Back in 1999, my first brand new car purchase during my university days was a 3-door Hyundai Excel ‘Sport’. Even with much ridicule from friends about buying a Korean ‘girls car’, the purchase was solid. With bodywork that felt like it was made from your primary school lunchbox and interior plastics just waiting to slice your knees open, the plucky Excel was affordable, zippy and was happy to pile on over 100,000km in the 5 years I had it, without any issue or mechanical problem. It also survived an attempted break in.
Cut to 20 years later and my latest new car purchase is once again from that little Korean company that could, although this time, things have changed. The Hyundai i30 SR is a European-styled, luxury, turbocharged, warm sporty hatch that is more than a match for its more well-regarded competitors. Loaded with features and with punchy performance from that engine, the i30 SR still retains that big selling point from the early Hyundai days; value for money.
Decked out in a striking shade of Fire Red, my new i30 SR did have a slight issue when purchasing. Much to the bemusement of the sales team at my local dealership, I opted for the manual gearbox and was met with quizzical looks and a universal reply of “…really?” But, as an old school driver I wanted the purity and engagement that a row-your-own box could give and also the opportunity to make the most of that turbocharged 1.6-litre, 150kW motor.
3 months after buying, my specially built-to-order manual gearbox equipped SR arrived and it was time to get driving. Boy, how things have changed in two decades. The SR initially impressed the moment you slipped into the comfy, leather-appointed seats and inspected the subtle red highlights around the centre console, steering wheel and the vibrant seatbelts. It felt premium and the added touches of a wireless phone charging pad, Android Auto connectivity and blind spot monitoring, among others, really pushed home that value for money feeling.
Prodding the keyless start button, the i30 SR hummed into life, and after slotting the reasonably short throw gearbox into first, a slight issue appeared. The clutch bite point in this car is quite low in the pedal travel and the clutch is very light. After an aborted launch, a few extra revs and some careful use of the left foot got me going, and initial impressions were of a solidly built, well planted, firm but not uncomfortable ride.
At low speeds, small imperfections in the roads could lead to a bit of jiggle in the driving experience, but once up and about with a few more digits on the speedo, things smoothed out and the SR continued to impress. There is some initial lag from the engine as the turbo spools up, but once above the 2500rpm mark, the strong 265Nm of torque really does give you a decent shove in the back. Although you do need to be careful when trying to take off from a standstill from below those revs, as the SR will bog down and need a bit of time to get into stride.
That whack of torque can overwhelm the standard tyres on the car, with noticeable wheel spin from exuberant starts in the wet or launching uphill. When the tyres do break traction, the traction control system does cut in quite abruptly sending you back below that rev threshold and you’re back to bog-down city. However, once you know the vehicles limits of power and adhesion, the i30 SR delivers a superb driving experience, made more involving by the slick, red topped manual transmission.
The Android Auto connectivity (Apple CarPlay is also available) is a godsend in a modern vehicle, with Google Maps, Music Streaming and Handsfree Calling & Messaging all available at the touch of a button. The dedicated voice activated button the steering wheel makes getting directions or playing your favourite music, safe and easy to navigate without taking your hands off the wheel. Even without the phone mirroring, the stock Navigation system is smooth and easy to use, however the voice activated function is disabled with no phone connected, which is a shame.
Other downsides? There are only a few niggles, such as the lack of active cruise control and autonomous emergency braking not being available on the manual gearbox equipped variants. Fuel economy can take a hit when using the most of the turbo shove, although it does even out once the motor has been run in. I’m seeing an average of around 8.5L/100km with day to day use in the city.
Upsides? There’s plenty. The interior space, with plenty of room in the back for people to comfortably sit behind my 6’1” frame, a huge boot that can take plenty of gear, a punchy engine with plenty of mid-range shove and plenty of tech that many vehicles costing far more are yet to offer. Also, the manual gearbox equipped cars come with an old school manual handbrake. You can use your own imagination to figure out why that’s a good thing...
In 20 years, this plucky little car company from Korea has gone from a maker of cheap and cheerful vehicles you may have been a little embarrassed to own, to a fully-fledged market leader in their segment. No longer does the H badge on the front grille mean you’re in a lesser vehicle, the Hyundai i30 SR especially, is a premium, luxurious, sporty warm hatchback that can more than match it with its European benchmarks.
This vehicle takes pride of place in my garage and won’t be the last Hyundai I own in the future. Now, what can I get as a trade in on an i30 Fastback N I wonder…