits costing $1546, cheapest here. So that’s a win for the Ford on servicing costs, and a win for the Kia on warranty.

VERDICT

What a great trio of cars this is. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend any of them. But it would be dull to call it a tie…

The Ford Focus ST-Line‘s cost advantage is eroded as you add options, which you need to if you want equivalence with the Koreans. This plus the less potent engine means there’s a case to have it last, even though I love the steering, character, infotainment and active safety. Note, the ST-Line wagon is a peach.

The Kia Cerato GT has a younger skew than the i30 N-Line and it’s hard to argue with its value proposition and its ownership credentials. If you don’t mind to boy racer design and gloomy cabin ambience it’s a winner in either hatch or sedan form.

The Hyundai i30 N-Line Premium floated my boat most of all here because it manages to offer an experience befitting its nomenclature mixed with a driving character that’s both agile yet refined. It’s exceptionally polished and well-considered albeit the most expensive here.

Your thoughts? Let us know below.

Click the Photos tab for more by Frank Yang. Videography by Igor Solomon. 

Model Ford Focus Hyundai i30 Kia Cerato
Variant ST-Line N Line Premium GT
List price* $28,990 $34,990 $31,990
As tested** $30,890 $35,485 $32,510
Features
Proximity key Yes Yes Yes
Touchscreen 8.0-inch 8.0-inch 8.0-inch
Apple/Android Yes Yes/Yes Yes
Sat-nav Yes Yes Yes
DAB+ Yes Yes Yes
Auto wipers Yes Yes Yes
Seats Cloth Leather Leather
Heated/cooled No/No Yes/Yes Yes/Yes
Climate control Yes Yes Yes
Sunroof Option Yes No
Qi phone charger No Yes Yes
Safety
Blind-spot Option No Yes
AEB Yes Yes Yes
Lane assist Yes Yes Yes
Cross-traffic alert Option Yes Yes
Active cruise Option Yes Yes
Airbags 6 7 6
Outside
Wheels 17-inch 18-inch 18-inch
Tyres Continental 215/50 Michelin 225/40 Michelin 225/40
Spare Space-saver Space-saver Space-saver
LED headlights Option Yes Yes
Model Ford Focus Hyundai i30 Kia Cerato
Variant ST-Line N Line Premium GT
List price* $28,990 $34,990 $31,990
As tested** $30,890 $35,485 $31,510
Petrol engine 1.5-litre turbo 1.6-litre turbo 1.6-litre turbo
Cylinder count 3 4 4
Outputs 134kW/240Nm 150kW/265Nm 150kW/265Nm
Transmission 8AT 7-DCT 7-DCT
Fuel use 6.4L/100km 7.1L/100km 6.8L/100km
Fuel tank 52L 50L 50L
Weight 1347kg 1436kg 1395kg
0-100km/h 8.0s 7.4s 7.4s
Length 4378mm 4345mm 4510mm
Height 1454mm 1453mm 1440mm
Width 1825mm 1795mm 1800mm
Wheelbase 2700mm 2650mm 2700mm
Boot capacity 375L 395L 428L
Made in Germany South Korea South Korea

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