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Hyundai’s i20 is all about quality and value rather than desirability, although a nip and tuck in 2012 has helped

Until the latter part of the noughties, the arrival of a new model from Hyundai was unlikely to cause sleepless nights for rival manufacturers.

But a succession of increasingly competent offerings from the Korean brand has moved it away from the bargain basement position in the market that it used to occupy, and makes this i20 far more relevant in the supermini sector than its Getz forerunner ever was.

Thick A-pillars are compounded by broad door mirror mounts to restrict your forward view

The coming of age was marked by the introduction of the deeply impressive i30, which proved itself worthy as a genuine rival to the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf.

The i20 supermini can be considered a shrunken tribute to that breakthrough i30. It combines inoffensive design, frugal engines and safety with the brand’s tried-and-tested virtues of generous standard kit and one of the best warranties in the business.

The replacement for the insipid Getz, it's constructed in India alongside the i10 city car, but it was designed and engineered in Europe, and intended to capitalise on growing demand for superminis in Europe. Sales of the supermini have proved that its maker is capable of creating a successful entrant in the biggest market segment of them all.

Buyers can choose either a three-door model, which starts at a snitch under £10,000, or a five-door, which comes with a much wider range of engine and trim choices. A facelift in 2012 brought the brand's 'fluidic sculpture' language to the model, which has distanced itself from the plain look of the old model.

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So, the question must be asked: is this another mainstream Hyundai that will cause European rivals to leave the light on at night?

DESIGN & STYLING

Hyundai i20 headlight and foglight

Hyundai’s European design team was clearly briefed to give the i20 pleasant but inoffensive styling. It’s fair to say that many of the Hyundai’s aesthetic cues riff heavily on those of segment rivals, especially the Vauxhall-Corsa-alike rear lights. Post-2012 models are much improved. The model has adopted the 'fluidic's design language from its other models and is the better for it.

The mechanical layout is predictable. The i20's component set is the absolute supermini standard, with MacPherson struts and coil springs suspending the front end and a torsion beam axle at the back. Electric power assistance for the steering is about the most radical item on the spec list.

Comfort trim brings some bright seat and door trim to lift the cabin ambience slightly

Despite being longer and wider than the Getz it replaces, the i20 isn’t particularly big by the bloated standards of modern superminis. By luck or design, it’s almost exactly the same size as the Ford Fiesta, itself the de facto arbiter of what constitutes a benchmark supermini, with the Hyundai being just 10mm shorter and 12mm narrower.

But while other manufacturers, including Ford, have successfully cut the kerb weight of new-generation superminis when compared with their predecessors, the i20 has actually put on weight. Hyundai claims that a fully loaded five-door 1.4-litre diesel version weighs 1226kg, which constitutes a 201kg increase over the Getz 1.4 GSI. It also means it’s about 140kg heavier than a 1.4 diesel Fiesta.

Hyundai would argue that much of the increase in mass is due to the i20’s comprehensive array of standard safety equipment, which resulted in a five-star Euro NCAP crash test rating in 2009. Even the most basic versions get six airbags: front, side and curtain. All i20s get ESP as standard, too.

INTERIOR

Hyundai i20 dashboard

The i20 has a well-designed and functional cabin, albeit not one that moves the game on in any way. On the plus side, the Hyundai is spacious, with decent accommodation in the front plus a good range of seat and steering column adjustment. Rear accommodation is even better.

This is one area in which the i20 clearly betters the Ford Fiesta. It’s possible to sit one six-footer in reasonable comfort behind another. Boot capacity isn’t particularly generous, but a flat load area and a wide tailgate aperture make the most of it.

Although Hyundai has produced small cars since the 1990s, the company introduced its first European-style supermini with the 2002 Getz

Controls are clearly and sensibly laid out. The i20's 2012 facelift saw a raft of changes designed to improved perceived quality: it is incredible what a few small revisions to the centre console and switchgear and changing various dash inserts from dull grey to metallic silver can do.

The audio system sounds crisp and all versions come with an auxiliary sound input socket. Comfort spec and above adds full iPod connectivity.

Although the cabin feels up to withstanding the rigours of tough family use, it still lacks perceived quality next to some rivals. Top-spec models get a leather steering wheel, gearknob and handbrake handle.

So the i20 is certainly no fashion object, but the relatively high roofline has practical benefits and the shape is elegant enough.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Hyundai i20 side profile

The i20's base 1.2-litre engine delivers its peak 84bhp at 6000rpm and 88lb ft of torque at 4000rpm. That's enough to haul the little Hyundai from zero to 60mph in 12.7sec – less than a second shy of the time we recorded in a 1.4-litre Fiesta. But above 60mph, acceleration tails off noticeably.

The accessible torque peak makes for decent in-gear performance. Indeed, the i20 is actually pretty sprightly: 40-60mph in fourth gear takes 10.9sec, against 11.8sec in the Fiesta 1.4. The Hyundai is also quicker to dispatch 50-70mph in fifth gear, its time of 17.1sec comparing well with the Ford’s 21.8sec.

Our i20 — one of only a few to be built without ESP — revealed a chassis that can suffer from some pretty extreme lift-off oversteer

Braking performance is less impressive. The pedal is slightly over-assisted, and there isn’t enough retardation. The stopping time from 60mph is 2.95sec in the dry and 3.3sec in the wet – the latter being nearly half a second slower than the Ford Fiesta.

The i20's top-spec petrol engine is a 99bhp 1.4-litre unit. Despite the extra power and torque (101lb ft) it doesn’t feel that much quicker than the 1.2 version. The official 0-62mph time is 11.6sec and the top speed is a claimed 112mph. Unlike the base petrol unit, the 1.4 can be specified with a six-speed manual or four-speed auto. The latter adds 1.3sec to the sprint to 62mph.

On the diesel front, there’s a 1.4 with 89bhp. The range-topping engine is a grumbly enough thing at idle, although you hear it less once you’re at speed; not that there's much of that - it takes 13.5sec to reach 62mph. Two versions are offered with this engine: the Blue Drive variant cuts emissions.

Also offered is a super-frugal three-cylinder 1.1-litre, which brings sub-100g/km CO2 emissions, thanks to such features as stop-start and taller gearing. It’s not the most pleasurable i20 to drive, though - it will take a noisy 15.7sec to reach 62mph and will run out of puff at 99mph. And in the real world, it won't approach such phenomenal economy.

RIDE & HANDLING

Hyundai i20 front end

The lightness of the controls sets out the Hyundai’s dynamic stall – this is a car designed around ease of operation. The clutch pedal’s lack of resistance takes some getting used to, but the light steering and the light, accurate gearshift make the i20 a restful companion.

It’s also obvious that the i20 is focused more on comfort than outright handling control. The Hyundai’s soft suspension settings deal well with urban potholes, but ask it to travel at a faster clip across country and the suspension struggles to keep the body level and stable over short-frequency undulations.

Attempts at over-enthusiastic cornering have the i20 running out of front-end grip much more rapidly than the class norm

The i20’s biggest dynamic flaw is the electrically assisted power steering. It has a strange, gloopy resistance and gives little impression of how much grip is left. 

Then there’s the modest grip served up by the tyres. Negotiating wet roundabouts at the same speed as prevailing traffic can have the front end nudging wide. A good job that UK i20s come with stability control as standard.

That said, all the basics are in place: the chassis has balance and the car's handling responses are deft enough. It is surprisingly composed and dynamically accomplished. There’s much less body roll and it steers with neat, accurate precision. In fact, if you’ll excuse the stereotyping, the i20 drives like a German car – not surprising since that’s where much of the high-speed and handling testing was done.

The Blue version gets special low-rolling-resistance eco tyres which do alter the dynamics of the i20 slightly. In general, the ride and handling blend of this model is okay, but the eco tyres seem to do little for ride comfort, and contribute to an even more conspicious lack of steering precision and response compared with other cars in this class.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Hyundai i20

The i20 comes with Hyundai’s five-year Triple Care package, which offers five years of unlimited-mile warranty, RAC roadside assistance and annual health checks. It will be cheap to service and insure, with group ratings starting at group eight, and our test average of 44.0mpg in the 1.2 model is respectable.

Not all engines are available in all trims or in both three- and five-door configurations, so if you're buying an i20 purely as a way of getting from A to B, you'll need to work out what is most important to you: a low list price, improved economy, practicality or performance. This makes choosing a lot harder than usual.

The two main limits on pace on our track are a lack of front grip and remote-feeling steering

Broadly speaking, the 1.2-litre petrol makes the most sense with an official combined fuel consumption figure of 57.6mpg and emissions of 114g/km. Spend a little more for the 1.4-litre petrol and consumption increases to 54.3mpg and emissions to 122g/km. Pick the automatic versions and running costs escalate quickly.

The 1.1-litre diesel returns 74.3mpg, or 88.3mpg if you choose the Blue Drive variant. Carbon emissions are 99g/km and 84g/km respectively, but such is the vigour with which the engine needs to be driven, those figures sound a little optimistic.

In Blue Drive guise, the 1.4-litre diesel emits a tax-free 96g/k of CO2 and 76.3mpg on the combined cycle, while the standard engine records 65.7mpg and 100g/km

Equipment levels are good for the money. The sub-£10,000 entry-level has air-con, electric front windows, six airbags, ESP and an aux-in stereo connection. The more expensive Blue Drive models gain stop-start technology and low-roll resistance tyres, but lose the air-con - and it's not even offered on the options list. More upscale models gain Bluetooth, various automatically-activated controls and bits of leather trim.

VERDICT

3.5 star Hyundai i20

The i20 moves Hyundai's game on in a vital segment of the European car market. It’s a decent car and a justifiable rival for the class powers in terms of quality and driving experience, as well as on price. In fact, the i20 may well be the perfect car for cash-strapped times. For those looking for a cheaper alternative that doesn’t impose much sacrifice, it could be a great way to save money on your motoring.

It’s not particularly fresh or original, but it does undercut its significant rivals and Hyundai’s five-year warranty remains one of the best in the business. As an overall package, the i20 has what it takes to bring many new buyers to the brand.

Safety kit impresses for the price

Two other things really stand out. First, Hyundai’s decision to offer the i20 with a comprehensive array of standard safety equipment means that it will be possible to buy a version fitted with ESP and six airbags (plus air-con) for less than £10,000.

Secondly, the i20’s impressive new 1.2-litre petrol engine combines the economy and emissions of a small engine with enough performance to take on bigger-engined hatches on equal terms. But despite a strong performance across the board, the i20’s generic design makes it a car that will be bought more with head than heart.

Hyundai i20 2009-2014 First drives