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Can the second-generation Hyundai i30 challenge for class honours?

The Hyundai Hyundai i30 kicked off the Korean brand’s big European push, and it became the first car produced at Hyundai's European factory at Nosovice, Czech Republic, in November 2008.

Critics recognised the big improvement it represented for Hyundai. It was a fine car. It was affordable, convincing and utterly credible. Prophetically, we said it was a wake-up call to Europe’s slumbering mainstream, and we weren’t wrong about that.

Hyundai has produced a product range of consistent and remarkable quality

Global recession may have given Hyundai a leg-up, but the Koreans have since produced a product range of consistent and remarkable quality. The second-generation Hyundai i30 which we are looking at here first went into production in 2011 and was facelifted lifted in 2015, which saw a brand new grille fitted and a more purposeful and aggressive looking hatchback entering the market. For 2017, the third generation Hyundai i30 was revealed at the Paris Motorshow, with the main headlines being that the all-new hatchback will spawn a family of new models, and be headed up by a high-performance Hyundai i30 N version.

There are five engines to choose from in the i30, and five trim levels: S, SE, SE Nav, Premium and Turbo (although not every powerplant is available at every spec level).

Two four-cylinder petrol units prop up the range – a 98bhp 1.4-litre and a 118bhp 1.6 mated exclusively to a six-speed automatic – but Hyundai’s UK output will be focused on the 108bhp and the 134bhp 1.6 CRDi engines. For those after a bit more oomph, or even a three-door hatchback, there is the Turbo models which sees the 1.6-litre petrol given a turbocharger to produce a heady 184bhp, putting right in warm hatch territory.

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Hyundai has shown that it can now muster the necessary qualities to build an original, highly capable family hatchback - one that's worthy of challenging for the lead of the class, and all wrapped up in a very competitive package.

How good is it alongside the likes of the Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf? Let's find out.

DESIGN & STYLING

Hyundai i30 Turbo rear

The new design is based on Hyundai’s ‘fluidic sculpture’ principle, and with the base of the windscreen pulled forwards and lowered, it has bestowed a more swept-back stance on the car. The inheritance of some of the i40’s DNA is apparent, too, and not just in the hexagonal grille that has now become Hyundai’s signature feature.

This dynamic appearance is further exaggerated in the three-door model, introduced at the end of 2012. In an attempt to attract younger buyers, it trades some of the five-door's maturity for aggression, with a new grille design, repositioned foglights and redesigned rear end. The 2015 facelift gave the i30 some sharper lines and a more defined presence on the road, and the addition of a Turbo models to head up the range.

Three-dimensional surfaces create a more sophisticated European look

A 10mm lower ride height and wider tracks have also helped the car’s aesthetic impact and hint at the all-new ‘K’ platform beneath, shared with the Veloster and Elantra. Its wheelbase is the same as its predecessor’s at 2650mm, but Hyundai insists that it has maximised the latest car’s extra length and width to increase interior space.

We applauded the previous i30’s suspension set-up, which adopted the rear multi-link configuration used by the class leaders. The new car continues this legacy, retaining MacPherson struts at the front and adding a FlexSteer system that varies the amount of assistance supplied to the electric power steering via three operating modes.

LED running lights are standard, and are supposed to add a jewel-like quality to the front end. Hexagonal grille is a key feature of Hyundai’s cross-model corporate look. Depending on trim, it comes with one body-coloured horizontal bar or two chrome ones.

Three-dimensional surfaces create a more sophisticated European look; the rear end is particularly reminiscent of an Alfa Romeo Giulietta. Lower spec models are quite unadorned, but more expensive trims get extra chrome, noticeably along the beltline of the bodyside.

If it’s space you’re after, then the estate version is 185mm longer overall (this extra length mostly affecting cabin and load space) and it offers better headroom front and rear and it has seats-folded luggage volume of 1642 litres. That makes it one of the most spacious C-segment estates going and it beats several D-segment contenders into the bargain.

The 2017 model is a complete departure from the current and first generation cars, with Hyundai, through the guidance of Peter Schreyer, finally giving its cars a proper European makeover. The new i30 has shades of an Audi A3 at the front and the BMW 1 Series at the rear, while its new grille will be replicated across the whole Hyundai range. Underneath the car has been completely overhauled and has been designed in Europe with the new model weighing in 28kg lighter, despite using double the amount of material, all in the pursuit of better handling and performance dynamics.

INTERIOR

Hyundai i30 Turbo interior

The impulse that drives other car makers to futilely pursue a ‘premium’ aesthetic has seemingly never afflicted Hyundai. While it doesn’t duplicate Volkswagen’s class or Ford’s flair, there are no inconsistent finishes or faddish touches in the i30, intended to convince the occupants that they are seated in luxurious surroundings. Instead, the interior oozes the long-lasting practicality of a well made windcheater.

Clean-cut lines are backed by simple symmetry and neatly chosen fragments of metallic finish. The floating spines framing the centre console give the dashboard tone and definition, and draw the eye to a concise cliff face of logical buttons. The same trick is repeated on the steering wheel, and even the cupholders. In S trim, just the steering wheel and gearknob are treated to leather, but the soft-touch dash cladding has just the right mix of resilience and squish.

The interior oozes the long-lasting practicality of a well-made windcheater

The ergonomics are decent, too, although we were disappointed to find ourselves having to reach forward to twiddle the stereo’s volume dial. Bluetooth and voice recognition come as standard, even on sub-£15k-spec models. We’ve had iPhone compatibility issues with Hyundai systems in the past, but our test vehicle worked well — although voice recognition is of limited use if you haven’t opted for the top spec Style Nav trim, which comes with a touchscreen sat-nav system and rear parking camera.

The standard audio system is more than adequate. It’s compatible with MP3 CDs, has aux-in and USB jacks, and integrates well with an iPod. But if it wants to be considered a semi-premium brand, Hyundai should offer an upgrade with DAB radio. 

In the back, the tape measure revealed a healthy amount of leg and headroom comfortably comparable with our benchmarked Ford Focus, and a marginally bigger boot at 378 litres.

Hyundai says it has improved access across the seats by lowering the transmission tunnel by 79mm, but more solid gains have been made up front, where 30mm more headroom and 11mm more legroom contribute to an already gratifying cabin.

As we mentioned earlier, there are five trims to choose from - S, SE, SE Nav, Premium and Turbo. The entry-level S models get a poverty specification such as 15in steel wheels, air conditioning, front foglights, height and reach adjustable steering, Bluetooth connectivity and USB ports, while the SE trim includes luxuries such as 15in alloy wheels, loads of chrome trim, cruise control, electric windows, six-speaker audio system and rear parking sensors. 

SE Nav sees the obvious addition of sat nav and with it a 7.0in touchscreen and a reversing camera. The range-topping Premium models get 17in alloys, electrically adjustable driver's seat, heated front seats, a leather upholstery, dual-zone climate control and keyless entry. While those after a Turbo i30 gets much the same as the Premium models but include a sportier bodykit, 18in alloy wheels and a dual-exhaust system.

The 2017 model is yet to have pricing or trim levels defined, however, we do know that the interior has been simplified with less switchgear featuring. The infotainment system's display has been increased to 8in and will include smartphone integration with the addition of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Other additions to be included to the range include a wireless charging mat and a seven-year subscription to TomTom Live as well.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

184bhp Hyundai i30 Turbo

As the downsized engine line-up shows, Hyundai’s economy-focused attitude to performance continues.

The latest 126bhp version of its 1.6-litre diesel engine is an indication that the manufacturer is prepared to invest in more energetic solutions (as its mainstream presence grows, so beefier options are likely to follow), but for now the 109bhp variant will probably be the bedrock of the range.

It would be foolish to expect sizzling performance from the Hyundai i30

Statistically speaking, the motor’s foundation is strong. It can deliver 76.3mpg in laboratory conditions, and in Blue Drive format its lowly CO2 output of 97g/km ensures that private buyers will not need to worry about paying road tax. 

If you go for the more powerful diesel then it breaks the crucial 100g/km CO2 threshold, and the official combined economy figure then drops to 68.9mpg.

Go for the most powerful petrol model, which is the 118bhp 1.6-litre engine, and it will equal the 126bhp diesel by completing the 0-62mph sprint in 10.9sec. However, again you’ll take the hit in fuel economy (44.1mpg) and CO2 emissions (149g/km).

Subjecting the 109bhp car to real-world conditions inevitably takes off some of the shine, though. We managed a more modest 59.7mpg on our touring run and 48.9mpg over the duration of our test, but it’s worth mentioning that both figures are a notable improvement on those we recorded in the Ford Focus 1.6 TDCi (52.2mpg and 38.2mpg respectively).

It would be foolish to expect sizzling performance from the i30, but there’s no escaping the fact that it languishes almost half a second behind the Focus in the sprint to 60mph (11.1sec versus 10.7).

That deficiency is also reflected in the higher-gear acceleration that defines a car’s versatility and ease of use. From 40-60mph in fourth and 50-70mph in fifth, the i30 is at least 1.5sec adrift of the Ford, and its deliberately long final ratio makes for sluggish responses when overtaking is required on the motorway.

Of course, our stopwatch is unlikely to persuade the average Hyundai buyer one way or the other, but it’s worth remembering that a shortfall in tractability almost always translates into heavier use of the accelerator pedal, which inevitably handicaps an engine’s ability to live up to its claims of parsimoniousness.

RIDE & HANDLING

Hyundai i30 Turbo cornering

Five years ago, a Korean family hatchback that drove as well as an established European alternative would have been considered a revelation. And the original i30 was. It was a breakthrough car, no less.

This time around, a dynamic repertoire at least as sophisticated as that of the Renault Mégane, Peugeot 308 and Vauxhall Astra is a minimum requirement of the i30.

The Hyundai i30 is a cosseting car to drive

And while consolidating a position among the class’s top acts was no doubt every bit as tough as breaking in among them in the first place, Hyundai’s engineers have nonetheless done a fine job.

Refinement remains the most compelling dynamic reason to buy an i30. Our test example’s 65-profile tyres probably enhanced the rubber-footed suppleness of its chassis, but at any trim level the Hyundai’s capacity to soothe away the pits and disturbances of a nasty surface must rival the very best in the segment. It’s a virtue that complements the car’s roomy cabin and decent mechanical refinement with pleasing harmony.

A bigger relative improvement has been made in delivering that rolling comfort along with chassis balance, body control, handling response and steering precision which are almost as praiseworthy.

You’ll need to be in none other than this car’s most highly developed rivals to take greater pleasure in sweeping through a favourite bend or, more crucially, to more easily take charge of a potentially dangerous on-limit handling situation. If you’re in any doubt, the i30’s lap time around our dry handling circuit proves it.

An uninformative steering system (regardless of which of the three FlexSteer assistance levels you set it to) is the car’s only really conspicuous shortcoming, taking the edge off an otherwise strong showing here.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Hyundai i30 Turbo

In the old days, a prospective Hyundai buyer would have done well to skip straight to this section to assess the maximum potential Korean bang for his or her buck.

That approach is now redundant, but it doesn’t mean that the firm has lost sight of its value-for-money reputation. As a succinct wish list of must-have items, the i30's is pretty comprehensive. Go for a Ford Focus, Volkswagen Golf or Vauxhall Astra and you’ll have to do some box ticking of the options list to acquire similar levels of kit.

The firm hasn't lost sight of its value-for-money reputation

VERDICT

Hyundai i30 Turbo rear

The new i30 is a solid improvement on its already decent predecessor, and with Hyundai's five-year warranty and an affordable price tag, it is worthy of wider consideration.

So why only three and a half stars for the Hyundai i30? Well, the shortfall is not now in quality, but in progress.

The new i30 is a solid improvement on its already decent predecessor

The car is another fine facsimile of a European model – imitating the comfort, refinement and confidence better than ever – but this also completely cauterises any flicker of originality or endeavour that might have made the i30 a smidgen less forgettable.

Thus the game plan elucidated by the original car has not moved on; Hyundai has simply got better at accomplishing it.

We would have preferred it if the firm had ditched its deference to VW and Ford and injected some of its own ideas into the mould. If it could just be a bit sharper to drive Hyundai’s appeal may well begin to extend into the enthusiast end of the market, as well as the value and mainstream buyers this car will surely impact on.

Perhaps then the result would have been a potential class leader instead of a persuasive appeal to common sense. However, the 2017 model and its subsequent relatives may see Hyundai finally breach the promise land for family hatchbacks.

Hyundai i30 2012-2017 First drives