By Jonathan Crouch
If, in buying a used Focus-sized Family Hatchback, you merely want to buy a very good one and pay as little as possible for it, then Hyundai has a proposition for you: the original version of its second generation i30 that sold between 2012 and 2015. Smart, frugal, spacious and value-laden, this is one car that in its time, all the other big volume manufacturers were keeping their eye on.
If any car could be said to have built its brand, it's this one, Hyundai's i30. Here, we're looking at the original version of the second generation version as a used buy. At its launch in 2012, expectations for this model were high following the surprising excellence of its predecessor, a car that was crucial for this Korean maker. You see, back in 2007 when the very first i30 was launched, Hyundai was nothing more than a budget brand - no more, no less. Customers got behind the wheel expecting a cheap and cheerful Focus-sized Family Hatch - but they should have known better. They should have watched as at the turn of the century, Hyundai and its development partner Kia poached Europe's finest stylists and engineers. And known that the i30, like its cousin Kia's cee'd, would be a car to challenge the market leaders.
The very first version of the i30 car was ahead of its time. Even though it delivered class-leading standards of packaging, ride, handling - even interior quality - many Golf and Focus buyers still weren't quite ready to trade in their enamelled keyfobs and take the big driveway credibility step involved in owning one. Still, no matter. The Korean company resolved to reap the real rewards in this segment with this second generation i30 design, a model styled to look sharper, specced to be better equipped and engineered to be more efficient. It sold until 2015, when the range was substantially facelifted.
What You Get
If there was one area where the original first generation i30 came up conspicuously short of the top family hatchbacks, it was styling. It wasn't that there was anything really wrong with that car's shape: it was just that... well, can you remember what one looked like? No, we thought not. This MK2 model's design though, is decidedly more distinctive, with a European feel that hints at Ford with its hexagonal grille or a little at Peugeot in the sharply sculpted wheelarches. But it has its own appeal too thanks to a further development of Hyundai's now quite familiar 'fluidic sculpture' styling theme that's most obvious in the emphatic swage lines that flare out of the front door before sweeping down into the rear light clusters.
Inside, equal effort has been made and there's just as great a change for the better. The cabin might not quite have the build solidity of a Golf or the flair of a Focus from this period, but it's arguably a more interesting place to be than either of those, only the shiny stalks betraying Hyundai's budget brand origins. Fragments of metallic brightwork may clearly be painted plastic but they've been carefully chosen and the floating spines that frame the centre console are stylish and neat. Fit and finish from the Czech factory is excellent and the soft-touch textures on offer around the dash show a lot of better established brands how it should be done.
The dials are clear, the buttons large and easy to use and almost everything falls to hand nicely. There's a neat integrated 7-inch colour touchscreen for sat nav and infotainment on top versions that's as good as anything you'll find from a premium brand. And evidence wherever you look of really careful design. The way, for example, that the ventilation and audio controls have been moved further up than they would normally be so that they fall to hand more easily and free up extra storage space in front of the gearlever. There are plenty of other cubbies and compartment for clutter too, including decently-sized door pockets that will each take a 1.5-litre bottle.
As for cabin space, well despite the fact that this car rides on a wheelbase no larger than its predecessor, Hyundai insists that there's more of it. True enough, up-front, there's significantly more leg and shoulder room than before - and better headroom too, even if you get a car fitted with the optional large panoramic glass room. Sizemic gains are less noticeable in the back, but there is slightly more shoulder room and it is now a little easier to squash in a centre adult passenger if you have to, thanks to the way that the designers reduced the size of the central transmission tunnel. Rear passengers even have their own air vents.
Out back, the rather poky boot of the MK1 model i30 was here enlarged, 38-litres bigger at 378-litres. If you need more and want to push the rear bench forward, you'll find that instead of the backrest merely flopping onto the seatbase, the cushion flip up properly to facilitate an almost flat loadbay with up to 1316-litres of fresh air. If you need more space, there's the option of a Tourer estate version.
What to Look For
As owners have indicated, the i30 is an extremely reliable car. This MK2 model only improves the breed further, with any initial production issues at the Slovenian plant by now well and truly ironed out. Hyundai's comprehensive five year warranty offered original buyers excellent peace of mind and any car you look at should have been serviced on the button. The only real things you'll need to look out for are parking knocks and scrapes and any damage to the interior caused by kids.
(approx prices, based on a 2010 1.4 Classic) Hyundai spares prices have gained an enviable reputation for good value, and replacement parts for the i30 are no exception. A clutch assembly is around £150, while front brake pads will set you back about £40. An alternator will cost around £130, and for a starter motor you'll be looking at £120.
On the Road
It says something about the progress Hyundai has made over the last few years that many will come to this car expecting dynamic standards that match the Family Hatchback class-leaders. Cars like the Ford Focus and the Volkswagen Golf that have spent decades perfecting themselves in this area. Of the two, it's clearly the Volkswagen that was Hyundai's benchmark in development, for in terms of ride and refinement, this i30 is at least as good as its pricier German rival.
The sophisticated multi-link rear suspension that made the original version of this Korean design so surprisingly good in this respect was here retained - and improved to the point where on a poor surface, you really do feel like you're riding in something far more expensive. No other car in this class from this era is better at soothing away tarmac imperfections. Assuming you're not in a diesel model at start-up (where the engine can be a bit clattery) or cruising at high motorway speeds (where there's a bit of wind noise around the mirrors), it's also extremely quiet. There's a reason for that - or more accurately, four reasons: anti-vibration engine mounts, hollow driveshafts, re-profiled door handles and double-layered door seals. It's all about attention to detail you see.
As for handling, well this car won't rival a Ford Focus around the twisty stuff but cornering door handle-style won't be a priority for many of the brand's buyers and in any case, this car is a match for just about any other family hatchback rival from this period in terms of body control, handling response and chassis balance. A little ironically, the only area slightly lacking in this regard - steering precision - is the one to which Korean designers devoted most effort in this MK2 model. All but entry-level variants got what's called a 'Flex Steer' system, with a button on the wheel that enables you to switch between 'Comfort', 'Normal' and 'Sport' modes. Given that 'Comfort' is rather light and 'Sport' artificially heavy, you end up leaving it in 'Normal' all the time, which rather defeats the point.
No complaints about the engine line-up on offer though, an area in which Hyundai clearly did its homework on European customers. There are no pointlessly powerful petrol engines or super-pricey hybrids. Just a sensible 100PS entry-level petrol 1.4 for youngsters and budget buyers, plus a 120PS auto-only petrol 1.6 for pensioners, before you get into the meat of the range and the diesel variants that most i30 customers actually chose. Not that there's much choosing to do in all honesty. The 1.6-litre CRDi unit was offered in three states of tunes with either 90, 110 or 128PS but from there, the selection process gets a lot simpler. The entry-level unit won't save you much up-front and lacked the brand's Blue Drive eco tweaks so is actually the thirstiest and dirtiest of the three. The top version meanwhile, isn't much faster than the mid-spec 110PS variant, yet costs a slug more.
So, it's likely that even the least well-informed prospective i30 purchasers will end up on a test drive behind the wheel of the 1.6 CRDi 110PS diesel model, a car capable of far perkier performance than you'd expect from something capable of returning over 75mpg and under 100g/km of CO2. Sixty occupies a decently fleet 11.5s, two seconds quicker than the entry-level i30 diesel and only a fraction slower than the top 128PS version. And there's an academic top speed of 115mph.
When it introduced this second generation i30 model in 2012, Hyundai was in the unfamiliar position of having to replace a car that was already pretty good in the first place. It was a nice problem to have. The market expected a smartening of the styling. An improvement in running costs. An addition of hi-tech equipment. And an extra dose of quality. All of which were duly delivered in a MK2 model i30 that's predictably good and makes a lot of sense as a used buy.
It's not the most dynamic choice you could make and some other brands seem to offer higher quality cabins or slightly greater efficiency. Add together all the things you actually need from a car of this kind though and it's hard not to conclude that this i30 provides an awful lot of them. Here at least, the i's seem to have it.