By comparison with the Japanese, Europeans and Americans, the giants of the industry, the South Koreans were making cars that were cheap and popular, but that unfortunately were crap.
Names like the Elantra (later shortened to Lantra), Sonata, Terracan, Accent, Atoz and the Getz slide easily from the tongue as monuments to automobile awfulness. I recall being berated by a late friend of mine, who had been sold a Sonata by a car salesman friend of his. When solicited for an opinion of his purchase, I told him, frankly, that he had bought a dog.
This response did not go down well and I was informed that not only was my judgement highly questionable, but my sanity, too. What about, he blustered, the value for money, the fantastic array of standard kit, the leather interior? I told him to come back to me in three years, when he went to sell the car.
Three years later, my shocked friend called — in shock and disbelief. “Jesus, Deccie, you won’t believe what I’ve been offered on a trade-in for the Sonata,” he wailed. He had been to various dealers and was gobsmacked by how little they were allowing him on the Hyundai as a trade-in.
Just before the turn of the century Hyundai upped their game, realising, as so many of their customers had painfully learned, that if they wanted to become a respected, profitable and worthwhile manufacturer, they had to build cars that people wanted, rather than cars that people bought because they were cheap.
The result has been spectacular and, over the past two decades, Hyundai has built a raft of cars that has transformed the company.
While Hyundai still offers generous kit, affordable prices and lengthy warranties, its cars are of European build quality with a level of engineering that is well up to the standards set by their Japanese, American and European competitors.
While such as the Tuscon and Santa Fe gave the company SUV credibility, the i30 was the real game-changer for Hyundai, because, for the first time, they had a truly credible contender in the small-family-car segment — a segment dominated by the VW Golf and the Ford Focus.
The i30 set the ball rolling and was followed by the brilliant i10, the very impressive i40 and worthy ‘soft-roaders’ such as the ix20 and the ix35. The i20 was also a significant player in a revitalised Hyundai line-up. The company had shot to fourth place in the rank of worldwide manufacturers by 2013, behind Toyota, GM and Volkswagen and ahead of Ford.
Originally seen in 2008 — the second generation arrived last August — the i20 is a critical player now in the supermini B segment, along with the Yaris, Polo and Fiesta. With this new machine, Hyundai hopes to make further ground on its rivals. On the evidence, their hopes are not over-ambitious.
The car has a new, vibrant and funky look, more interior and boot space, slightly higher ground clearance, new engines and a heap of kit. It is comfortable to ride in, very practical, and well-furnished.
I drove the four-cylinder, 1.2-litre petrol engine, which outputs 75bhp at 5,500rpm, has 122Nm at 4,000rpm, and emits 119g/km to fit into tax band A4 and a €200 annual road-tax bill.
With a top speed of 160kph and a 13.6-second 0-100kph capability, this i20 is not going to blind anyone with its niftiness — or beat anything much in a traffic-light drag race, but it is a very solid performer, once you get it up to speed. You have to work the revs to extract any performance via the five-speed manual gearbox, but, even so, the consumption rate is pretty decent at 5.2 l/100 km (54.3 mpg).
The front-drive, MacPherson strut front suspension and torsion-beam rear layout will also not excite demanding drivers, but 99.9% of the potential ownership will not fit that demographic.
As such, the car is really good around town, excellent as a motorway cruiser, and an acceptable cross-country tourer.
As the majority of i20s will be bought either as a second car, a very suitable motor for the children, or by retirees, it will fit the bill nicely for any of those categories.
Is it as good as a Fiesta or a Polo? Probably not, but dynamism is not what is going to sell this car — its price, its kit levels and its warranty will look after that, along with good looks and good build quality.
It is an excellent illustration, not so much of where Hyundai has been, but where it is going.
The Cost: from €15,995 - €19,495 as tested.
a neat 1.2 litre petrol unit which is not terribly fast, but solid and economical nonetheless.
well up to Hyundai’s lofty and generous standards in this regard.
not quite yet at the level of Ford, Toyota or VW, but not far off at all.