As Korean as sauerkraut

Hyundai i30: Kimchi with a decidedly German texture and flavour.
Hyundai i30: Kimchi with a decidedly German texture and flavour.

Kimchi is a spicy Korean dish that often uses fermented cabbage as the main ingredient, infused with the red chillies that the Japanese thoughtfully left behind during one of their many invasions of the peninsular during the 16th century.

Sauerkraut is a European variation on the same fermented cabbage theme, but it lacks the superheated oral effects of its Korean equivalent, possibly because the Japanese haven't got around to invading Central Europe - yet.

I mention this as an admittedly tenuous example of the similarities between Korean and German culture. Both nations have been invasion zones, because their locations have placed both in geo- political traffic jams - the difference being that the wall is still up in Korea.

Soft wedge: The Hyundai's design is far from generic.
Soft wedge: The Hyundai's design is far from generic.

They also share a passion for golf, and not just the game, but the car that bears the name. One has only to drive the latest version of the i30 hatchback from Hyundai. It plays the Volkswagen Golf's game so faithfully that it's a wonder VW hasn't requested royalties.

Actually, the i30 is a more polished performer than the Golf, courtesy of the staggered timing of the model cycles of the two cars. The Mark VI Golf was undoubtedly the benchmark that set the engineering agenda for the latest i30, and those who label the Hyundai as some kind of "Korolla" have got their wires completely wrong. It's far too good for such a tag.

This year, a new Mark VII Golf will appear, and it wouldn't surprise me if it used the newest i30 as its inspiration. Such is the extra quality and refinement of the Hyundai currently that a game of technical leap-frog with the VW would be as natural to engage in as the one played out constantly with the release of each new Falcon or Commodore on the Australasian large-car battlefield.

So why didn't the i30 feature strongly during the recent Car of the Year award season? It didn't even make the short-list of cars up for consideration in the New Zealand Motoring Writers' Guild award.

The most likely cause is the Hyundai's premium price positioning. At $43,990, the 1.6-litre turbodiesel Elite model you see here is more than $3000 more expensive than a 1.6-litre Golf turbodiesel. (There is also a lower- rent i30 diesel from $38,490.)

Hyundai New Zealand has moved its compact hatchback range further upmarket at a time when VW has embarked on an aggressive new campaign to reach down to the masses.

That said, there are more good reasons to buy the Hyundai ahead of the $40,750 Golf equivalent than just the leather upholstery, sportier wheel-tyre package and the extra airbag that the Asian car provides.

The Korean diesel generates 13 more kilowatts of power and 10 more newton metres of torque, slinging the i30 from zero to 100kmh in a time that is almost one second faster (10.3sec versus 11.2sec). The VW claws back the acceleration advantages of the Hyundai on the fuel-use front, as it uses a twin-clutch robotised manual gearbox instead of the i30's conventional six-speed automatic.

As a result, it has a laboratory test result of 4.2 litres per 100km over the European combined city/ highway driving simulation instead of 5.6L/100km.

However, twin-clutch transmissions are still a little more abrupt in their initial takeoff than conventional automatics and many might find that the extra overtaking performance and more polished demeanour of the Hyundai's powertrain is worth paying the extra fuel bills for.

On the chassis front, driving enthusiasts will wish for a little more road feeling at the i30's wheel, while the rest of the car's target market will appreciate the ride quality and the road-holding.

Unique to the i30 is the selection of three levels of assistance for the electric power steering system and, while the sportiest of these adds welcome heft, it still feels like driving by remote control.

It's the i30's cabin that is the real highlight. It is spacious and comfortable by compact car standards, loaded with more stuff than the direct Golf competitor, is easier to grapple with, and has seats so comfortable that they could be classified as therapeutic. The boot space is a generous 378 litres, 28 litres more than the Golf's.

All that's missing in the Hyundai's dogged pursuit of the world's most popular European hatchback is a turbocharged sports variant to take on the Golf GTi.

Hyundai i30 CRDi Elite

Drivetrain: Transverse, front- mounted front-wheel-drive with six- speed automatic transmission.

Output: 1582cc DOHC turbodiesel inline four producing 94kW at 4000rpm, 260Nm at 1900-2750rpm.

Performance: Max speed 190kmh, 0-100kmh 10.3 seconds, 5.6L/100km, 147g CO2/km.

Chassis: Front MacPherson struts, rear torsion beam. Electro- mechanical power steering. Vented front disc brakes and solid rear discs. 17-inch alloy rims with 225/45 tyres.

Dimensions: L 4300mm, H 1470mm, W 1780mm, W/base 2650mm; fuel 53L, weight 1310kg.

Price: $43,990. Other i30 models from $34,490.

Sunday Star Times