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Over the past year, the Malaysian car market has been blessed with much more variety than we’re used to seeing, and some new entries have blurred the price lines that many use to categorise cars.

For instance, someone looking to purchase a Vios or City at the region of RM90,000 will have new alternatives from a class above priced within reach. The Peugeot 308 VTi is one such good value product, the others being the just launched Kia Forte and the subject of this test report – the Hyundai i30.

Unlike the Forte, which launch blast included TV ads and special inserts in local mags, the Hyundai i30 had a relatively quiet introduction with very little fanfare. I for one have not seen any on the road besides the media test cars and many people we spoke to don’t know of its existence!

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So let’s recap. Belonging to Hyundai’s new generation of ‘i’ badged models, the i30 is a C-segment car designed to compete in the European family hatchback market, and is benchmarked againts class leaders such as the VW Golf. Both the i30 and its smaller sibling, the i10, have garnered impressive reviews from UK and Europe – no small feat for a Korean brand in markets much more sophisticated than ours.

And now, you can have it here for the price of a Modulo kitted Honda City – the i30 family starts from the 1.6 manual at RM92,388 to the 2.0 range topper at RM112,888. We try the mid range 1.6 auto which costs RM97,888.

Showroom appeal

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A sure sign that Hyundai has come a long way is in the i30′s cabin. Quality is immediately apparent in the dashboard moulding’s soft padded plastic, which is not unlike that of the Peugeot 308 – the brown hue chosen for the seat fabric and upper half of the cabin is quite pleasing too, reminding us of the Mini Clubman’s ‘Hot Chocolate’ pack.

Materials and ergonomics are well sorted – all controls fall easily into place and are simple to use, except for the aftermarket Pioneer stereo, which looks flashy but is frustrating to operate. Interestingly, Hyundai took the effort to link the non-factory player to the standard steering wheel controls; the wireless connection worked fine in this car, but less so in another unit I tried previously.

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Everything else is familiar – the blue illumination and instrument design are typically Hyundai; not the most classy in appearance but effective. Fussy Europeans demand things like telescopic adjustment for the steering as well as comfy seats, and the i30 duly delivers.

However, the Hyundai’s equipment list is underwhelming compared to the RM93,800 top spec Kia Forte – the i30 does without the 2.0-litre Kia’s Stability Control, leather seats/steering and curtain airbags, although it has basics like a full trip computer and single-zone climate control.

i30-space2 The i30 is one of the biggest cars in its segment, if you discount the new Opel Astra which really pushes the size boundary of this class. The Hyundai’s 2650mm wheelbase is for instance 70mm longer than the VW Golf’s, which translates to good rear legroom.

There’s also space under the front seats for backbenchers to tuck their feet into. The boot volume at 340 litres isn’t great though, as the rear needs to accomodate an independent suspension and a full sized spare tyre.

The rear multi-link system is more space consuming than a torsion beam suspension and more expensive to produce, but it pays off, as we find out.

Talented on the move

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It doesn’t take more than a drive around the block to discover that the i30′s chassis competes well with class leaders such as the Golf and Ford Focus, and that it’s far removed from Korean cars of old. You do get a feeling of solidity, an intangible factor that distinguishes Continental cars from their Asian counterparts. The i30 rides really well on 16-inch wheels, cushioning road imperfections from the cabin instead of transferring the shock wholesale like how a Honda Civic would. The 2.0-litre variant wears 17-inch rims which introduce a harder edge to the ride quality, but it’s still far from brittle.

The i30 offers good body control, but not of the iron fisted stiff springing kind – the suspension is allowed some travel but movement is always well controlled. The result is a fluid drive over B-roads, much smoother than a Peugeot 308 in fact. We observed that the steering of the 1.6 feels more natural than the similar electric system on the 2.0-litre, which is quick and direct but has what feels like inconsistent assistance/weighting.

In truth, the Hyundai lacks the unflappable nature of the super composed Mk6 Golf or the communication of the Focus, but it’s a very good effort and probably offers a better ride/handling balance than the Civic/Sylphy/Altis trio.

Powertrain

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Two engine options are available for the i30: a 141bhp/186Nm 2.0-litre Beta engine and our tester’s 1.6-litre Gamma unit with 120bhp and 153Nm of torque. The smaller engine is noticably slower, but was suprisingly sweeter revving than the 2.0 and with less buzz coming into the cabin.

Both CVVT engines have a decent spread of power throughout the rev range but our car could have done with more low-end urge – the Peugeot 308′s Prince engine beats it for flexibility and smoothness. We achieved fuel consumption of around 10 to 10.5km/l in our three days with the i30, according to the onboard trip computer.

The i30′s four-speed automatic worked unobtrusively, which is what a good auto should do – it was quick, smooth and smart enough although we’d gladly have an extra ratio for lower rpm highway cruising and better fuel economy. A five-speed manual is also an option for the 1.6; we’re eager to try it out when Hyundai-Sime Darby has a test unit available.

Worthy of our money?

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The Hyundai i30 is a brilliant effort from a carmaker that has of late churned out cars that can match the best without excuses. It, the Peugeot 308 and Kia Forte should pose serious questions to those looking to buy a locally assembled Japanese B-segment sedan, as these cars from the next class up are much more sophisticated in design and quality.

As for the Hyundai, it deserves more attention for its abilities but is unlikely to get much due to the lack of design flair and desirability, which is a pity because there’s real substance beneath.