At the Frankfurt motor show 2011, Volkswagen Group CEO Martin Winterkorn was visiting various rival stands. At the Hyundai stand he was caught on video talking to his VW engineers about the quality of the steering column lever in the new i30. "How do they do it? BMW can't do it, we can't do it . . . no clanging!" Whatever about the car, it was a bit of a PR clanger and the video went viral on YouTube. It also suggested, albeit in a rather frivolous way, that Hyundai was closing the gap.
It seems that the German auto giant needs to keep an eye on the Korean underling, for Hyundai executives make no secret of the fact that they are marking their progress against Winterkorn and his minions.
Given the tight margins, demanding customers and long-established brands, it's sometimes hard to understand why Asian brands bother to compete in Europe, where they have to fend off prejudice and even a fair degree of political bias. It would seem much easier to sell into the developing markets in Asia, South America and even Africa. Thankfully, the car firms don't see it that way; Asian brands regard Europe as a useful testing ground for product development. If it works with fussy European consumers then it will certainly work well in other markets.
That is why brands like Hyundai, which are already recording strong growth in developing markets such as India and southeast Asia, still bother to try and win over the often arrogant European car buyer. It seems to be working for them. Closing the gap with European rivals and meeting the ever-tightening safety targets set by the EU means they are well set for other markets, which are already following Europe's lead in terms of emissions and safety regulations.
So, in its attempts to become an established player in Europe, Hyundai has been radically overhauling its model range in the last five years. Anyone who hasn't noticed the difference should pop into a Hyundai showroom sometime. From the i40 saloon to the increased range of crossover and SUVs, the fit and finish, styling and warranty package are all up there're with anything the European, Japanese or US brands are offering. It's this sort of improvement that has pushed them into the top four best-selling brands in Ireland this year and last.
And yet for all that change and improvement over the last few years, the new i10 represents the most seismic shift in the brand’s offerings since the introduction of the i40. Improvements in its larger cars was always going to be part of the plan. After all, these are the cars it hopes will raise its profile among customers who were previously dismissive of anything with a non-European badge, never mind Korean.
However, in the city car class, where price has long been the most important factor, Hyundai’s image as being a value proposition did them no harm. The problem was that it’s hard to tell customers you are a serious mainstream quality competitor on the move upmarket while also selling a plastic-lined tin box that carries the same badge. Hence the need for a massive leap with the new i10.
On looks alone some may think that I’m raving about the car’s improved quality, for it’s still a rather boxy city car with little of the urban chic appeal of the smarter city cars. A whole raft of rivals are more eyecatching than the i10, such as the Citroen C1 and the VW Up! Yet the i10 is not ugly in any way. It’s just a bit old-school in its form outside.
That’s arguably where the problems end, for the Hyundai is bigger and more refined than any of those cars. We got to test it out on a variety of roads and the more we drove it the more we fell for its charm. The 85bhp 1.25-litre petrol engine we tested did moan a little loudly when you took it above 3,000rpm, and it’s not on a par technically with Ford’s astounding 1-litre ecoboost, but it’s peppy enough for this car. It’s not lightning fast off the blocks with a time of 12.3 seconds, but for a city car that’s still respectable. There will also be a 1-litre 64bhp version on offer at entry level, but with a time of 14.9 seconds for 0-100km/h you wouldn’t want to be in a hurry anywhere.
It works well with the five-speed manual transmission, which offers smooth, short changes and a soft clutch that makes it easy to tackle traffic. It might understeer a little into bends when pushed, but that's normal for these front-wheel drive city cars. If you do end up getting the speed wrong on a tight bend the i10 is fitted with stability control to return some composure to proceedings. The overall impression is of a car that handles like a much larger family hatchback, with similar refinement and switchgear and very little of the cheaper or nastier surfaces we've come to expect in "value" city models.
There are even more surprises in the back, where the rear seat legroom and access makes it adept at lugging two adult passengers around. From the roof lining to the carpet, from the switchgear to the steering feel, the i10 is a real surprise, far more so than its exterior design suggests. And again we come back to that common characteristic of the new i10: refinement. It’s at a level that makes its larger sibling, the i20, look pretty lame and pointless. That car is due to be replaced but the i10 is likely to make it redundant before then.
Big car refinement
It might not be as well suited to the hip, street-cred marketing campaign that shrouds the UP!, but for the majority of city car buyers in Ireland who don't really care about the street cred, the i10 offers levels of big car refinement in a small package. That's something that Audi has aspired to with the A1. It has received a lukewarm reception, but that's largely down to the fact it still carries a quasi-premium price. The new i10, on the other hand, is likely to start at just over €12,000 compared to €20,060 for the A1. I'm not suggesting for a moment that the i10 is of the same fit and finish as the Audi, but compared to the rest of the new city cars you can pick up zin the same price range, it's an impressive package.
Three cylinder petrol
engines: 998cc 64bhp or 1,248cc 85bhp
0-100km/h: 14.9 secs (1-litre); 12.3 secs (1.25 litre)
Standard safety features include: six airbags;
electronic stability control
ARRIVING IN IRELAND
TBC (expect them to start at just over €12,000)
A surprising leap forward for Hyundai's city car