Do it the ‘i' way

An out-of-town joyride with this tiny wonder yields lots of surprises. As Paulo Rafael T. Subido discovers, ‘small' doesn't have to equate with ‘less'
Jan 29, 2009

"IT'S SUPPOSED to be an inexpensive car," we imagine the product developers saying. "So, let's go with two less speakers, ditch the power windows, use cheap interior plastics, and fit budget components for the underchassis bits. Oh, and while we're at it, let's slap on a cheap stereo head unit. That's what the buyers want, right?"

Wrong. Given the trend toward smaller cars these days, manufacturers can no longer get away with fitting substandard goods into their budget cars.

A few years ago, expecting quality from such a small car was a bit of a stretch, but with today's consumers being a bit more discerning, it would almost be impossible to get away with shortcuts in the build department. A lot is expected by car buyers, and wanting value-for-money is no excuse for being given less than what you actually pay for.

This is where Hyundai's i10 - the smallest car in the Korean carmaker's ‘i' range - comes in. It may fall under the ‘budget mini' category, but nothing about it feels cheap. It shares the same solid platform of the Kia Picanto - a pioneer in the trend toward quality mini compacts - as well as a few swoops and curves in the bodywork, but the i10 takes it up a notch, styling- and convenience-wise. In reality, the i10 breaks the mold when it comes to so-called budget cars. The exterior is already a giveaway for this as the gaps between body panels are minimal, and the doors close with a reassuring thud. Traits like these are sometimes taken for granted when looking at bigger cars, but in this price range, they are the first things that are noticed - at least by the shrewd car buyer.

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The i10's looks are very eye-catching, far from what we have come to expect from cars of this size. In fact, this car wouldn't look out of place on the streets of Paris, where minis have always been the rage. Obviously tailored to European tastes, the i10 is without a doubt the most attractive mini hatchback contender in the country, and it has the build quality that belongs to automobiles twice its size. The colors to choose from are also very hip and fun - sure to appeal to yuppie sensibilities.

Does it come as a surprise that the i10 is manufactured in India? According to news editor Jason Ang, the country is quickly gaining a reputation for being a low-cost manufacturing hub, and if the i10 is proof of India's abilities, then we have nothing to worry about. Hyundai is so confident that it even backs up the i10 with a five-year warranty.

Step inside and you know that those folks at Hyundai aren't joking about their promise to deliver a well-built personal transport. Not a single interior panel is out of place, and even the plastics that were chosen have pleasant textures to them. The same goes for the seat fabric. Power windows are available with the variant that you see here, and in the slot where you expect a no-name stereo to be found is a premium head unit from JVC - complete with an iPod interface, not just an auxiliary jack.

Once you're strapped in the driver's seat, you'll realize that there seems to be a surplus of room, even for the rear passengers. This is because the layout of the interior has plenty of air thanks to some very nifty space-saving tricks. The shift lever is located at the bottom half of the dash, and as is usually the case with mini compacts, the wheels are pushed to the farthest corners of the chassis. Handling is made even better because of this.

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On a drive from Manila to Anvaya Cove in Morong, Bataan, this charming automobile displayed a certain poise that could fool the driver into thinking he was driving a much larger machine. Once our convoy reached the winding and wet roads of Subic, the road-hugging capabilities of the i10 became apparent. As we tossed it through the slick corners, not once did we feel any instability - a mark of a well-balanced car. Crashing through some rough sections didn't unsettle the chassis either, proof of its unshakable underpinnings. We listened hard for any shakes and rattles, but there were none to be heard.

When the road got tight and tricky, the properly weighted steering wheel offered adequate response and feel. Do note that the i10 utilizes electronic power steering as opposed to the more conventional hydraulic type that adds extra strain on the engine - thereby lessening fuel mileage. This innovation is also found on other Hyundai automobiles like the Accent and the recently launched i30. It is only a matter of time before other car manufacturers follow suit, especially as fuel prices continue to rise. Fuel-saving tricks go a long way in helping motorists optimize their car use.

At speed, the i10 was well planted, even as the speedometer read 140kph on the SCTEX. How is it possible that such a small car can feel so secure? The engineers at Hyundai are obviously on to something. But the i10 is meant to be an urban transport and not a cross-country touring car.

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Mileage figures when driving conservatively can reach well above 20 kilometers per liter. But when traveling long distances with passengers, this figure will drop, especially when you push past 120kph, which you shouldn't be doing anyway if you want to save on fuel. We're eager to find out if Hyundai will release a diesel version of the i10 any time soon.

Unfortunately, there are a few key features that are missing in the i10, and these include airbags and ABS. Of course, this won't be too much of a concern especially as the i10 is meant for city cruising and not high-speed runs through the country. The 1.1-liter, 65-horsepower engine is capable of accomplishing the latter, but that would be working it mercilessly hard, especially when tackling hilly terrain.

Tight, stylish, and a real pleasure to toss around, the i10 is Hyundai's answer to the cheap mini cars on the market. It is about time somebody injected some much-needed class into this growing segment.

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