2012 Hyundai i30 review

* Updated Hyundai i30 driven * On sale next month from 14,495 * Strong rival to Ford Focus and Vauxhall Astra...

2012 Hyundai i30 review

The Hyundai i30 is a crucial model for the Korean manufacturer; it's the company's biggest seller in Europe.

This latest-generation car is designed to build on the success of the original i30 by offering more style, improved quality and greater efficiency a package, Hyundai hopes, that will lift the car beyond its 'good value' image and allow it to compete squarely with the Ford Focus, Vauxhall Astra and VW Golf.

The UK range will start at 14,495 with a 99bhp 1.4 petrol, which is an increase of more than 700 on the current entry-level model. It will also offer a 118bhp 1.6 petrol with a six-speed automatic transmission. The emphasis, though, is on diesels. There will be three: an 89bhp 1.4, and a 1.6 with either 109bhp or 126bhp. The leaner of the 1.6 diesels emits just 97g/km of CO2 in two of the car's four trims, but even its 126bhp sister hits 100g/km - and falls into road tax band A, when paired with a manual gearbox.

We're driving the most potent diesel here and in Style Nav trim too so our test car costs 20,295. It's also the same spec that we sampled in an early development car last year, but this is our first opportunity to try a full production version.

What's it like to drive? The last i30 wasn't set up to entertain, and the same goes for this latest generation - but that doesn't mean it's bad far from it, in fact. Instead this is a family hatchback designed for comfortable everyday living, so the emphasis is on accomplished all-round performance instead of entertainment.

The end result is hard to fault. The ride tripped up occasionally on some of the worst potholes, but in general it was extremely well judged and on open roads there was solid enough body control at speed.

The 126bhp engine has little torque to offer below 1500rpm, but beyond that it'll rev quite happily until just north of 3500rpm, and the slick, positive six-speed manual gearbox helps further. We also tried an automatic, which had a smooth shift if not the quick-witted intelligence of the latest dual-clutch transmissions.

There's still a slightly gruff edge to the engine's tune if you push it really hard, but at cruising speeds it fades nicely into the background. Indeed, apart from a bit of tyre rumble and some wind turbulence around the huge door mirrors, the i30 is a refined motorway companion.

The one flaw in the set-up is the steering. It has no less feel than any modern family hatchback with electromechanical power steering, but the i30 has a little bit of play around the straight ahead that we found frustrating. At least the overall progression is linear, and once you're committed to a corner and beyond the first few degrees of lock it does feel easy to place the car accurately.

Our test car was fitted with Flex Steer, which allows you to choose one of three power steering weights - Comfort (for around town), Normal and Sport. None of the options gave us the crispness around the straight-ahead that we craved, and Comfort was unduly light, even at low speeds, but Normal and Sport felt decent enough for everyday use. We're not sure it's a button that'll get much use, though.

What's it like inside? The i30 shows how far the Korean manufacturers have come in cabin quality, with a fine choice of materials and a solid layout that puts the elements many will use most often, such as the stereo controls, up high, closer to eye level. Our top-spec model also had the seven-inch infotainment and sat-nav screen, which was clear and quick to respond to inputs.

Hyundai has used the low-down space in the dash for oddment storage, with rubber-lined trays and multimedia sockets. It's a clever, practical design and while some may choose a Golf's fascia on personal preference, they'll be hard-pushed to do it on quality. This fascia feels the equal of anything in the class, and better than a Focus's.

The cabin itself is reasonably spacious, including in the rear, where there's decent head- and kneeroom. The rear-seat cushions fold forwards, too, allowing the seat backs to fold flat and improve the already-decent boot space. There's 378 litres with the seats up 28 litres more than a Golf and 1316 with them folded down flat, an advantage of 11 litres on the VW.

There are couple of teeny gripes; the electronic parking brake is noisy to apply and release and even this is quiet compared with the rear-view parking camera, which pops out from under the Hyundai badge on the bootlid and makes a curious grinding sound. The unit's obvious inspiration, the similar system on the Golf, is quieter.

Should I buy one? The i30 should be on your shortlist for test drives if you're in the market for a small family hatchback and that's not just down to value (although elements such as the five-year warranty still appeal, and it looks keenly priced). It's a nicely finished, accomplished, roomy rival for the Golf, Focus and Astra, and has enough appeal and on-road sophistication to be judged on merit, not cost alone.

John McIlroy