If Hyundai is serious about taking on the automotive establishment, nothing will send out a bigger statement of intent than a victory in this test. But with a trio of excellent family hatchbacks lining up against it, the new i30 has its work cut out.
Most buyers form an opinion about a new car within seconds of first clapping eyes on it, and the i30 has nothing to fear. It’s not beautiful – none of these cars is – but it’s a big improvement over its predecessor and looks more modern than both the VW and Mazda. Cutting-edge headlamps and a rising waistline give the Hyundai a purposeful look, so only the small 15-inch alloys fitted to our Blue Drive model upset the eye.
There’s even less cause for complaint inside, where the i30 really impresses. The smart layout, high-quality switchgear and classy instruments are a million miles away from Hyundais of old. The car gives the straight-laced Golf a run for its money for high-end appeal, plus makes the Mazda feel low-rent and the Ford look fussy.
Active trim includes all of the essentials as well, so rear parking sensors, cruise control, an iPod socket and Bluetooth connectivity come as standard – a combination only the more expensive Golf Match can rival.
The driving position is excellent and there’s plenty of adjustment available, while the virtually flat rear floor makes the i30 the best car on test for transporting a full complement of five people. Mind you, the sporty profile and heavily raked A-pillars create blindspots, so you have to take care when approaching roundabouts and T-junctions. This is a common complaint in the latest generation of family hatchbacks, though, so it’s hardly a deal-breaker.
The way the i30 drives will have a bigger impact on its success, and all three of its rivals here are good from behind the wheel. The Golf majors on refinement and grip, the Focus on agility and comfort and the Mazda on fun and pace. So, where does the Hyundai fit in? Well, it doesn’t lead the class in any particular area, and it’s not especially fun to drive, but it’s highly capable and refined.
Confidence-inspiring grip, precise steering and decent brakes combine with a snappy six-speed gearshift to make the i30 a solid if unspectacular car to drive.
Hyundai has tried to inject a sporty edge with its Flex Steer system, which lets you choose from Comfort, Normal and Sport settings for the steering. You press a button on the wheel to switch between the modes, and adjust the amount of effort required to twirl the wheel accordingly. It works best in Normal; Comfort is fine for parking but artificially heavy Sport makes the car feel less responsive rather than more poised.
The biggest disappointment is the ride comfort of our Active test car. Even though it was fitted with small 15-inch alloy wheels and unusually large tyre sidewalls, the suspension fails to cope with bumpy roads and potholes as comfortably as its rivals.
A more forgiving set-up would have earned the Hyundai a fourth star for our Driving rating, but in this test it’s simply not as fun or cosseting as the class leaders. That’s a pity, because the 109bhp 1.6-litre diesel is excellent. Tall gearing takes the edge off low-down performance, so the i30 trailed in-gear.
But this doesn’t tell the whole story. Work the engine hard and it delivers decent pace, as witnessed by the 0-60mph sprint. Here the i30 logged 10.8 seconds, making it the joint-fastest car in our line-up.
If raw performance is important, a more powerful 126bhp version of the 1.6-litre CRDi engine is available in higher-spec Style trim. This model costs from £19,295 and emits 100g/km of CO2, but the 109bhp version tested here feels on the pace with the competition in everyday traffic and the Hyundai beats them all when it comes to efficiency.
In our hands the 1.6 CRDi returned 49.7mpg, ranking it ahead of the Golf (49.1mpg) and Mazda (48.6mpg), and comfortably ahead of the 41.8mpg Focus.
It’s also the only car here with sub-100g/km CO2 emissions, so road tax is free. Only the below-par residuals threaten the i30’s status as the sensible bet in this company.
Chart position: 2WHY: A succession of brilliant new Hyundais has raised expectations to an incredibly high level; the i30 must maintain the momentum.