You might have heard that Toyota is launching a new Corolla later this year that promises to be more interesting looking and more interesting to drive. That’s good news...
However, the bad news for Toyota is that a Korean company might have launched it first. It's common knowledge that Hyundai aspires to be the new Toyota in terms of volume and reputation for quality: quite a way to go in some respects of course, but there's no doubt that a 10 percent New Zealand market share (Toyota 17 percent) and a certain aspirational aura are very impressive for a brand that was considered rather lowly a decade ago.
The new i30, then, is Hyundai's Corolla. The previous i30 was a highly regarded vehicle, sold over a million units worldwide and helped established the Korean company as a credible global carmaker. The new i30 aims to keep the same core values and broad audience, but take things up a notch of styling, dynamic ability and equipment.
It aims to be interesting without losing that everyman appeal (it's Hyundai's number one nameplate in New Zealand), in other words.
It's certainly striking compared with the old car. There's nothing in the sheet metal that strays from the current Hyundai design template, but it's pretty swish all the same and a lot more lithe-looking than the car it replaces: little wonder, since it's slightly longer and lower, while sitting on the same wheelbase.
So much media attention is focused on Hyundai's excellent diesels, but the reality is that 90 percent of the small-car market is still petrol, so the 1.8-litre model tested here is by far the most relevant of the i30 range.
It's a 110kW/178Nm unit that's matched to a six-speed automatic gearbox (or manual if you must). If that basic recipe sounds familiar, that's because it is: the i30 is indeed new but it's not an unknown quantity, because it's essentially a hatchback version of the Elantra, which has been around for over a year now.
As with the Elantra – which I known quite well, as I ran one for six months as a long-term test car – the i30 powertrain's strengths lie in a big-car feel and impressive refinement. You also get a selectable Active Eco mode that calms down the engine, gearbox and air-con to improve fuel economy by nearly six percent. Very-2012.
While the performance does not set the world on fire, the relaxed gait of the thing will make this an ideal machine for those wanting to downsize from medium or even large cars.
I'd say the same of the chassis. It's not sharp, but it does have a supremely confident attitude that makes the i30 as adept on the long haul as it is around town. Hyundai has attempted to make its dynamic talents even more broad with a power steering system called FlexSteer (not available on Elantra yet), which allows you to choose between three different levels of assistance. It's not a new idea but not a bad one – as long as you can accept that none of the three modes gives the electric assistance anything approaching what you might call communication.
Inside, the i30 picks up Hyundai's current-fave styling themes of massive curves and crisp silver trim. It's not subtle but very well executed all the same, although it suffers from the same ergonomic eccentricity as the larger i40: it's a massive stretch from the driver's seat to operate the centre-console audio controls. Such a simple thing.
The i30 is not a particularly driver-focused car, but it is pseudo-luxurious in its own little way: both in the manner it drives and the surprise-and-delight equipment levels. Our $39,990 Elite boasted a ‘welcome' feature that unfolded the mirrors and illuminated the interior as you walked towards it, a reversing camera concealed in the ‘H' badge on the tailgate (it pops out when you select reverse) and heaters for the leather seats.