Hyundai i45 worth a serious look

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The i45's rakish styling is evidence of Hyundai's increasing confidence as a carmaker.

David Thomson has been out and about in Hyundai's new i45 saloon, and answering questions along the way.

Should I replace my Honda Accord Euro with Hyundai's new i45? That is the question that came Drivesouth's way at a busy Central Otago service station, where both the Accord driver and I had stopped for fuel.

It was a good question to ask, and one which deserved more of an answer than I gave, being caught on the hop and feeling cold while a chilly northerly whistled through the forecourt.

The very fact that the i45 was noticed by a Honda owner, yet completely ignored by the driver of an older-model Hyundai refuelling alongside, demonstrates the way in which Hyundai's image is rapidly changing for the better.

The essence of that change is neatly captured by focusing on the evolution of the i45 and the two most recent versions of its upper-medium-sized saloon predecessor, the Sonata.

The pre-2005 fourth-generation Sonata was an adequate car, one which closed the dynamic gap on Japan's second-tier mid-sized saloons but suffered from quirky looks.

Its successor, though, took Hyundai completely mainstream, as a credible Korean equivalent to the likes of the Toyota Camry.

Now, as Hyundai roars up the global sales charts, the i45 displays an even greater level of confidence, captured most obviously in the car's rakish styling.

The work of 34-year-old Californian-based designer Andre Hudson, the i45's exterior lines are both dramatic and well-balanced, though with perhaps a little much brightwork around the nose for Kiwi tastes.

The coupe-like look highlights the i45's length; it is longer than all but one of its obvious rivals (the Ford Mondeo), and also features a long wheelbase with short front and rear overhangs.

That has given Hyundai's interior design team plenty of scope for delivering ample interior space.

Roomy up front, the cabin is even more impressive in the rear, which is easily accessed via large doors, and shows off fine legroom and surprisingly good headroom given the roof's swooping line.

Boot space, meantime, is a generous 523 litres.

Those who are wowed by the i45's exterior style should also be satisfied with the dynamic lines of the interior.

The fan-like curves of the centre console work a particular treat, and stylish lines are supported by high-quality materials and excellent fit and finish.

Hyundai supplied the $48,990 i45 Elite for test.

Though one step from the top of the i45 ladder, the Elite features leather upholstery, a power-adjusting driver's memory seat, climate air-conditioning, rain-sensing wipers, auto-lights, fog-lamps, cruise control, a premium CD sound system with iPod and USB connectivity, keyless entry and go, and a trip computer.

Front, side and curtain airbags, electronic stability control, and alloy wheels with 205/65 R18 tyres are also standard.

Bluetooth connectivity is one clear miss on the standard equipment list, but heated rear (as well as front) seats are a luxurious standard touch that one usually associates with cars carrying a six-figure tag.

Up front, the driving position is comfortable and forward and side visibility is good.

The major controls are straightforward to use and the key instruments easy to read.

Although Hyundai has been pushing its diesel power options of late, the i45 is offered in petrol guise only.

There is a fleet-friendly 2.0-litre option at entry level, but the Elite packs a 2.4-litre direct-injection punch instead.

Driving the front wheels via a paddle-shift-equipped six-speed automatic transmission, the 2.4 musters a class-competitive 148kW of power and 250Nm of torque.

Those peak outputs are produced relatively high in the rev-range, so while the engine is responsive enough from low revs on gentle throttle openings, it can feel caught a little short when required to work hard in the mid-range.

The best approach for snappy highway overtaking is to slip down one or two cogs with the paddle-shift, but the auto will invariably seek a higher gear again after a couple of seconds at high revs.

Sports-car dynamics are suggested by the i45's sleek lines, but perhaps due as much to its economy-focused tyres as its suspension tuning and size, the test car tended to lose front-end grip and understeer early under hard cornering.

This, and a lack of steering feel just off the straight-ahead, made it a less incisive and composed car to drive down a winding stretch of tarmac than the likes of a Mondeo, Mazda 6 or Accord Euro.

Back off a bit and focus on making smooth rather than hurried progress, and the i45 regains its balance nicely.

It also rides quite well on smoother highway and round-town surfaces, though smaller surface imperfections are not always gathered up neatly.

Coarse-chip road rumble is the greatest source of cabin noise but this aside, the i45 is commendably quiet as long as the engine is not being worked too hard.

Returning to that question posed in the service-station forecourt, quite where that leaves the i45 in the pecking order for mid-sized saloons depends very much on the qualities sought.

Certainly, if you value space and grace above poise and pace, the i45 is worth a very serious look.

Hyundai i45 worth a serious look
At a Glance
HYUNDAI I45 2.4 ELITE

For: Sleek looks, spacious and well-appointed cabin.

Against: Lack of low-end punch, and nose-heavy handling.

Verdict: No dynamic star, but a great mid-sized saloon in all other respects.

Price: $49,990.

Engine: 2359cc DOHC direct-injection four-cylinder petrol, max power 148kW@6300rpm, max torque 250Nm@4250rpm.

Transmission: Six-speed automatic.

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

Wheels, tyres: Alloy rims, 205/65 R18 tyres.

Fuel and economy: 7.9L/100km (on Australian combined cycle), capacity 70 litres.

Dimensions: Length 4820mm, width 1835mm, height 1475mm.