ANGNAM-STYLE Golf? Or just another Korean Corolla? This is the question hanging in the chilly air as the new Hyundai i30 noses into the heavy traffic of the style-conscious district of Seoul immortalised by Psy in his 2012 K-pop megahit. It’s a busy winter weekday afternoon in Gangnam as we leave the hotel.
South Korea’s capital is a bona-fide megacity, packing more than Australia’s entire population – 25 million – into its metropolitan area. So it takes some time to escape the sprawl. But Seoul traffic isn’t the natural environment of the new i30.
This third generation of the popular five-door hatch was deliberately designed to seduce buyers in Germany, France, Italy and the UK. Hyundai aims to be the best-selling Asian car brand in Europe by 2020, and the new i30 must play an outsized role in this ambitious plan.
The car was designed at the Korean company’s European tech centre in Rüsselsheim, the German city that’s also home to Opel. According to Hyundai’s chief design officer Peter Schreyer, the objective was to make the i30 a car with a strong visual identity.
“I don’t think in a graduation like ‘How European do I make it?’ This is not my way of thinking,” he said at the initial reveal of the i30 in Frankfurt last September.
So the exterior of the new i30 is a calculated piece of design. It’s not obviously Asian, like the vast majority of models in Hyundai’s back catalogue. But nor is it a try-hard effort to appear overtly European. Just as Schreyer intended, it’s simply a rather attractive small hatch that won’t be mistaken for something made by someone else.
In contrast, Hyundai’s engineers did want an overtly European flavour. Yu Chan Yang, the i30 program engineering boss, says the Volkswagen Golf was an important benchmark for key attributes. Though he looks like he graduated from university the day before yesterday, Yang tells me he’s 40 and has worked on all three i30 generations.
Though the new PD i30 shares its wheelbase with the GD i30 it replaces, the body structure is a complete re-do. It’s made from fewer stampings and contains much more high-strength steel. There’s also a more direct steering rack with only 2.6 turns lock-to-lock.
While Hyundai’s decision to produce the new i30 with both torsion beam and multi-link rear suspensions
mimics Volkswagen, the drivetrain line-up isn’t totally turbo like the Golf. At least not in Australia.
The least costly model grades will come with a nonturbo, direct-injection four with more power and torque than the current base-model engine. With 120kW and 203Nm, the 2.0 GDi almost exactly matches the current sporty SR engine. And there will be a choice of manual, or conventional automatic transmissions, both sixspeeders, with this engine.
The turbo-diesel option will be the 100kW 1.6 CRDi four, basically a carry-over from the current i30, along with its six-speed manual and seven-speed dual-clutch transmissions. Models with these engines will come torsion-beam equipped. The multi-link is reserved for the SR model.
Leaving Seoul behind, we head into the hills northeast of the city, and closer to the Demilitarised Zone that divides the two Koreas.
Nearing our overnight stop at Gapyeong, there’s a memorial to Australians who fought and died here.
“Republic of Korea will always remember your sacrifice” reads one of the obviously freshly made banners hung among the trees. It was in this valley, on the eve of Anzac Day in 1951, that Australians were in the thick of a bloody defensive battle to halt a much stronger Chinese force advancing south in the direction of Seoul.
The countryside is studded with amusing weirdness – a giant skull and crossbones at a fork in the road, fibreglass superheroes in front of a rural house – but the Korean War memorial commands sombre reverence.
After a night in a quirky resort hotel beside a lake – sun lounges have been left out, but the water is frozen solid from shore to shore – comes the best part of our Korean taste test of the new i30. Our destination is Incheon, close to Seoul’s international airport, but there are some mountain passes and river valleys in the way.
Soon there’s not a shred of doubt about which model Wheels will be recommending. It’s the SR, with the 150kW 1.6T GDi engine, a fine and fiesty turbocharged and direct-injected four. Probably with the seven-speed dual-clutch transmission instead of the six-speed manual.
This refined engine has enough torque to make axle tramp a problem moving off, but once the i30 is rolling its broad seam of muscular torque manifests itself as long and strong surges of on-demand acceleration.
The dual-clutch transmission is good, too. The i30 SR should easily spank the Mazda 3 SP25 for straight-line performance, and leave any Volkswagen Golf below the GTI eating its dust.
Compared with the outgoing GD, the PD i30 is lower, wider and longer. All the changes are small, including the increases in front and rear overhangs. There’s a little more space inside and the cargo compartment grows slightly to 395 litres. But it’s the design that anyone climbing into a new i30 will notice first. The
good-looking new instrument panel with its fashionable floating central screen is designed to emphasise the cabin’s width. For the driver there’s an attractive threespoke steering wheel to hold and a pair of legible dials to look at.
The front seats of both the base grade and sporty SR are supportive, although the non-height-adjustable version of the passenger seat is too high for complete tall-person comfort. While large-ish and wide-opening rear doors make accessing the rear pleasantly easy, once seated the space seems only average.
Quality? Well, let’s just say that the interior design teams working on competitor brands aren’t going to be too worried. While the Hyundai interior looks well made, the materials it’s made from don’t quite create the kind of quality impression to rival Volkswagen, Mazda or even Toyota.
Still, the i30 will come with a competitive level of connectivity and infotainment tech, including Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Hyundai is also confident the interior will be a safe place to spend time.
Autonomous Emergency Braking will be available in the car. So will other sensor-reliant driver-aid systems, including active cruise control, rear cross-traffic alert, high-beam assist and more.
It’s impossible to say very much about the new i30’s dynamics. The quicker steering does feel like a move in the right direction. But the cars driven in Korea – the lively SR, another with the turbo diesel, and both with Hyundai’s new multi-link rear suspension – were not representative of what we’ll see in Australia come this month.
Once again, Australia will get its own specific chassis calibrations. As the biggest single national market in the world for the i30, Korea is very eager to please us.
While Hyundai Australia is saving the full story until the local launch, those familiar with the work say the changes are extensive.
At the time of writing, Hyundai Australia was still considering its options. The company’s chief operating officer, Scott Grant, said whether or not to include AEB as standard equipment across the range hadn’t been decided. The experienced exec also hinted that the days of $19,990 drive-away deals are over for the i30.
The new i30 does seem to be a car that could wear a slightly higher price tag without looking out of its depth. Its designed-in-Europe exterior alone surely will be enough to persuade some. Others will be attracted by the impressive performance of the SR. Some will like the connectivity and infotainment tech.
Hyundai has always been ambitious, but now there’s confidence, maturity and increasing expertise to go with it. Even if the new i30 is not quite a Gangnam Golf, it is more than a Korean Corolla.
The i30 will be manufactured in two factories. Cars for Australia will be made in Korea.
Hyundai’s plant in the Czech Republic will supply Europe. There are big differences between the cars rolling off the two production lines. Everything Czech-made gets multi-link rear suspension, while Korea makes versions of the i30 with rear torsion beam or the independent multi-link design. Europe also installs smaller and more efficient engines, including a turbo 1.0-litre triple.