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 Volkswagen group, the i20 has so far passed by relatively unnoticed despite strong sales since 2008 – until now that is.
With this 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 Skoda Fabia, revitalized Vauxhall Corsa and Volkswagen Polo.
There is now also three different bodystyles to choose from - the 5dr hatch, three door coupé and the rugged Active, and seven engines shared across the three variants. At the beginning of the range is a pair of 1.2 naturally aspirated petrol engines producing 74bhp and 83bhp respectively, followed by a 99bhp 1.4 petrol fitted curiously only with a four-speed automatic gearbox, with the range completed by a pair of 1.0-litre turbocharged units designed to compete with the three-cylinder offerings from Vauxhall and Ford. The lower powered unit turbocharged engine is the only fitment found in the rugged i20 Active.
As for diesel options, there are two to choose from a 74bhp 1.1-litre unit and a 89bhp 1.4 oilburner, both paired to a six-speed manual gearbox.
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 are eight trim levels to choose from for the standard 5dr hatch. Entry-level S models come with 15in steel wheels, electrically adjustable and heated door mirrors, electric front windows and USB connectivity as standard, while upgrading to S Air adds air conditioning and a cooled glovebox to the package, or start-stop and low resistance tyres if you opt for the eco-friendly S Blue model.
Spend a bit more and your i20 could be trimmed out in SE equipment, which adds 15in alloy wheels, Bluetooth connectivity, DAB radio, lane departure warning and rear parking sensors to the package. The Premium trim includes luxuries such as automatic lights and wipers, climate control, privacy glass and a smartphone dock, while the Premium Nav and Premium SE Nav trims see the inclusion of a 7.0in touchscreen infotainment system with sat nav and rear view camera.
The range-topping Premium SE models adds far more creature comforts to the i20 package, such as a panoramic sunroof, heated front seats and steering wheel and front parking sensors. Those pining for the more rugged Active will find it comes with its own trim which includes all the equipment found on SE models, plus 17in alloys, alloy pedals, privacy glass, a smartphone dock and a rugged bodykit and skid plates.
Fancy the coupé version? Then you will have three trim choices to deliberate over, with the entry-level SE model come with a wealth of equipment as standard including rear parking sensors, 16in alloys, DAB radio, Bluetooth and USB connectivity, cruise control and 1GB of music storage. Upgrade to the Sport trim and you will find larger alloys, auto lights and wipers, climate control and privacy glass, while paying a bit more for the range-topping Sport Nav model adds Hyundai's 7.0in touchscreen infotainment system complete with TomTom sat nav and a reversing camera.
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. The new 1.0-litre T-GDI engines do give the stylish little Hyundai an extra string to its bow, but it lacks the overall refinement of the smoother Ford EcoBoost engine.