Korea move

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 September, 2007, 12:00am

Hyundai's i30 shows the marque is serious about shifting up the automotive pecking order, writes William Wadsworth

Hyundai's test dummies must have spindly legs, because the front passenger footwell of the i30 seems rather tight. Even with the seat back, there seems little shuffle room for my size 46 feet, and that's a scuff in a five-door hatchback that's said to have been designed for European tastes.

There's plenty of legroom for daintier folk in the back, and the carpet and centre fascia surfaces accommodate high-heels. But then they'd have to, for Hyundai wants to kick off its little-budget shoes and impress in the west, as Toyota did.

The South Korean marque is doing just that. Despite recent strikes and senior executive strife, Hyundai has created some very exportable wheels. The Santa Fe SUV has been a best-seller in the US and among local expats; the two-litre Tucson offers 'Bowen Road Tractor' status to our sandwich class for the cost of an average Japanese jeep; and the Sonata shows how Korean saloons can look attractive without feeling tinny.

Yet upwardly mobile Hyundai wants more social status for its new baby. So the doting marque gave it a posh name ('i' as in hi-tech and '30' for the C segment) and drew it up at its design 'finishing school' in Russelsheim, Germany, where automotive Henry Higginses and Jean Wongs have tried to teach the five-door hatch to hold the road 'proper', as a European one should.

They've almost succeeded. The test car looks so European on 16-inch alloys, at first sight, that you might cover the boot badge in the main picture above and marvel at the marque's Pygmalion act. But look closer and you might find hints of an Audiesque U-shaped grille, the side-on bonnet snub of the Volvo S40, and Benzie-Porschie splodgie headlights. Cattier critics might also point to the i30's Bangle-style side crease lines to a BMW 1-Series-type rear, and liken the i30's exterior to the first swirls of a Sunday afternoon date in the boss' old Esprit.

The test car's interior retains its Korean accent, however. Hyundai's hallmark glacier-mint-blue dashboard-dial tint is an eye-popping giveaway, but it's also probably the most legible instrumentation I've tested all year. Beyond that, the i30 is as ergonomic as a BMW, with much thought given to cubby holes and an impressive centre-armrest box with iPod and USB inputs, and even a lining to stop the clatter of its contents on corners. The aircon minds its Ps and Qs, too.

The seats are as supportive and well-finished as those in the Volkswagen Golf and as comfy as the Peugeot 207's, and you can have them in leather for HK$6,600 extra. But the Hyundai doesn't make the most of the cabin space. A Renault or a Volvo might have offered a lighter, sandy tone for its interior to enhance the airiness of its sunroof, another extra, at HK$4,600. Instead, you get black or chocolate brown finishes that might seem sombre in our haze. The boot's big, with a basic 340 litres and 1,250 litres with the seats down, but Hyundai commits a faux pas by not fitting its closure mechanism into the boot's floor for a flat, open rear. Instead, the marque has created a lip that makes mums and oldies with bad backs lift rather than slide shopping out of the car and forces poodles to hurdle or claw into the rear.

The i30 handles well, however, and is possibly the best-value hatch in town, at HK$152,000 with a five-year warranty.

The wheel's comfortable, the steering feels heavy and the shocks reveal every ripple of the road, but the brakes are as sharp as the Golf's. You're unlikely to break any records with the two-litre i30's four-speed automatic gearbox, but it'll get you up Braemar Hill in drive, with '1' and '2' settings for steeper inclines. I expected more whine from the engine at this price, too, and am pleasantly surprised by the test car's deportment in North Point traffic.

Front and side visibility is as good as in a Volvo C30 in the heave of Wan Chai, but the large C-pillars blind you on your rear quarters. Large side-mirrors alert you to near-side bikers and jaywalkers, but reversing and parking are hard with rear headrests blocking your over-the-shoulder view. The Golf and Nissan Tiida seem easier for the stiff-necked or pregnant to park, so you might spend an extra few thousand dollars on the reverse sensor option.

The i30 seems safe, scoring four for adult safety and three for child safety in Euro crash tests, and its front, side and curtain airbags shame the dual fronts of some Mazdas, Suzukis and Toyotas, although it rated a less-impressive two for pedestrian safety.

Hyundai Hong Kong will also fit an electronic stability program and brake assist system for HK$4,800. But what a pity the dealers didn't bump up the car's price to HK$156,800 and offer it as standard in a city where intangible safety options are too often seen as scrimpable. The ESP, after all, monitors the movement of the car, and adjusts the power and brakes if it senses mum's drifting out of line.

The i30 is no oil painting, but it's an adequate family drive and its affordability and Zung Fu service backup could save you the hassle of buying second-hand, even though you might take a hammering on residuals because Hyundai might still be regarded as cheap by those who have never driven a Santa Fe.

The i30 lacks the poke of the downsized Golf GT, or that accordionned La Vie en Rose feeling when you step into a Renault, but it will get you from A to B without looking cheap on Stubbs Road. Hyundai's Professor Higgins has earned his money, and could save yours, if you're a stock shoe size.


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