The small SUV market was really starting to hit its stride when the Hyundai ix35 arrived in 2010. It introduced Hyundai's new dynamic fluidic design to Australia, a design that stood it apart from many of its rivals and made its predecessor - the original Tuscon - look instantly ancient.
The ix35's chunky curvy styling is unadorned with the normal pseudo 4wd styling cues such as plastic wheel arches and unnecessary cladding making it stylish and easy to clean. The smooth lines are let down slightly by the overly fussy front grille design used in the Australian market. Overseas market ix35's feature a much simpler grille similar to the bigger SantaFe, but it was never adopted in Australia, the Series 2 using only new lights and different wheels to differentiate it from the earlier cars.
The ix35 is a great sized car for a 2 child family, with the Highlander adding leather and additional niceties to the mix.
The rattle free interior is well put together, with tight fit lines and smooth joins between the various components but the stippled black plastic used on the dash and doors is hard to the touch and easily scratched.
There are leather inserts on the doors but they do little to break up the mass of black.
The center stack is a combination of glossy piano black, with silver highlights and it would be nice if the gloss black continued down to the lower console, as the gear selector and the cup holders behind it are lost in a sea of unappealing flat rubbery plastic that is also easily scratched. Despite the black on black the huge airy double sunroof brightens up the interior and helps lift the ambience, but the interior surfaces are generally a generation behind the best.
The design of instrument layout is clear, reflection free and easy to read - but a digital speedo would be nice.
The steering column is height and reach adjustable and with the electric seat, a comfortable driving position is easy to find and - despite the sunroof - headroom is ample for a 6'4" driver. The steering wheel itself has controls for audio and cruise control functions, but the leather rim is a bit thin and hard and can get sweaty in summer. The pedals are comfortably positioned and there is a large footrest for your left foot.
The audio and hvac controls in the center stack are simple and easy to use and there is a recess below that is ideal for phones and keys. The recess also has a 12v socket and usb port for connecting your mp3 player.
The audio system is adequate, but lacks low end bass. The FM reception is via a stubby arial and is adequate for metro areas, but quickly loses clarity in outer area where traditional arials still receive well. The unit is bluetooth compatible and once paired to a device, will remain connected until unpaired and the telephone call clarity and bluetooth music reproduction are great.
The dual zone aircon is easy to operate and powerful enough to handle the hottest days. It cools the car quickly, even with the sunroof covers open and whilst black leather seats would appear to be incompatible with summer comfort, that hasn't proven the case (although I've yet to try the naked thigh test...).
The seats, although on the firm and small side have proven comfortable on long trips for both me and my much shorter wife and although I've not felt the need, my wife assures me the heated seats are now indispensable.
The power windows are tinted and the rears have 'privacy glass'. They have both auto up and down on the drivers side, but strangely, if the rear windows are disabled, it also disables their operation from the front multi switch which can be annoying. The drivers window can be left down at speed without too much buffeting if thats your thing.
The keyless entry and start works well although occasionally the car will not start if the key is in your back pocket.
Despite its relatively small external dimensions, there is plenty of leg and head room in the back for adults, but 3 adults across would only be suitable for shorter trips . The back seat is comfortable, with good support and all three back seats have lap sash belts, headrests, and the roof mounted child seat mounting points keep the boot free.
There is a large fold down center armrest in the back seat with built in cup holders along with additional drink bottle holders and pockets in all 4 doors, and large netted map pockets in the back of the front seats. Unfortunately, kids just out of their booster seat will struggle to see over the rising belt line of the rear doors which is a pity as the large panoramic glass roof is a child favorite. The biggest disappointment for back seat passengers is the lack of rear ventilation outlets (even on the Highlander). There are vents under the front seat that do supply some air to the back seat, but it seems a glaring omission.
The trunk space is fine for day to day use, and while its quite tall, it's more hatchback than station wagon. We own a roof pod and use it on holidays, leaving the boot free for a car fridge (that plugs into the rear power outlet) and the like.
The carpet floor lifts forward to access the full size alloy wheel and there is space for a first aid kit. The sides of the boot are covered in a slightly cheap looking shiny black plastic that scratches easily. The rear seat is split fold but doesn't quite fold flat and the retractable luggage cover can be stowed if the seats are down.
On the road:
The ix35 isn't particularly light, but the 2.4l petrol engine mated to the Hyundai built 6 speed auto works quite well. It's no torque monster, so you have to let the transmission do its thing and keep the engine in its sweet spot. Luckily the auto is smooth and quick to respond to throttle inputs, dropping down a gear or two with a silkiness that mean the changes are more heard than felt. It has a manual mode, but in asian tradition, it is orientated back to front.
The engine itself is smooth throughout the rev range and whilst never raucous it doesn't sound in anyway sporty or athletic. Highway fuel economy is around 8.6l/100 with city driving occasionally getting into double figures. The fuel tank is a little on the small side but only requires regular unleaded.
The ride is probably the weakest aspect of the car. I'm sure the low profile tyres on the Highlanders 18 inch wheels play a part as the ride is generally firm and fairly well controlled, but sharp bumps or potholes can cause excessive crashing through the front end and the generally firm suspension tune can make b roads a bit choppy, with multiple bumps occasionally revealing the rear suspension to be slightly underdamped.
The trade off to the firm ride and low profile tyres is that the car handles quite well for a car of its type. The front end bites well and resists understeer, even at enthusiastic speeds and it feels quite stable and predictable, with the multi link rear end never stepping out into lift of oversteer when pushed. The electrically assisted steering is smooth and direct and whilst it doesn't offer porsche levels of feel and feedback, after reading some reviews I was expecting it to be terrible, but i believe Hyundai made running changes to the steering and I was pleasantly suprised.
The car has clocked up 116k now and has been uterly reliable with no faults thus far (apart from a lost letter 'r' on the highlander badge). The service costs have been reasonable and the servicing dealer has been exceptional.
Its not a perfect car by any stretch, but it is ideally sized for a small family, its easy to live with and what it laks in soul, it makes up for in sensibility.