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Gareth Butterfield drives the surprisingly sporty new Hyundai i20

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Hyundai has a bit of a habit of moving the game on a long way with every new car launch. And its new i20 is certainly no exception.
At least in terms of styling, it is a completely different animal to its predecessor. While the last generation of this popular supermini was quite staid and predictable, the newcomer looks almost overstyled.
Looked at directly from the front, it has a sense of aggression about it, which you wouldn’t expect in a car that replaces what has long been one of the darlings of the older generation.
And the rear is super-modern, with gratuitous use of a reflective strip across the boot lid, blending nicely with the angular rear lights.

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And then you take in the side-profile which, to be honest, looks a bit like a design dog’s dinner to me. The front door handle just looks a bit “plonked”, as if it’s had to sit lower down as an after-thought to avoid the otherwise distinctive crease that runs from front to back.
The interior’s controversial too. It has a comfortable, grown-up four-spoke steering wheel, but the air-vent grilles carry on across dashboard to the passenger side, and sweep back awkwardly. Having said that, the central infotainment screen is great, and it’s good to see a full-screen instrument display at this end of the market.
So I was polarised by a walk around the new i20, but I was thoroughly impressed with the driving experience.
There’s no diesel option for the new i20. In fact, there’s barely any choice for buyers now, other than opting for the six-speed manual of a seven-speed twin-clutch auto. All the new versions come with a one-litre, three-cylinder engine hooked up to a 48-volt mild-hybrid system, which sits below the boot.

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It offers 100bhp, which doesn’t sound much these days but, trust me, this car is no wet lettuce. You’ll be instantly impressed by the acceleration. It’s more vivid than it strictly needs to be.
And it’s the first of several surprises that crop up in the i20. The next one, once you’ve started the engine and set off, is just how sporty it feels to drive. The i20 competes with Ford’s Fiesta which is one of the sweetest-handling superminis on the road. And the Hyundai doesn’t beat it, but it’s amazing just how close it gets to matching it in terms of handling.
The grip is perhaps what impresses most. It feels very sure-footed, and there’s little in the way of body-roll. It actually feels as if it wants to be driven in a spirited fashion, which is a world away from the car it replaces.
In sport mode, there’s an electronic blipping of the throttle, to match the revs as you change down through the manual gears, and the instruments glow red to remind you you’re having a bit of fun.
But it’s not all about hooning around. There’s also an eco mode which is all about saving fuel. And that’s where its clever mild-hybrid system comes in to play. As you coast down a hill, or even up to a junction, the system will shut down the engine, but keep everything else ticking over. A sign on the instrument display comes up to tell you you’re “sailing”. It’s really clever, and the transition from electric power to fuel is completely seamless.

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As a result of this clever trickery, fuel economy is excellent. On a run it’s perfectly possible to knock on the door of 50mpg, and CO2 emissions, depending on the model can be as low as 115g/km.
So in just about every sense, it’s a massive improvement over the old i20. The looks might be questionable from some angles, but they won’t put many off. And some of the interior materials feel a bit cheap, but space is improved and it has an almost class-leading boot. I particularly like the way the parcel shelf slides away when it’s not needed.
In manual versions there’s an electric clutch, to facilitate that “sailing” mode, which works incredibly well, but I did notice a slight judder when I set off, and spirited gearchanges take more time than you might hope.
But it is a genuinely, surprisingly sport car and I’m amazed by how much fun I had in it. This bodes well for the new i20N hot hatch, which turns all this sportiness up several notches and promises to be an absolute hoot.
Fundamentally, though, I cast my mind back to the old i20 and realise I can’t actually remember where I drove it, how long for, or even exactly what I thought of it. Wheras every journey I took in the new version sticks in my mind.
It’s as memorable as it is likeable. Definitely a strong option if you’re shopping for a supermini.

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