There are far worse things to say about a car than calling it a copy of the Volkswagen Polo. The German class leader offers an honest, no-nonsense solution to most motoring requirements, with solid build quality, large-car refinement and unflinching composure on the road, even if the car itself is somewhat less than exciting to drive. These values seem to resonate with buyers of small hatchbacks, because the Polo is pretty much a permanent fixture at the top of the local sales charts.
But over the past few years, a Korean contender has quietly been emulating the small Volkswagen, in the process grabbing a larger portion of the market than other worthy contenders like the Ford Fiesta, Opel Corsa and Toyota Yaris. We’re talking about the Hyundai i20, of course: a resounding success ever since it first landed here in 2009.
Now, with the new, second-generation i20, Hyundai has once again set their sights on the German dominator – to the point where the latest car was actually designed and developed in Germany (though it is built in India, to help contain the price). The all-new i20 even looks suitably German, with its chiselled body styling and business-like detailing around the light clusters. It is a handsome car, with its angular flanks and blacked-out rearmost roof pillar, and it looks considerably more up-market than its predecessor did.
Improvements over the outgoing car range from a new floorpan with a longer wheelbase (which liberates extra interior space and stretches the luggage compartment volume to 294 litres) to extra noise insulation (which improves on-road refinement). These measures are certainly successful, for the cabin has enough room to comfortably accommodate four South African adults, the compliant suspension gives a good balance between road-holding and comfort, and noise levels are so well-contained that one could easily exceed the speed limit by 40 km/h, without realising it.
Well, that’s not strictly true. While the hushed cabin results in very unobtrusive progress, it\'s not that easy to exceed the speed limit – for which the blame rests solely on the somewhat lacklustre engines, which carry over unchanged from the previous generation. A 1.2-litre petrol four-pot powers the entry-level derivative through a 5-speed manual gearbox, while a 1.4-litre version of the same engine drives the front wheels through a 6-speed manual transmission or a 4-speed torque-converter automatic gearbox.
Both engines are equipped with variable valve timing, but neither of them has a turbo charger or direct fuel injection. This means that their power outputs are on the lethargic side of lively, with the 1.2-litre delivering 61 kW and 115 Nm and the 1.4-litre producing 74 kW and 133 Nm. The end result is that enthusiastic stirring of the gear lever is necessary to extract usable acceleration: the manual 1.4-litre takes 11.4 seconds to stroll from a standstill to 100 km/h, while the 1.2-litre needs 13.6 seconds to amble up to the same speed.
The relative gutlessness is amplified on the freeway, especially on the Highveld (with its oxygen-starved air), where overtaking manoeuvres take some advance planning and a fair amount of road space. As a result, driving the i20 is hardly an invigorating experience, but at least the exemplary cabin insulation keeps any mechanical racket at bay, and the gear lever has a light, accurate action. However, one cannot help but wonder what a joy the i20 might have been if it were available with the cracking 1.6-litre engine from the Accent hatchback...
Luckily, the new i20 offers quite a lot of good stuff to compensate for the rather pedestrian performance. For starters, the cabin is beautifully laid out and very well-made. It might lack the Polo’s soft-touch dashboard, but the plastics have an attractive texture and everything is solidly screwed together. The specification sheet leaves nothing to be desired either, with even the entry-level 1.2-litre “Motion” boasting power steering, air conditioning and a USB- and Bluetooth compatible sound system with remote controls on the steering wheel, as well as a service plan for two years or 30 000 km.
Central locking and electric front windows are also provided across the range, while the 1.4-litre “Glide” adds electric rear windows, front fog lamps, rear parking sensors, automatic control for the air conditioner, and upgrades the service plan to three years or 60 000 km. Occupant safety is taken care of by ABS and two airbags, while initial crash test results point towards a 5-star Euro-NCAP rating (as was also the case with its predecessor).
The comfortable, quiet ride quality and spacious cabin should ensure significant appeal by themselves, but by adding a stylish design, exemplary build quality and a comprehensive standard equipment list to its other virtues, the i20 definitely makes good sense from a value perspective as well.
Prices range from R184 900 for the 1.2 Motion to R219 900 for the 1.4 Glide Automatic, and that’s where the new i20 manages to offset its old-school engines: the new “Korean Polo” handsomely undercuts its German counterpart in the price list, even if it won’t be able to catch it on the road. It’s all a matter of priorities: pay more for a quicker car, but not necessarily a better one. As far as accolades for the i20 go, that’s quite a big one.