The Korean Korolla
I won't forget the first Hyundai I drove. It was a Pony pickup, a well-side ute version of the company's front-engined rear-wheel- drive hatch of the same name and I thought it would do to transport an upright piano.
AT A GLANCE
Click photo at left for more views of the Hyundai i30 Elite.
Well, we managed to shift the piano, even though it just fitted on the tray with the tailgate dropped. But when it defied the straps that held it, the corner of the instrument caused the rear cabin glass to pop and it took me the best part of a weekend to persuade the window back into place.
However, that's not what I remembered most. It was that the whole car seemed to be about seven-eighths scale. My knees cramped the wheel rim and shift knob, and over bumps, my head bounced against the roof lining.
The radio worked well enough and the ute had nice proportions and looked quite tidy, even in saleproof mid-blue, although the smell from the heater made my eyes water and what was a worrying diff whine did tend to drown out the twangs and boings coming from the piano.
In the intervening 27 years, how things have changed. Hyundai grasped front-wheel- drive and, with a few hiccups, found it was quite good at it.
The company soon became the maker of cheap and cheerful family cars and the kind of company cars reps would have if they really had to.
The transformation into a leading-edge mass manufacturer of cars happened almost without the rest of the industry noticing.
In recent years, Hyundai and Kia, the company it rescued from oblivion less than a decade ago, have become default buys, not because they are cheap, but because they are as good as anything else in almost every segment in which they compete.
And they are getting even better. Take the new, second-generation i30, which is effectively Korea's Corolla. Not only does it have to compete with Japan's mightiest and most numerous car, but there are also Golfs, Focuses, Meganes and 308s from Europe to keep it honest.
The first i30 was safely styled and well equipped, with more than adequate performance but not much to stir the soul.
That might change with the new car, which is the first hatch to use Hyundai's "fluidic sculpture" design language.
That grandiose nomenclature was first used on the nicely crafted but rather brash i45 sedan.
But it works better on the i30, where the fashionable basic wedge shape of the car is enhanced by upwards coursing front to rear strakes, the sharply tapered side glasses and muscular wheel-arch bulges, while a distinctive face is created by wraparound headlights, shard-like auxilliary lights and Hyundai's hexagonal, Superman badge-shaped corporate grille.
I think it looks superb in the test car's blood red and I apologise to readers and Hyundai alike if my photographs don't do it justice.
All i30s have alloy wheels, with the base cars on 16-inch ones, but the combined satin and gloss-finished 17-inch items on the 1.8-litre petrol Elite I've been driving are gorgeous.
Non-Elite i30s aren't badly equipped, with cruise control, Bluetooth hands-free, air- conditioning, a quality four-speaker CD player and full connectivity with iPod and MP3 inputs, and keyless entry.
Elite models add very smart leather trim, climate control, reversing sensors and a camera.
Standard safety kit across the range consists of seven airbags, stability management and control, and ABS with brake assist and brake force distribution.
Every i30 also has seven airbags, while Elite models top everything with a power driver's seat with lumbar adjustment and heated front seats, heated folding side mirrors, automatic lights and wipers and a neat automatic screen demist function.
The two engine choices for the i30 consist of a 110-kilowatt, 178-newton-metre 1.8-litre variable valve timed injected petrol unit and a 94kW, 260Nm, 1.6-litre common rail injected turbodiesel.
Entry-point i30s have a choice of six-speed manual or automatic transmission, while the all-the-fruit Elite is automatic only.
It all sounds impressive, but the posted 110kW didn't feel like that much in the petrol Elite test car, although the six-speed automatic transmission was a treat, slurring almost imperceptively between ratios.
Refinement and noise insulation were good too, but the engine did need to be worked hard to give of its best, although it didn't mind a right foot full of revs, and fuel consumption on test didn't appear to suffer much.
I calculated about 7 litres per 100km with plenty of town work and some hills, which is more than acceptable.
I spent only a couple of hours in a colleague's test diesel i30 - a base automatic - but it would be my personal choice of power unit.
Although you pay, model for model, another $2500 for diesel over petrol power, I think it's worth it.
The punch in the mid-range, helped by that almost clairvoyant automatic, make it an easier car for competing on motorway on-ramps and for overtaking, while it feels no less refined hooked back in cruise control at 100kmh.
I would be hard-pressed to pick between a full-specification petrol Elite at $39,990, or a standard-specification i30 diesel automatic for the same outlay.
While the Elite is loaded with home comforts and kit, the only thing I would miss would be the leather and those shiny alloy wheels, because the base car is impressively equipped with real-world equipment anyway.
The diesel car does feel heavier in the nose, but neither version is any more liable to understeer than much else in the segment, like the Corolla, Mazda3 and Civic, and the new Korean is a tidy, rather than sporting, handler that changes direction neatly.
The chassis does have excellent balance and body movement is well contained, while handling response and steering reaction on the open road are well sorted too.
Every i30 has a three-position FlexSteer setup which works a little like the switchable electric steering of Fiat's Grande Punto.
The i30 has three settings to the Fiat's two and I changed them between normal, comfort and sport to suit driving conditions.
I can't help but think that a fixed setting somewhere in the middle, between the lightest and heaviest modes, would have been more useful as a sort of Goldilocks or just-right setting.
Without its adjustments, the steering might then have been more predictable and perhaps have delivered a touch more feeling, making it easier for the driver to communicate with. It might save some cash too.
Compared with the old i30, the new model has a 10mm lower ride height and wider tracks, which have obviously helped provide its improved dynamic performance, as well as increased visual appeal.
The platform has the same wheelbase, but some work has been done to create space within the car's hard points, for I can't remember a standard i30 having such front and rear leg space.
The driver can get very comfortable, despite the fact that the steering height adjustment does not allow the he or she to use full seat-height movement upwards. But that's no big deal. Whether you're sitting on the Elite's leather or the base cars' cloth, the seats are well shaped and supportive and capable of coping with the new car's increased cornering side forces.
In the dash area, the i30 appears slavishly tied to symmetry, as all Hyundais are, probably with a view to making building for right and left-hand- drive markets easier.
However, the textures and materials mark a sea change over the old i30. The new one is less fussy too, even though it has some metallised accents, and the satin- finished bezels surrounding the main instruments and the large knobs for the air-conditioning and stereo are very classy.
The i30's immediate predecessors have been very weak in terms of sound system and information screen graphics, but even these have been improved.
I scraped the barrel to find something to criticise in the car's driving and passenger environment. For a sense of occasion, I reckon it's probably the best in segment outside Europe, and better than most of those too.
A great stereo and easy connectivity for smartphones are helped by the car's terrific refinement levels, which are a world away from that old Pony ute's, whose differential I can still hear whining to this day.
In the rear, the car has good leg room and, considering the swoopy roof line, good overhead space too.
Where the i30 appears to have gained over the old model is in terms of distance from floor to roof-lining. The company says its floor tunnel is lower by 80mm, so that rear head-room and leg-room improvement of 11mm and 30mm respectively shouldn't be so surprising.
The car's boot is above average for the segment at 378 litres, seats up, improving to 1316 litres when they are folded.
The new i30 is an impressive car. It is composed, agile, roomy and refined, with a level of kerb appeal that knocks out many Japanese competitors and with a very high equipment level for those who look beyond mere good looks.
The Hyundai is no longer a cheapie, however. With a lineup asking from $34,490 (base manual petrol) to $43,990, it is right in the middle of Corolla territory.
It's at least as good as the Toyota in many areas, and better in some, like styling, specification, engine choice and, looks.
It's the Korean Korolla - simple as that.