Wednesday February 15, 2017
For: Smart styling, roomy interior, good ride.
Against: Outdated drivetrain, dull cabin treatment.
By Richard Bosselman
LOWER the ride height, widen the stance, add a tonne of aero addenda, strip out the interior, chuck on heaps of stickers and … well, maybe squint a little and use your imagination, too.
Do all that and can you see that the model on test is the basis for the rally weapon that has so far snorted and snarled its way through the Monte Carlo and Swedish landscapes?
Well, maybe not. But take it from me. The i20 that has spearheaded Hyundai’s world championship rally campaign and put the spot light on an ace Kiwi pairing is definitely DNA-linked to what you see here.
It’s a real shame the i20 small five-door does not present in a hot hatch format to evoke the spirit of the factory’s highly-evolved gravel blaster.
All the same, it is neat that the road fare does nonetheless have a dirt-tuned styling twist, through Hyundai New Zealand having determined to use a variant with a crossover air as their sales leader.
The elevated Cross model has entered the market for $27,990, a $3000 premium over the still incoming regular edition on which it is based.
One immediately curiosity. Hyundai NZ naturally enough is starting to leverage off the excellent WRC effort so far delivered by Paddon and his co-driver, John Kennard, yet interestingly enough it doesn’t seem that keen to campaign the i20 road car in association with the rally rampage.
Why is that? While the Cross’s SUV image does not translate to the drivetrain – like potential rivals the Ford EcoSport, Holden Trax and VW CrossPolo, it is front-drive only – it nonetheless does express a slightly rugged, chuck-it-in, ‘let’s head to a special stage’ swagger.
Remove the ride height enhancement and replace the Cross-specific 17-inch rims with the 16-inch fare that is coming with a cheaper model arriving around now you’re left looking at a compact five door built to a pretty standard supermini theme, yet also far more modern and rakish than the previous i20.
There’s good reason for that. Whereas previous Hyundai small cars have been configured to face up to mainly Japanese opposition, this generation i20 is intended to not only be a big selling model in Europe than the last.
That’s why it is only built in Turkey, a location that provides a much more convenient delivery source than South Korea, its predecessor’s birthplace. This i20 is, to excuse the pun, very much the baby of former Audi man turned Hyundai chief stylist Peter Shreyer. It is intended against more evolved sophisticates from his part of the world that dominate their local territories, the Ford Fiesta and Volkswagen Polo.
The car was designed in the Koreans’ styling studio in Russelsheim, Germany, and draws heavily from the latest in-house styling theme, Fluidic Sculpture 2.0. There’s obvious design confidence but it’s not too outrageous: We’d call it inoffensive, if quietly smart. Check out the gloss black C-pillar, which wraps around the rear of the car like a Mini’s – to help create the impression of a floating roof. Also the very smart, if somewhat VW-like, alloy wheel design.
At 4035mm, the car actually breaks through the four metre threshold that used to be cited as a maximum length for earning supermini status, but it still looks petite all the same.
And the extra length is put to good use. Hyundai is claiming one of the most spacious cabins in the segment, thanks to a wheelbase that’s 45mm longer than the Getz delivered. The distance between the two axles is now 2750mm. So it’s a big baby, and felt that way when we drove with four adults aboard. Take note, also, that while feeling relatively commodious, it still maintains a rather decent 326 litres’ boot space.
The Cross differentiates visually with all the usual crossover-themed appendages and an additional 20mm of ride height, to give 190mm ground clearance; the combined effect means it is taller, at 1529mm against 1474mm.
All this might be just for show, but it does show off quite well. The stylised front end featuring a moulded bash plate/nudge bar arrangement, the silver detailed running boards, the wheel-arch mouldings, the silver roof rails … we couldn’t help but giggle during test time, given it shared garage space with our own Subaru Outback which has all the same sort of stuff (well, not the silly running boards) and uses them for more practical effect. Still, Hyundai is only going where all its equally road-bound rivals have already gone, and the car does look more interesting with this decoration.
The Cross fits out identically to the standard i20. So, electric windows, air con, Bluetooth and audio streaming – but no sat nav or latest Apple CarPlay/Android Auto infotainment options – projector headlights with daylight running lamps and cruise control. The Europe-first bent ensures it goes particularly larger car in respect to the level of safety and driver assistance aids, which run to six airbags, stability, traction and hill start controls, plus a lane departure assist and rear view camera, though no blind spot monitoring.
Despite the assists, it lands with a four-star European NCAP rating, having been penalised for not kitting with autonomous emergency braking – a must-have now to take the optimum five star score. That’ll hurt because fleets these days tend to restrict their choices to only highest-scorers.
A car that goes against the best in Europe should kit with a decent engine. And so it does … in Europe. Unfortunately, the 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbocharged petrol that leads the charge there is not deemed suitable for this part of the world. Not so much because it is the wrong engine, more than it has the wrong gearbox.
Instead, we get the engine the three-pot usurps in its priority market. It’s hard to establish just how long Hyundai has been knocking out the 1.4-litre four-cylinder that is sole choice to Kiwis, but even it has surely been a long while. Even though this version puts out a perky 74kW and 134Nm and has appeal in providing an optimum economy of 6.7 litres per 100km, it doesn’t have the feel or appeal of a latest-generation powerplant.
Of course, if you’ve already read about – or seen – this car you know there is worse to come. What kills the 1.0-litre’s local chances is that it only facilitates with the a six-speed manual gearbox. Hyundai New Zealand quite validly argues that this sort of transmission, as sweet as it probably is, just won’t meet our overwhelmingly auto-centric transmissions tastes.
Unfortunately – really unfortunately – it determining to bypass that one they’ve been lumbered with a transmission that, by all rights, whose only role now should be as a display item in the company museum in Seoul. I cannot recall the last new car I have driven that was afford a four-speed automatic, but it was a long time ago.
Again, Hyundai has probably been knocking out this unit for years, and doubtless that makes it cost-effective. But if that’s the case, they alone are the winners: As much as the local distributor seeks to promote packaging and performance advantage, fact is a four-speed today delivers no positives for the customer and cannot help its sales chances when all relevant rivals – and, indeed, other Hyundais, starting with the only slightly larger Accent - have six-speeds or constantly variable transmissions with a higher number of change points and much smoother, more efficient operation.
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Setting aside the poor drivetrain, the i20 Cross is actually not a bad choice. It looks good enough at the kerbside to win admiring glances and comments and has a chirpy driving style to match.
I’ve gotta say it’s a shame the interior design isn’t quite as avant garde as the exterior styling promises; comment from a friend when he slipped into the car for a first look summed it up: On the strength of what he saw within he opined that some people oblivious to the car’s design age might think this was a mid-life facelift.
He’s right. While all-new, it just doesn’t seem that fresh inside, mainly because of the drabness – even Hyundai product made in Europe seemingly cannot escape the Seoul standard grey-on-grey – but also because some aspects, like the teensy centre console display screen, just seem to be from an earlier age. Actually, that trip computer is positively vintage.
At least it doesn’t look outright cheap and, regardless of the drabness, there’s not only decent comfort but a sense that it will be hard-wearing and durable. But it’s a pity that more of the effort that went into giving the exterior such a premium and positive impression wasn’t brought inside.
The driving position is pretty solid and, though being tall I had to bring the drivers chair forward slightly to allow an adult rear seat passenger enough foot room, overall we were impressed by the interior space. It really only restricts for head room, but even that’s not too bad.
The Cross is clearly not created to in any way emulate the rorty performance and nippy handling that are traits of the i20 WRC car but it is not without some semblance of dynamic talent.
The steering has good feel, the brakes are even in response and it maintains reasonable composure in cornering, with those 17-inch Pirellis offering good grip. If there’s one aspect that wins universal positivity it’s the ride quality; giving the suspension more air than normal also allows for more compliance. It’s not Citroen-pillowy, but you do find it is able to deliver compliance over bumps and ruts that might be expected to give other, more firmly-sprung small car rivals the jitters.
All this is good. What’s bad is the gearbox. Our pre-Christmas first drive experience on roads in and around Auckland had suggested the four speed to be the most deficient aspect of the driving experience. A week on home turf merely confirmed that finding. While this transmission is not too badly behaved in urban driving, it pretty much falls to pieces when exposed to open road work, especially when driven on any route interspersed with corners, drops and ascents. Basically, that’s any New Zealand road beyond those sections of multi-lane highway.
When confronted with such challenges, it turns into a fumbling, shrieking idiot device. And it’s not just the gearbox’s inadequacy that is exposed. The reason why the tachometer needle is sent into seismic overload at even modest press of the throttle when tackling even a modest climb is that the engine really doesn’t have a lot of grunt, especially in respect to torque. That’s a bit of a cruel blow because, when driven at sub-100kmh pace, it actually lends impression of being more muscular than it obviously is.
The i20 has visual appeal. We’re not at all hung up about the Cross ethos being wholly about the looks, with no actual off-roady ability as back up. I’s a harmless deception, one plenty of rival brands have perpetrated before this car showed up. No foul there.
The i20 also kits out relatively well – though lacking that latest infotainment setup is annoying – and meets expectation in respect to practicality and dynamics. It’s shame the interior doesn’t have the pizzazz that the exterior promises.
Still, there’s one way more obvious drawback. Where it falls way short is in respect to the drivetrain. The engine is adequate while the transmission is simply out of step with today’s convention. That’s going to hurt this car, perhaps more grievously that it needs to.
Hyundai is a fast-rising brand with ability to reach above and beyond. This car could've done that.