Hyundai's i20 hatchback looks good with a facelift.

I'm sure you're aware of Hyundai's i20 hatchback: it replaced the Getz in early-2011 and has been quietly plugging away at the supermini market for the past 18 months.

Here's something you may not know about this Korean small car: it's not really Korean at all. It's built in India for Asia-Pacific markets, which is common knowledge. But it's not actually sold in Korea at all, which is something I did not know until I asked the question at Hyundai's media launch for the facelifted i20 this week.

That does highlight a little problem that the i20 has always suffered from: it's a bit of an orphan in the local Hyundai line-up. It's one of the oldest cars in the Hyundai range for a start, dating back to 2008. And although there was never anything very wrong with it, the i20 always felt like a cheap and cheerful alternative to more sophisticated rivals like the Suzuki Swift and Ford Fiesta. Next problem: it was never that cheap. The outgoing i20 started at $25,490 and worked up to $26,990 for the flagship model. That's top-specification Swift and Fiesta money. All things considered, Hyundai New Zealand has done well to shift over 500 old-shape i20s year-to-date: enough for a modest 6 per cent share of the segment.

It credits this to the appeal of the larger glasshouse, higher seating position and more spacious ambience created by the i20's more traditional body shape, compared with some of its more sports-oriented and intimate-feeling supermini rivals.


The facelifted i20 fine-tunes the formula, although perhaps not in the areas that you'd expect. Prices haven't changed for a start, although equipment levels have been ramped-up to put the i20 somewhere near the top of the class for toys.

It's essentially the same car underneath, but new bonnet, front guard, grille and bumper shapes have given the i20 more styling sizzle. Mechanically, the 74kW/136Nm 1.4-litre engine has been slightly retuned for better fuel economy but is still matched to a four-speed automatic; not good enough when the Honda Jazz has a five-speed, and the Fiesta/Holden Barina have six.

The manual version now boasts a six-speed gearbox, which is quite good. But hardly anybody will buy it - just 3 per cent of i20s sold this year have had three pedals. The manual returns an impressive 5.3 litres per 100km, the automatic 5.9 litres.

The biggest mechanical change is the adoption of Hyundai's Motor Driven Power Steering (MDPS) system, similar to that used on the new i30. It allows the fitment of a more sophisticated Vehicle Stability Management (VSM) system that can encourage the driver to steer safely in an emergency situation, by encouraging him or her to turn the wheel a particular way by altering the level of assistance in either direction. That's a clever active safety feature, although the VSM does seem to come at some opportunity cost to steering feel and consistency. The electrically assisted power steering system loads up in strange ways at open-road speeds and seems reluctant to self-centre.

So the i20 is not a great drive. But you cannot argue with the equipment. The base version has gained some surprise-and-delight features, but you'd be mad not to spend the extra $1000 on the GLS, which has gained reversing sensors, automatic headlights, cruise control with speed limiter, climate air conditioning, "supervision cluster" instrumentation, extra insulation and very trendy LED daytime running lights up front.

Combine that with signature Hyundai touches like excellent iPod integration and easy-to-use Bluetooth, and in terms of standard equipment it's clear that a Swift RS now has nothing to brag about.

Hyundai says the i20's new face was created at its European Design Centre at Russelsheim, which is nowhere near Korea.