Hyundai ix35 a major leap forward

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Hyundai's iX35 has a definite sense of personality. Photos by Richard Bosselman.

So maybe you've heard about the trendy new German soft-roader that's just launched in New Zealand. Clue: It's not the new BMW X1, as featured in last weekend's Drivesouth.

The car I'm referring to is German-designed ... and Korean, the Hyundai ix35.

You're looking at another fine example of work from Hyundai's studio in Russelsheim. You're also looking at a major leap forward, a car that delivers a genuine level of special-K cool.

The slippery shape - the most dramatic evolution yet of the brand's "Fluidic Sculpture'' design language - will create initial excitement. But the impression is that this car presents an excellent example of the new kind of thinking that's transforming Hyundai on more than just visual appeal.

In addition to dramatic design, it also delivers an advanced auto-diesel powertrain that will rattle the competition. And there's more. The launch event in Taupo, which took us to swank Poronui Station, was my second run in the car, having been preceded by a sneak preview in Auckland, and simply confirmed my initial view that this is something special.

For one, it delivers a definite sense of personality some might say has been lacking previous efforts. For another, there's a level of quality and finish that even Munich would be proud to call its own.

All of this will help the Korean maker take on the big players in the compact four-wheel-drive market, which ranges from the Toyota RAV4 to the Volkswagen Tiguan.

National sales manager Tom Ruddenklau says Hyundai New Zealand has also tried to have a balanced sales mix.

"We try not to be dependent on one sector.''

And yet, he concedes, the ix35 and larger Santa Fe will together likely command a huge slice of sales in 2010. In all probability, ix35 could be the company's top Kiwi seller this year.

The ix35 is smaller than the outgoing Tucson - at 4410mm stem to stern it is 85mm shorter, while the overall height of 1655mm represents a similar reduction. It's also 16mm closer to the ground, with clearance of 170mm. Not super-brilliant for off-roading, but who are we kidding with this kind of car?

The size reductions aren't noticed within, because importantly, the wheelbase has increased by 10mm to 2640mm and the interior redesign liberates more passenger and luggage space.

The raked line of the rear window might restrict the view out for children, but adults will find plenty of room for head, legs and toes. Boot space is decent, with capacity of up to 1353 litres available when the rear seat is folded flat, and the low-loading lip is going to win over dog-owners.

Interior quality has stepped up hugely. The multifunction leather steering wheel feels good, and a lot of the switchgear is made from soft-touch plastic. The sole black mark is the lack of reach adjustability for the steering.

The ix35's cabin differs subtly between the trim levels available, with engines, seat material and features the key distinguishing points. Elite tools up with leather, full electrics, climate control air plus smart alloys. And this, of course, is on top of the usual frills standard to all new Hyundai cars now, such as full iPod and USB integration. Storage options are plentiful, including a deep console bin, multiple cupholders and a good-sized glovebox.

All versions are well-stocked with safety gear and Elite also has a hill-hold feature to assist with hill starts, plus a hill descent control system. The all-wheel drive is an on-demand system.

Three engines are on offer; one - the 2.0-litre R-series turbo diesel - stands out from the moment you press the starter button. A smaller version of the Santa Fe's punchy 2.2-litre, it also employs a Bosch common-rail system and features an exhaust gas recirculation system as well as a traditional particulate filter.

Power is just 10kW short of the Santa Fe's, but torque is substantially reduced, by 44Nm, though it is presented between just 1800 and 2500rpm. Perhaps this reduction in muscle is why the tow rating is a somewhat lightweight - 1600kg with a braked trailer.

This is an enjoyable engine to sit behind but the transmission has a guaranteed grin rating, too. Claimed to be the world's smallest and lightest six-speed auto box, it's a smooth operator and very flexible. How soon before the i30 diesel hatch takes it?

Hyundai calls this a premium engine and the only catch is that it has a price to match. The oiler carries a $5000 loading over the alternate 2.4-litre petrol at Elite level, and a fully-loaded Elite CRDi costs $1000 more than the larger Santa Fe in its entry petrol five-seater version.

Hyundai ix35 a major leap forward
At a Glance

HYUNDAI ix35

Prices: $39,990 (2.0-litre front-drive automatic) to $53,990 (2.0R CRDi Elite auto).

Engines: 1998cc Theta II fuel-injected CVVT petrol four-cylinder, max power 122kW@6200rpm, max torque 197Nm@4600rpm; 2359cc Theta II fuel-injected CVVT four-cylinder, max power 130kW@6000rpm, max torque 227Nm@4000rpm; 1995cc R-series four-cylinder turbodiesel, max power 135kW@4000rpm, max torque 392Nm@1800-2500rpm.

Transmission: Six-speed automatic with sport shift, front/four-wheel drive.

Brakes and stability systems: Disc brakes, ABS, EBD, BAS, ESP.

Wheels, tyres: Alloy rims and 225/60 R17.

Fuel and economy: 2.0-litre Theta 8.5 litres per 100km (on Australian combined cycle), 2.4-litre 9.0L/100km, 2.0-litre R turbo-diesel 7.5L/100km, capacity 55 litres.

Dimensions: Length 4410mm, width 1820mm, height 1655mm.