2012 Hyundai i20- The Revolution Begins In Sriperumbudur

It’s no secret that Hyundai is on a roll in the US.  Starting with the redesigned 2010 Sonata, the company has gone through a renaissance with a continual surge of all-new products in the last two years that offer lofty fuel economy figures, daring styling, and a long-time Hyundai favorite; aggressive pricing and an industry-leading warranty.  Consumers have noticed and sales increased 29% in 2011 over an already successful 2010.  Gone is the stigma that Hyundais are cheap, cheerful cars that disintegrated soon after being purchased.

The car you see in these photos was not part of that resurgence.  At least in the US it wasn’t.  It’s called the i20, and although it may not be a car that will ever see American soil, it still plays a very important role for Hyundai.

The i20 is something new for the Korean manufacturer.  What’s different about this car is that it’s been designed for and is built-in one of the world’s fastest growing auto markets, India.  Before you roll your eyes in lassitude, think about this- India has one-fifth of the world’s population and projections show that by 2050 that there will be 650 million cars on its roads, making it the largest market in the world.  It’s something that Hyundai, along with Ford and Suzuki, haven’t ignored and they are catering to the subcontinent with locally manufactured cars to suit the regional tastes.  The supermini segment is the money-maker and ultra competitive- as many families are upgrading to their first car and have limited budgets.

The i20 was introduced to Australia in 2010 to replace the very popular, but long-in-the-tooth, Getz.  Like in the US, Hyundai has been gaining ground in the Aussie market with cars such as the i30 (Elantra Touring) and the i20 will certainly help matters. 

Designed to be a city car (remember Australia in one of the most urbanized countries in the world) the i20 certainly looks the part.  While it may not have the “fluidic-sculpture” treatment of most Hyundais, I think this works in the car’s favor.  It has a decidedly European flavor to it- with large, detailed headlamps , plump bulges accompanied by sharp creases that run along the fenders between the wheelarches, and smooth, flowing lines in the hatch, it has some resemblance to the Opel Corsa.  There’s a lot of style for an economy car, especially in my tester’s electric green color, and it garnered a number of compliments from passers-by.  This is a car that will appeal to inner-city young people on looks alone.

But there’s more to like about the i20 than just appearances.  The front seats are extremely roomy and afford a comfortable, airy environment to spend time on the road.  There’s no shortage of head, knee or legroom and nothing about the interior is intrusive.  The seats are firm and well bolstered on the sides.  The thick, grippy three-spoke steering wheel tilts for additional comfort.  After a four-hour drive through rural Australia there were no complaints of pain or discomfort.  Visibility is good all around with a large greenhouse.  The large swoop of the rear side window was sometimes distracting, especially since the C-pillar interior plastics were a lighter color than the rest of the interior, and would occasionally fool me into thinking a vehicle was beside me. But in an age of tiny windows and thick roof pillars, this was just a misdemeanor.

It’s no surprise given its size that the rear seat is a little lacking in leg and knee room, and entering through the front doors to the back could be troublesome for older folks.  There is a five-door i20 for sale as well that would remedy that problem.

What hatchbacks do best is carrying gear within a small footprint, and the i20 is superb in that regard.  The rear hatch opens wide and the seats fold flat 60/40 offering usable space to load up big items like a bike.  Under the cargo floor is something of a rarity in the US- a full-size spare tire.  In fact, most American Hyundai models now offer only a potentially useless inflator-kit and no spare tire at all.  It’s a representation of the cultural differences between Australia and the US- a flat tire on remote outback roads could mean life or death and an inflator-kit could be an accessory to murder.  It’s good to know Hyundai is very savvy in their world markets and offers full-size tires on most of their Australian market offerings.

Ergonomics were mostly well thought out with simple, clear gauges and easy to read radio buttons and ventilation controls.  The bottom of the dash houses a USB and iPod outlet.  Hyundai is very good at combining new technology, attractive style, and ease of use in most of its cars.  Although many people hate it, I adore the cool-blue lighting that is used on the manufacturer’s dashboards.  It’s easy to read, clear, crisp, and just looks cool.

It’s not all good news though- although everything seems well screwed together, the inside is adorned with cheap plastics.  The top of the dash all the way to the base of the windshield is one big slab of dreary, depressing, cheap feeling, dark plastic that the driver must look over every time they drive.  It’s not very inspiring.  Also, there’s a nifty little set of electronic gauges on top of the dash housing a clock, mileage, and other useful bits of info, but the blue-back lighting is so weak that it gets washed out in the bright Australian sun.  Reading it takes a lot of squinting and distraction.

Strangely, the front doors are very heavy and take a good, hard slam to shut fully.  Even with my gym-toned body (okay, not quite but getting there) it would take some brute force to shut the door properly.  I don’t recall many modern cars that took so much strength to close a door.  It reminded me of my Dad’s old 1960′s era Chevy Truck. On several occasions I’d unknowingly scoot around town with the driver’s door ajar.

Driving the i20 is what you’d expect from a subcompact.  Nothing thrilling, but it gets the job done.  Driving around the city feels fine with the 1.4 liter four-cylinder.  In fact it feels downright peppy.  It’s not even that bad out on the freeway and the car feels stable even with semi trucks passing by.  But come across an uphill grade and the engine’s 99 horses run out of breath quickly.  Immediate downshifts to fourth and even third are needed when tackling a hill.  Regardless, engine noise is well muted and it never sounds like it’s being run through the ringer.

Handling is also what you’d expect from a subcompact.  It grips the road decently and there’s little body roll.  The steering does feel a little vague with an almost artificial feel to it.  But no one buys an i20 to be a rally racer, lets hope not at least.  Unlike prior Hyundais, the suspension is firm and comfortable.  As mentioned, it’s good for handling, but did feel a little jarring on some of Australia’s semi-paved country roads.  It’s a basic MacPherson setup, and the short wheelbase doesn’t help matters much.

Finally, the shifter and clutch were superb.  I never liked the Getz’s manual transmission, which would make me look like a novice at the wheel.  The i20′s is a huge improvement and the shifter was very easy to slip into gears and clutch take-up was light and forgiving.  I never missed a shift and never stalled.  Unlike the Getz, the i20 would be an easy car to learn to drive a manual in.

The tester I had was almost brand new- it only had 350 miles on the clock.  The new car smell was still evident during the entire rental term.  Thankfully there were no defects or issues in the car, with the exception of a rattle coming from the rear hatch area.  The trim level I had was the Active 1.4- which would be worth approximately $14,590 US Dollars.  Equipped with power windows, door locks, mirrors, A/C, MP3 player, ABS, and six airbags- it’s pretty price competitive to other small hatchbacks.  Overall, it gets a rating of 4.5/5 boomerangs

So is there room for the i20 in the US lineup?  Possibly, given the sudden rise in fuel prices and subsequent surge of demand for fuel-efficient vehicles (the i20 gets an estimated 33mpg city/47mpg highway).  The i20 was never designed for the North American market, but it does have the required safety equipment and received a perfect 5-star crash rating from ANCAP, Australia’s safety authority equivalent to the NHTSA.  And there is room to slot in below the smallest Hyundai offering in the US- the Accent.  Chevrolet will soon be offering one of the i20′s chief competitors, the Spark, to American showrooms this year.  Hyundai, no doubt, will be keeping an eye on how well it sells.  All I can say is that time will tell.

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