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Third-generation city car returns to a class many are deserting. Can it make a case for itself?

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It seems a slightly odd thing to write but, if you’ve been paying attention to recent goings-on in the wider motoring industry, you might well have concluded that the Hyundai i10, the subject of this week’s road test, shouldn’t really exist.

For some time now, we’ve been told that tiny, petrol-powered city cars such as the new, third-generation Hyundai i10 are becoming increasingly difficult for their makers to make money from. Sure, they’re still a fairly excellent source of affordable personal transport for urban dwellers, but the business case behind them isn’t quite as straightforward as it once was.

The i10’s rear diffuser won’t exactly fool anyone into thinking that it’s in any way functional, but it does lend the Hyundai an appealingly sporty aesthetic.

Profit margins on small cars have always been rather, well, small. These models might be diminutive in stature, but their platforms and powertrains and production lines still cost a fortune to develop and run. In any case, you don’t need a Bezos-esque level of business acumen to understand that if you then sell them cheaply, you’ll be looking at slim returns at best. With emissions regulations becoming ever more stringent, they’re not quite as attractive on paper as they once were, either. Here in the UK, budgetary changes in April 2017 caused many to lose the VED-exempt status their sub-100g/km emissions ratings had previously afforded them.

Add into all of this an exploding compact crossover market into which investment is undoubtedly more profitably injected and you might understand why some manufacturers are binning city cars from their line-ups entirely. Some, like the Volkswagen Group, have instead electrified their A-segment offerings – but then that doesn’t do much to solve the original question of cost.

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So you’ll see why this new, exclusively petrol-powered i10’s arrival comes as something of a surprise. Of course, a huge amount of Hyundai’s European success stemmed from the popularity of this car’s predecessors, and the South Korean firm will be keen to see that continue. But given the climate into which this third-generation car emerges, it’s clear the stakes have never been higher. Time to see if Hyundai’s commitment to its small car formula has been worth it.

Hyundai i10 design & styling

As with the previous i10, this new version is built at Hyundai’s Izmit plant in Turkey for European markets and it shares its platform with the Kia Picanto. In its metamorphosis from second- to third-generation form, Hyundai’s smallest model has experienced a bit of a growth spurt, but the changes to its overall footprint aren’t drastic and should improve interior spaciousness.

Overall length has crept up by 5mm, but it’s the fact that its wheelbase has been stretched by 40mm that should have the greatest effect in the cabin.

The roofline has been lowered by 20mm and width increased by 20mm to lend the i10 a more squat, athletic stance than before. In fact, the general consensus among our testers is that this new car’s styling is one thing that Hyundai has well and truly nailed. Where its predecessor was an attractive if largely featureless device, this new third-gen car has all the chiselled good looks, chic visual trinketry and premium appeal to see it confidently mingle with the established class elite.

There’s enough visual aggression about its sharp front end to shake off the ‘cutesy’ image that’s so often attached to cars in this class, but not so much that it appears contrived or try-hard. In any case, Hyundai has long claimed that a healthy amount of its sales stem from customers taking a shine to its vehicles’ designs, and we’ve no doubt the i10 is on a strong footing to see this continue.

From launch, the i10 is available with a choice of two naturally aspirated petrol engines: a 66bhp 1.0-litre triple and the 1.2-litre four-pot that straddles the front axle of our test car. Both powerplants are available with either a five-speed manual or five-speed automated manual transmission, and ours uses the five-speed manual to direct its 83bhp and 87lb ft to the front wheels. A sportier N Line model with a 98bhp turbocharged three-pot will arrive in the summer.

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As for its suspension, the new i10 doesn’t deviate from the established class formula. MacPherson struts are employed at the front axle and a torsion beam sits across the rear. The rear torsion bar is now U-shaped as opposed to triangle-shaped to improve stability, while a stronger steering torsion bar and quicker steering gear should help to sharpen steering response.

The i10 range at a glance

Hyundai Motor UK offers the i10 in three trim levels: SE, SE Connect and Premium. It’s a particularly simple range because – besides metallic paint – there aren’t any options to add until you hit top grade (at which point you can jazz up your car with a Tech pack, a two-tone paint job, or both).

Bottom-rung SE cars are likely to be pretty rare birds, spottable on the outside by their steel wheels.

The £1000 spend necessary to trade up from SE to SE Connect buys you Hyundai’s 8.0in touchscreen infotainment system with reversing camera and smartphone mirroring and it’s unlikely that very many buyers will want to go without them.

Price £14,995 Power 83bhp Torque 87lb ft 0-60mph 12.3sec 30-70mph in fourth 24.2sec Fuel economy 42.0mpg CO2 emissions tbc 70-0mph 44.7m

INTERIOR

Hyundai i10 2020 road test review - cabin

We know cars like the i10 as city cars but there’s little to stop them being everyday family transport these days, such is their capability. Certainly, in the i10’s case, when it comes to accommodating people, it does it easily enough. An average-sized adult can sit behind the same with a couple of inches of both head and leg room to spare, although three people across the rear bench is a squeeze.

A decent driving position is pretty simple to achieve. The seats are smaller than in bigger family cars but supportive and comfortable over distance and the gearlever is sited medium-high. The steering wheel adjusts for rake only, sadly, and we’d prefer a rotary dial to recline the seat rather than a lever. But Hyundai has largely kept things uncomplicated and the i10 is better for it. There are big, clear rotary dials for the ventilation and similarly large buttons for driver and comfort aids.

Front seats offer as much size and support as you can reasonably expect in a city car. Driver’s seat adjusts for height, but we doubt anyone will be short of head room.

Perceived quality is reasonable, although we’re not sure it’s up to, say, Volkswagen Up standards. This Premium-trim variant gets a honeycomb design on the door trims, dashboard and centre console, with the last two of those swathed in a silvery plastic, which looks interesting but never quite pulls the interior up a notch. The standard level of kit does, though. As well as air-con, heated front seats and a heated steering wheel make their way into the Premium i10’s kit list.

The front of the cabin gets plenty of storage options, too, from a shelf above the glovebox to a whole host of them along the centre tunnel, although only the rearmost small cubby has a soft surface, and a piece of textile that’s incredibly hard to remove for cleaning, at that. There are only two electricity outlets as well: a USB in the front, which mates a phone to the infotainment system, and a 12V outlet next to it. Many couples or families could probably use one or two more than that.

If you’re looking for a city car, it’s a reasonable bet that you’re not prioritising boot space, but in its class, the i10’s 252 litres and 60/40 split fold rear seat are competitive.

Hyundai i10 infotainment and sat-nav

It’s curious to find a large, 8.0in central touchscreen like the i10’s that has so few standard features. You can pair a phone to its Bluetooth system and play music through it, too, or it will control the radio. And you can change some settings – notably which two things sit on the home screen, plus amend the ‘star’ shortcut button to the bottom left.

That it doesn’t do too much else is fine, because you’ll own a smartphone that does navigation, contains your favourite music and can read out your messages far better than any automotive system currently will. Hence the i10 comes with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay mirroring, which work exactly as those should. Sound quality via four speakers is reasonable for a car at this price and there are cruise control, audio and phone control buttons on the steering wheel.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Hyundai i10 2020 road test review - engine

It may not be immediately obvious, but a sub-13sec 0-60mph standing-start acceleration time such as the one the i10 recorded remains a pretty strong performance showing for an A-segment city car in 2020.

The little Hyundai has long been more powerful than most of its direct rivals and that has been an enduring selling point for four-cylinder, upper-level versions of the car. Now that it has both turbocharged and hybrid-assisted class opposition, however, the i10’s pleasingly authoritative drivability isn’t quite so distinguishing; and yet it remains a pretty clear strength.

Straight-line performance is closer to a supermini’s than most city cars manage and its handling also has the overall feel of a bigger car’s, being stable as well as nimble

The 1.2-litre engine doesn’t pull from low revs like a turbocharged three-pot alternative might but it still feels usefully torquey from low crank speeds and moves the car’s one-tonne mass along fairly easily. It’s also more smooth-running than the class-typical three-cylinder motor would be at and around idle and it has a more linear-feeling power delivery than some downsized turbo motors – both of which you might like about it.

With some cars in this class stuck with up to 25% less pulling power than this one, the gap between a full-sized supermini and a city car can feel rather large on the road and some city cars struggle for even remotely assured acceleration above 40mph. However, the i10 closes that gap to something quite negligible in most driving circumstances. It’s not gutsy, but gutsy enough to get up to the national speed limit without necessarily being revved to the redline in every gear or making you feel like you’re holding up the traffic.

Overtaking on single carriageways isn’t something you’ll consider too often, but tractors and HGVs can be picked off with a degree of urgency. The engine spins to 5000rpm without getting noisy or buzzy, although beyond that its refinement and flexibility aren’t quite so good – perhaps as a result of new WLTP-compliant electronic emissions controls that never afflicted previous, slightly sweeter-revving versions of the i10, which ran ostensibly the same engine.

The shift quality of the car’s five-speed manual gearbox is fairly light and pleasant and its braking performance (on range-topping 16in alloy wheels, don’t forget) fairly strong, metered through a progressive brake pedal.

All up, then, you’d characterise the car’s performance as pretty strong by class standards – although it’s not quite worthy of the outstanding praise the i10’s predecessors enjoyed.

RIDE & HANDLING

Hyundai i10 2020 road test review - on the road nose

We’ve praised the i10 quite highly over the years for going that little bit above and beyond the city car norm for driver appeal. Although it has never been an obvious choice for enthusiasts, the i10’s game engine has generally combined well with a chassis blessed with enough body control and handling precision that it takes surprisingly willingly to being hustled along. It has also come across as a car with a pretty simple character, quite plainly not intended to be perceived as anything other than small, light and fairly zippy.

You get the sense that the i10’s dynamic brief has now become a little more complicated. Having become lower and wider overall, and slightly quicker-geared through the steering, the car ought to perhaps feel more agile than it once did; but it has also had its wheelbase stretched. Net result? That handling mostly dodges any sense of precariousness related to the i10’s size and body profile, and it mixes agility with grip, body control and high-speed stability well enough to feel like a bigger supermini most – if not quite all – of the time.

Handling mixes agility with grip, body control and high-speed stability well enough to feel like a bigger supermini most – if not quite all – of the time

Is it fun to drive? Perhaps not as much as previous i10s were; that’s the honest answer. Improved lateral body control and cornering stability certainly make it a shade more serious-feeling, as well as more stable, when driven quickly.

Vertical body control is less closely controlled than roll, and pitch control remains a persistent challenge for a car so short and high-stacked in its profile. Mostly, then, it’s heave and jounce that guard the edges of the car’s comfort zone during national speed-limit cross-country driving on testing surfaces.

Neither is ever likely to destabilise the car, though, thanks to electronic stability controls that work subtly at first but always effectively and good underlying handling stability at the limit of grip. The only caveat to that stability we observed at the track was under heavy braking from motorway speeds, when the i10 pitched sharply enough under full pedal pressure to wander a little before stabilising on its nose and needing steering correction on repeated runs.

Assisted driving notes

You don’t need to add very many active safety features to a city car to make it class leading. Still, if anything, Hyundai has probably gone overboard to deliver that key safety selling point. (The firm hasn’t yet had Euro NCAP crash test results through for the car but they should be coming.)

Every i10 gets a forward-facing camera and standard AEB, or autonomous emergency braking (branded ‘FCA’), which includes pedestrian detection, a rarity on city cars. A lane-keeping system with separate departure alert and lane-keeping assist (LKAS) modes is also standard, as is a simplified driving monitoring system. Both the AEB and LKAS are switchable for sensitivity, and neither becomes intrusive in any case, although most testers preferred the dialled-back settings.

It seems odd, however, for Hyundai to make driver monitoring standard and a speed limit recognition system optional when the latter would be more valued by many customers.

COMFORT AND ISOLATION

A driving position with surprising space around your extremities and a seat that positions and holds you square at the controls combine to get the i10 off to a good start here.

There’s an edge of firmness about the car’s suspension but it rides bumps at low speeds with decent compliance, only becoming slightly fidgety above 50mph when faced with recurrent high-frequency inputs.

The ride isolation of our test car was a little disappointing, with plenty of surface roar permitted into the cabin from the road through the suspension springs and mountings, and making for a slightly hollow impression to the ride overall.

This could well have been partly attributable to the 16in alloy wheels of our test car, of course, with secondary ride refinement having at least potential to improve on the mid-level 15in wheels that are likely to appear on the majority of cars.

Mechanical refinement is quite good, at least until you get to the upper reaches of the rev range. A clutch with a slightly woolly and unpredictable biting point made step-off in our test car a little less smooth than it might have been, but greater familiarity might well have made for better ease of operation.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Hyundai i10 2020 road test review - hero front

Although the days of the sub-£10,000 city car are largely gone, you’d still have a hard time arguing that the i10 represented poor value for money.

The basic 66bhp SE models kick things off at £12,495, while our peppier 83bhp Premium-spec test car (the current range-topper) comes with a £14,995 list price – provided you go for the manual. Admittedly, that’s more than you’d pay for a five-door Up in R-Line spec (£14,280) and some will no doubt find the allure of a Volkswagen badge tough to ignore, but it’s worth pointing out that the Volkswagen Up has to make do with a meagre 59bhp engine.

Top-end i10 looks pricey at list but relatively strong residual values should deliver competitive monthly finance.

The i10 Premium’s roster of standard equipment is impressive, too. Sure, you get those stylish 16in alloys, but you also gain heated front seats, an impressive level of semiautonomous driver aids and an 8.0in touchscreen infotainment suite with DAB radio, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto connectivity.

Two-tone paintwork like our test car’s is £500 extra, incidentally. That all said, the Up claws back a few points on the CO2 front: whereas the i10 emits 108g/km on the outgoing ‘NEDC-equivalent’ lab test, the VW is rated at 101g/km on like-for-like terms; and 0g/km if you opt for the pricier all-electric Volkswagen e-Up.

VERDICT

Hyundai i10 2020 road test review - static front

We probably shouldn’t be surprised that the third-generation Hyundai i10 is quite a different car from the one we grew to like so much a decade ago. The good news is that, in a great many ways, ‘different’ can simply be read as ‘better’.

If we acknowledge the amount of cabin space it affords, the assured driving experience it offers, the equipment and perceived quality it has, and the technological sophistication and safety features it brings, we can only conclude that the i10 has taken significant strides and now represents the very best and most well-rounded A-segment hatchback on sale.

The smallest Hyundai regains leadership of the city car class

This is a car whose appeal is constructed not quite like those of its predecessors, the peppy performance, spry handling and unassuming character of which have been replaced by distinguishing practicality and all-round completeness – and the greater confidence that comes with that.

The i10 has become a car that, you might say, is just a little bit harder to warm to, then, but it’s even easier to rate and to broadly recommend than its predecessors. It’s a very grown-up small car with plenty of big-car features – and still yours for a pretty small sum.

Richard Lane

Richard Lane
Title: Deputy road test editor

Richard joined Autocar in 2017, arriving from Evo magazine, and is typically found either behind a keyboard or steering wheel.

As deputy road test editor he delivers in-depth road tests, performance benchmarking and supercar lap-times, plus feature-length comparison stories between rival cars. He can also be found on Autocar's YouTube channel

Mostly interested in how cars feel on the road – the sensations and emotions they can evoke – Richard drives around 150 newly launched makes and models every year, and focuses mainly on the more driver-orientated products, as is tradition at Autocar. His job is then to put the reader firmly in the driver's seat. 

Away from work, but remaining on the subject of cars, Richard owns an eight-valve Integrale, loves watching sportscar racing, and holds a post-grad in transport engineering. 

Hyundai i10 First drives