The sounds coming from Hyundai's new car show that the Korean car manufacturer has grown up. Richard Whitehead likes what he hears.
2010 Hyundai i30
The recession brought Cash for Clunkers, but when you buy the Hyundai i30, it's more like Cash for Thunkers, given that today this is the Korean carmaker's signature sound.
It's been a long journey for Hyundai. In the early Seventies, you would get a ching when you closed a door on the awful Pony. The entire car would vibrate. There wasn't much quality in those days.
Moving into the Eighties, the same ching was there, although on occasion making way for a tinny chung as materials - albeit still very cheap and nasty - began to reach minimum standards.
The breakthrough Nineties ushered in a chook as the Hyundai range expanded in size and quality. To the untrained ear, this was nothing really special, but to an industry fixated by the varying sounds each car makes, be it emanating from the engine bay, exhaust pipe, door panel or indicator stalk, Hyundai was well on the way.
The Noughties brought with them a massive period of growth for the company, not only in terms of sales, but also in models. With the Genesis, Hyundai branched into the luxury segment, a new range of excellent engines appeared and the carmaker began to move away from generic designs cobbled together from other, more prestigious brands. But, more than anything else, the thunk arrived.
To be a real player in the car industry, you need thunk. Just as every student of Arabic will remember his or her first perfectly annunciated "ain" sound, achieving thunk is a seriously big deal for an auto manufacturer. It was never a surprise that the larger Hyundais got thunk some time ago, but what is no doubt a real source of pride in Seoul is that even the diminutive i30 is thunking with the best of them.
The sound the doors make, even on slamming, is extremely satisfying: a dense baritone with no knocking or rattling on the side. It is the sound of quality and an indication that Hyundai's small car is a serious player in the market.
Why wouldn't it be? It ticks all the boxes: quality, design, comfort, engine, ride, space and spec. Everything about this car is quite good, and extremely surprising. While the Genesis and Centennial have been taking the Hyundai name into a whole different market, one intrinsically expects the brand's smaller cars to be pretty pony, as a Cockney might say. With the i30, this couldn't be further from the truth.
Entering the cabin with a thunk, there's plenty of space fore and aft. But what makes the biggest impression is the choice of materials that are used. They may all be variations of black and made out of plastic, but the combination of quality in touch and texture is the match of anything comparable from Japan.
The optional leather seats are supportive and very comfortable, and there is a remarkable amount of front leg room. The rear seats fold flat to allow plenty of unfettered space; even with them up, there is oodles of room in the hatchback, which comes complete with a storage net.
The driving position is excellent and the steeply raked windscreen offers a thoroughly clear view of the road. Likewise, rear and lateral visibility are also very good.
While there is no cruise control, there are wheel-mounted controls for the stereo, which is good and full of functionality. Occupying its place in the middle of the centre stack, it casts a cool blue aura over the predominantly dark cabin.
The switches for the electric windows produce their own thunk, as do the indicator stalks and lids to the handy stowage bins that are in abundance. The automatic gear lever makes the sound louder than anything else, bar the doors.
Given looks that are crisper than they are particularly characterful, the overall exterior design package is inoffensive. It could never be described as extroverted, like its Kia stable mate, the Soul, but it would never embarrass its owner when compared to its competitors.
Performance-wise, the 2.0-litre four does everything it is asked, and can be quite good fun if you're chasing the racing line. Although, like many a front-wheel driver, it can ooze understeer, the excellent front-rear balance means you can achieve some precise handling, even if the steering can feel flabby.
While the i30 will never be a racer, the engine will belt out a tune for you, and take you forward as fast as you would expect from a car this size. It's not raucus but it makes itself heard, and likes to point out that it's trying its best. What noise that comes from the engine bay is offset by ride smoothness and good handling, even at speed around bends.
Hyundai might always have offered value for money in this compact segment, but now that it can supply thunk, the brand really has turned the corner. As a surprise to everyone, the i30 really is among the front runners in its class.
Base price / as tested Dh61,000 / Dh66,000
Engine 2.0L four-cylinder
Gearbox Four-speed automatic
Power 143hp @ 6,000rpm
Torque 186Nm @ 4,600rpm
Fuel economy, combined 7.5L / 100km