Hyundai joins the big league

NO longer can Hyundai be regarded as small fry. Latest figures show that last year the Korean maker sold more than 4m vehicles globally and ranks as the world’s fifth largest auto giant.

Quality and reliability have upgraded markedly in the last five years, even if prices have quietly crept up to keep pace. In the UK, Hyundai was named Best Car Manufacturer 2011 by Which? magazine, based on consumer ratings, and Car Franchise of the Year by Motor Trader, which indicates dealers are happy and presumably keeping customers contented.

Contributing to the success has been the ix20, a cross-over or high-roof version of the original i20 hatchback, designed and developed in Germany, built in the Czech Republic and competing in the Focus-Golf category.

Its Hyundai Group sibling, the Kia Venga, is another rival and boasts an even more generous seven-year warranty against the ix20’s attractive five.

I tried the new U2 1.6litre diesel engine introduced this year and carrying the Blue Drive technology for cleaner emissions and lower fuel consumption. The package includes stop-start which cuts out the engine when stationary, tyres of low rolling resistance, an “alternator management system” and a gearchange advisor on the dash.

The upgraded six-speed manual gearbox promises enhanced efficiency and is maintenance-free, while a chain-driven timing system allows extended service intervals of 20,000 miles.

After all this, an mpg figure just below 50 mpg over a week might be considered disappointing against an official combined 64-plus. But a low CO2 rating reduces your annual tax disc to £30, after nil in the first year .

On the road this diesel unit is not the quietest and you need to work that gearbox, through admittedly easy changes, to keep up momentum cross-country. A suspension specifically tuned to soak up Britain’s pot-holed roads is a first in Hyundai’s model history. As a result the ride is comfortable, even if there is a tendency for some body sway on quick corners.

The design of the ix20 remains impressively practical. There’s good head and legroom in the tall cabin, on a long wheelbase. The wide boot is a double-decker.The upper floor extends on a level with the folded rear seats,. Hidden 150 mm below it is a handy compartmentalised tray and below that a ‘skinny spare’ wheel.

The rear seats slide as well as fold for extra versatility.

The top Style trim on the test car, priced at £16,045 in a range starting at £12,195, included a striking dual-panel panoramic glass sunroof running the length of the cabin. The front half tilts and slides, the rear is tinted. Each has its own sliding blind.

There’s manual dial-up air con, rear privacy glass, electric folding and heated door mirrors with repeater indicators, electric windows, reversing sensors and Bluetooth set-up.