The i20 seems to be the unsung hero of Hyundai’s hatch back line-up.
While the original i10 was the face of the scrappage scheme, and the i30 marked the brand’s first major step towards taking on the might of the VW group, the i20 has so far passed by relatively unnoticed despite strong sales since 2008 – until now that is.
With this new model, Hyundai’s major assault on the supermini class really begins. Dominated for years by the Ford Fiesta, the latest i20 now has to go toe-to-toe with not just the Ford, but the new Skoda Fabia, revitalized Vauxhall Corsa and Volkswagen Polo.
There are four engines from launch, two petrol and two diesel. Most are familiar from the rest of the Hyundai range, but a new three-pot turbo will join the range in the latter half of 2015, to try and compete with the excellent turbo triples from both Vauxhall and Ford.
On paper the i20 seems promising. The 1.4-litre normally aspirated petrol engine we tested has been newly developed with this car in mind, and although it has to make do without a turbocharger – unlike all its major class rivals – 99bhp in a car that weighs just over a tonne should provide enough poke to easily nip in and out of town traffic.
Start it up, and at tick-over you can barely tell the engine is on at all – testament to the work Hyundai’s engineers have done to improve the sound-deadening, and all part of the new i20’s grown-up appeal. The longer, lower body is a lot wider than before, and in fact it looks and feels more like a car from the class above than a dinky supermini.
The standard six-speed manual gearbox has a slicker action than before, with new multi-cone synchro rings in the first two ratios and a guide plate to make it feel more precise, although it’s still too easy to select third instead of first by mistake, and be left grasping for the right gear as the lights change and the revs die away.
High-strength steels make up a large proportion of the new body shell, and the extra rigidity has definitely made an impact on the new i20’s dynamic character.
Turn hard into a series of corners, and there’s more grip, it resists body roll, and the steering – while rather slow and lacking the precision of say, a Fiesta, has lost much of the wooly, vague dead-zone around the straight-ahead that you got in the previous i20.
It’s still not a driver’s car though. The Fiesta still strikes the best balance between ride and handling in this class, and the ride in the i20 is probably its weakest area.
Speed bumps and longer undulations are well absorbed, but any sharp ridges or expansion joints expose a seeming lack of suspension travel, sending a big thump into the cabin.
The other problem is power. The petrol versions we drove (the 84bhp 1.2-litre, and this 99bhp 1.4) felt gutless once out on the open road, and introducing any sort of steep incline only highlights the naturally-aspirated motor’s reedy 99lb ft of torque.
The 89bhp 1.4-litre turbodiesel is slower and less economical than its key rivals. Its 0-60mph time is almost a second slower than that of the equivalent Skoda Fabia, while its claimed combined fuel economy of 68.9mpg is a way off the offical economy figures returned by a diesel Fabia, Renault Clio or Volkswagen Polo.
Performance-wise, there’s some turbo lag after planting your foot down, but above 1800rpm the diesel i20 pulls well and can make fairly brisk progress when needed. It's fast enough around town and copes well at motorway speeds, but when the road opens out and you really want to make swift progress it starts to feel underpowered.
Hyundai has made a concerted effort to improve noise, vibration and ride quality from the previous generation, but under heavy acceleration the engine sounds gruff and strained. There’s also some noticeable vibration through the pedals.
The diesel groan only really settles down once you’re into sixth gear and cruising on the motorway, at which point you'll notice some wind noise from the door mirrors.
Inside the cabin, though, the i20 really gets one up on its rivals. The 326-litre boot capacity – rising to 1042 litres with the rear seats down – has been increased from 295 litres in the previous generation, and is 36 litres more than that offered by the Fiesta.
There will be five trim levels, but most i20s will come in SE trim, which includes a lot of kit, including electric windows all-round, rear parking sensors, 16-inch alloys, voice activated Bluetooth, and cruise control, all for around £1,000 less than a VW Polo SE.
The i20's interior is bigger than the Polo, but the cabin materials are not up to the same standard, with less soft-touch plastics, and some oddly-coloured panels and textures. It also does without a touch-screen infotainment system, instead offering a smart phone dock, and a simple dot-matrix radio display.
If you’re looking for a practical, well-made supermini with generous kit levels, and a big boot, then the new i20 deserves a place on your shortlist. Yet despite its improved dynamics, it’s still not quite as fun or comfortable as the best cars in this class.
In the face of so much turbocharged competition, it’s perhaps no surprise that the i20 feels a bit underpowered, but the fact it’s also not especially efficient (a CO2 figure of 127g/km means the 1.4 will cost you £110 in road tax alone) does count against it.
The new Vauxhall Corsa with a 1.4-litre turbocharged engine is a few hundred pounds cheaper, nearly as roomy inside, and feels much faster in everyday driving. Hopefully the new 1.0-litre T-GDI engine will arrive sooner rather than later, and give the Hyundai a bit more of a fighting chance.
Hyundai i20 1.4 SE
Price £13,325; 0-62mph 11.6 seconds; Top speed 114mph; Economy 51.1mpg; CO2 127g/km; Kerb weight 1060kgs; Engine 4 cyls in line, 1368cc, petrol; Power 99bhp; Torque 99lb ft; Gearbox six-speed manual
Hyundai i20 1.4 CRDi SE
Price £14,725; Engine 4 cyls in line, 1396cc, turbodiesel; Power 89bhp at 4000rpm; Torque 177lb ft at 1500-2500rpm; Gearbox six-speed manual; Kerb weight 1280kg; Top speed 109mph; 0-62mph 12.1sec; Economy 68.9mpg (combined); CO2 and tax band 106g/km/17%