What’s in a name? Well, if you were in the company of somebody called “The Destructor” it would be odds on that flower arranging and a little light jazz weren’t on the cards. Likewise, a heavyweight boxer might be advised to change his identity from Percy Lovehugz to something a bit more menacing.
Hawkeye was a terrific name for an airborne early warning aircaft, and vigilante an excellent name for a fighter. Car companies don’t always get it right, though. Witness the Plymouth Breeze, an appallingly wishy-washy name but which was, in fact, not much more unsuitable than its sister the Dodge Stratus, stratus being a kind of immovable wet grey cloud which dogs Cornish seaside holidays.
And now Hyundai are calling one of their i30’s a “Turbo”. Should we laugh? I took one around Millbrook test track in the hope of finding out.
Korean cars have, broadly speaking, become impervious to the kind of criticisms which made reviews of things like the 1983 Hyundai Pony and the Kia Pride so entertaining to read. Back then the cars of that nation would be singled out for shortfalls that you simply didn’t get on “western” cars, and the vast majority of these issues stemmed from the dated designs on which such cars were based, rather than any underlying incompetence in how the car was put together.
Today Korea owns an enormous, and growing, share of the market. Whereas their cars used to sell on price alone, today they actually sell on reputation. This is handy because the pricing has changed, too. Whereas previously a Hyundai Pony offered Escort size for less than Fiesta money, Hyundai i30 and Ford Focus are priced within a shout of each other. And the Focus is a very, very good car. So why do people keep buying Hyundai’s?
Well, the Korean car always used to stand for value, just as certain German brands used to sell on exclusivity. Of course, we know that the roads are heaving with BMWs on three-year finance, so they’re not exactly strictly the domain of the very well heeled any more. But how about Hyundai and value for money? Well, they’re certainly no longer especially cheap, but they do come heavily warranted.
They’re also pretty image free, which is either a hindrance or a benefit, depending on who you are. Look at faster versions of established machines. All seem to be saddled with a slightly tacky boy-racer following; mention Fast Fords and I still immediately conjure an image of a baseball-cap wearing juvenile spinning the wheels of dubiously historied XR3i in a McDonalds car parks.
Hyundai aren’t tarnished by any such association. It’s quite refreshing to have an automotive brand with an essentially clean sheet. They can sell their products simply on the basis of competence, perceived value and pain-free ownership. They have no past glories to trade on. For Hyundai all is in the here and now. They have earned the trust of a devoted following which shows little sign of abating.
So what of the I30? Well, it’s an extremely neat looking machine. There’s nothing weird or eccentric about its proportions, but there are bits and pieces that you could swear you’ve seen before somewhere else. The contours above the front wheelarches are perhaps a little Mazda? Maybe there’s a bit of VW Scirocco about the rear three quarters. Actually, the whole mass puts me in mind of the Peugeot 308. And, if viewed directly from the front, is there a little tiny hint of Nissan GT-R on this “performance” model, or am I mental?
“Acknowledging established automotive successes” might be a polite way of describing the slightly plagiaristic looks of the i30, but say what you like about imitation and flattery, there’s little here that’s actually visually offensive. Hyundai alloy wheels are getting really nice these days, too; the 18″ wheels seen here remind me quite a lot of those seen on a BMW E39 M-Sport. I like’em.
Step aboard and nothing shouts “BUDGET”. It all looks inviting and contemporary and all the materials within reasonable reach from the front seats feel pleasing to the touch, though if you ferret around in places that hands aren’t supposed to go you will no doubt find some surfaces and edges that aren’t quite from the top drawer.
Design-wise it’s contemporary; on-trend even with more than a suggestion of Ford in the layout of the centre stack section. Here is where I get to nit-picking, though… why must there be such discontinuity where displays are concerned? The readout for the HVAC is an old-school LCD, backlit in cool blue and not matching any of the other on-board displays in either colour or typeface. It’s a small point, but I’m pretty sure Europe wouldn’t let something like that happen (despite this actually being built in the Czech Republic…).
I find that I can’t really fault the ergonomics or layout of the car during my brief time in its company, nor do the seats send searing jolts of pain up my spine. In fact the cockpit space proves more than sufficient for my exaggerated dimensions, without any knee / steering wheel / shifter clash to worry about.
After a moment of bemusement I found the starter button down in front of my left knee, prodded it and a typical modern four cylinder hum commenced from up ahead. There isn’t anything much about the sonic character of the engine to discuss here, and after I gradually trundle closer towards the Hill Route to begin driving in earnest, I find that there isn’t really much to discuss about it there, either.
It sounds functional, enthusiastic. Eager, perhaps, but not charismatic. And after a while I begin to realise that the same is true about the whole car. Then suddenly I have a mental breakthrough and immediately realise that any conclusion I can draw to at the end of this review is going to be utterly irrelevant.
This car costs around £22,500. That puts it in a ballpark where some pretty big names are batting balls right out of the arena. Seat, Ford, Renault all offer severely sporty crackers for that kind of cheese, yet none of them directly compete with the Hyundai. I would think it extremely unlikely that these cars will ever be cross-shopped against the i30 And anybody who does is probably just being deliberately awkward.
Different kind of buyer, you see. Your typical Hyundai i30 Turbo buyer is very unlikely to appreciate the difference in steering feel between this and a Seat FR, for example (The Seat has some, this doesn’t). He will drive this car rapidly through a series of corners of differing radii with no loss of grip and will be impressed. He won’t care about any of the minutiae of how this rapid progress was achieved, he’ll simply be chuffed that he got there so quickly. After all, there are a good many far more overtly “sporting” cars out there who would, I’ll wager, struggle to keep up with the i30 Turbo.
The Hyundai faithfully followed all my instruction, even when I was perhaps being a little ambitious, and never complained once. But it didn’t do anything else apart from what it was told. It was entirely nuance free. There was no chatter of encouragement from the controls or through the body of the car. There was no was of sensing how close to the limit I was. The car was rock steady, stable beyond criticism and poised enough to inspire confidence. But it was inert.
This is pretty much exactly what Hyundai customers probably want. If a potential Hyundai i30 customer is about to pull the trigger, then finds that a quicker version of the same car is available, he is more likely to plump for that than to suddenly jump ship and look at Focus ST’s instead. It was the same story when the indecently quick Toyota Corolla T-Sport was launched; it didn’t capture very many sales from the GTI market, but did sell to habitual Toyota customers who wanted to treat themselves to something “a bit sporty”
On that basis, I’d say Hyundai have played their cards very well indeed. Customers can be creatures of habit and will return to a trusted brand time and again, even if what seem like far more alluring alternatives are available. My own mother would probably visit Jane Morgan and try a dress on, but would very probably then say that it doesn’t suit her and go back to Marks And Spencer’s to spend exactly the same amount on something a bit more familiar.
And the truth is, if it wasn’t for the fast-hatchback bar having been set stratospherically high in recent years, the i30 Turbo would score very well. Its 183hp doesn’t compare well with its European rivals, but it certainly isn’t a slouch, and being only a 1.6 it feels peppy and flexible, if not especially muscular. The ride almost appears to have been formulated to present itself as “sporty” at low speeds (bumpy, jiggly, uneven, jagged, jarring, all are acceptable vernacular as spoken by those cars who want to appear sporty) yet actually seems to calm down when the chassis is actually having questions asked of it at higher speeds.
So this car gets a split rating overall. Objectively it’s nowhere near the class leaders, but to be honest I don’t think everybody ever expected it would have been. I mean, that would have been an upset, wouldn’t it? “Focus ST beaten by Hyundai i30” would have made an interesting headline. But it was never going to happen. In the Hottish Hatch fight, the i30 turbo is barely even an also ran.
However, looked at from a different angle, it comes over rather better. As an approachable, unprepossessing, useable, familiar, unthreatening hatchback which happens to be capable of remarkable country-lane dispatching feats, it hits the target pretty hard. If an existing I30 customer could be persuaded to stump up the (considerable) extra cost for this, I’m sure they’d be absolutely delighted.
I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t like the Focus ST anyway. The Focus ST constantly reminds you that it’s some way divorced of the lesser Foci from which it developed. By comparison, the i30 feels just like any other i30 except with bigger lungs and a more assertive outlook on life.
So, as a very fast and capable consumer durable, it actually scores pretty highly. And if I could live without those little frissions of excitement and joy then it would get my heartfelt recommendation. But I can’t. Not yet.
Perhaps this is a hot-hatch for grown-ups.
(Full Disclosure: Hyundai willingly gave me the keys, and then offered me a burger afterwards, for both of which I thanked them. All images copyright Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2015)