By on November 19, 2010

Hyundai seems fearless. Its venture above $30,000 with the Genesis wasn’t a rousing success, yet two short years later they’re doubling down with a $65,000 flagship. But there is one car they dare not offer here, from the opposite end of the line: the diminutive i10. So, what are we missing?

B-segment cars like the Fiesta, Fit, and Versa have been exploring the lower limits in the 21st-century American market. But once upon a time truly small cars like the Chevrolet Sprint and Ford Festiva were offered here. The i10’s 140-inch length (20 inches shorter than the Accent) and 63-inch width (3 inches narrower) put it within an inch of the Festiva. The i10’s 2,000-pound curb weight is a couple hundred above the Festiva’s, but modern NVH and safety standards have done much worse to a car. The biggest change from the city cars of yesteryear: the i10’s 61-inch height. The Festiva appeared disproportionately tall back in the day, but the i10 is a substantial half-foot taller.

Venture over to Hyundai’s UK website, and you’ll find a car that’s almost appealing from the side and rear quarter. But the freshened 2011 i10 (now with the new corporate hexagonal grille!) was brought to a U.S. media event to show off a new engine. So no one bothered to bless the tested car with a flattering shade of paint or stylish alloy wheels. With its monumentally tall bodysides, body-color pillars, and tiny wheels, the i10 can’t pull off bright red any more than a standard colonial house can pull off lavender trim. The hubcaps do the car no favors, either. So attired, the i10 screams “penalty box.”

The interior is a happier place, with fluid styling, red accents, and materials of decent quality. (Sure, the interior panels are all hard plastic, but what did you expect for a car that would list below $10,000 here?) The i10’s unusual height translates into seats mounted comfortably high off the floor and plentiful headroom. Because the seats are mounted high, and wheel wells sized for 14s don’t intrude, there’s sufficient legroom for adults in both rows despite the i10’s brief 94-inch wheelbase. It helps that, unlike in the Equus flagship, there’s plenty of room for the rear passengers’ feet beneath the front seats. The much lengthier Ford Fiesta and Mazda2 are considerably more cramped inside. Not that all is perfect within the i10: the rear seat is flat, thinly padded, and, like the third row in some SUVs, tops off a few inches short of shoulder height. Behind the rear seat there’s enough cargo space for the grocery store. Fold the rear seats and runs to CostCo aren’t out of the question. Given the space Hyundai’s engineers had to work with, they carved out a surprisingly functional interior. As Sir Alec demonstrated a half-century ago, it’s possible to provide a surprising amount of room inside a tiny car if the machine is kept to a minimum.

The numbers that excite potential i10 buyers emerge from the test lab, not the test track. The 2010 i10’s base engine, a 1.1-liter four, wasn’t competitive in terms of fuel economy or CO2 emissions. An upcoming 429-horsepower 5.0-liter V8 notwithstanding, Hyundai is intently focused on improving its green rep. So the company developed an all-new three-cylinder as part of its “kappa” engine family. Variable induction and variable valve timing on both cams wring 69 horsepower (at 6,200 rpm) and 69 foot-pounds of torque (at 3,500) out of 1.0 liter. And the key achievements: a 17 percent improvement in fuel efficiency (55 MPG in European testing) and CO2 emissions of 99 grams per kilometer (apparently nudging under 100 is a big deal across the pond). One trick: come to a stop, place the transmission into neutral, and release the clutch, and the engine shuts off. Depress the clutch, and the three automatically restarts.

Given the inherent imbalance of a three-cylinder engine, and the absence of inefficient balance shafts, I expected the kappa to feel rough. But, partly because the crankshaft is offset, it doesn’t. The engine does, however, produce an unseemly amount of noise when revved, discouraging runs to the redline. Given the modest power output—equivalent to 120 horsepower in a 3,500-pound sedan—acceleration is unsurprisingly tepid, though not unbearably so. For these seeking a little more power, a 79-horsepower 1.2-liter four is also offered. Still not enough? Hyundai plans to turbocharge both engines, with the turbo 1.2 slated to receive the additional benefit of direct injection.

If these engines are offered in the i10—they might be destined for larger cars—the resulting 110-140 horsepower would be…interesting. It’s not clear that the i10 could handle so much power. In the U.S. vehicle market, the nearly 1:1 ratio between the small Hyundai’s height and width is only approached by the clumsiest SUVs…and the smart fortwo. So the i10’s generous body roll in turns and tippy feel above 40 miles-per-hour also comes as no surprise. One size class up, the lower, wider Mazda2 handles far better. Approach highway speeds in the i10 and wind, road, and engine noise become intrusive—especially the first. This said, the i10 does ride smoother and feel far more solid than the Sprint and Festiva of yore. It doesn’t feel cheap, just sluggish and tippy.

Coors beer seemed special when you had to make an illegal high-speed run across multiple state lines to get it. Likewise, it’s always scintillating to drive a class of car we can’t get here. The A-segment Hyundai offers an impressive amount of interior space given its tiny footprint, and the new three-cylinder engine is smooth enough and perhaps even powerful enough for American consumption. But the i10’s handling and high (by current standards) noise levels render it a city car. Even in congested, tax-happy Europe such cars capture only 10 to 12 percent of the market. And, compared to the next Accent, the i10’s exterior appearance is downright dorky, projecting the very image Hyundai has been striving to bury. So, unless gas prices surge well over $4 a gallon, and perhaps not even then, the i10 won’t be threatening the dignity of the Equus inside U.S. showrooms.

Hyundai made this vehicle available at a ride-and-drive event.

Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive reliability and pricing data

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51 Comments on “Review: Hyundai i10...”

  • avatar

    Given Hyundai’s (and Kia’s) recent improvement in looks and powertrains I would take a Rio5 (or whatever it is) over this. Then again it doesn’t sound like they compete anyway. So I guess people can take my comments with a grain of salt.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    Michael, Thanks for reviewing a car (and its predecessors) I have seen abroad both in Mexico and Europe. This is basic transportation in many parts of the world, and the level of room, performance and efficiency is quite impressive,considering the price. I regret that our market doesn’t seem to support this being sold here.
    But then, this is the basis of Hyndai’s EV car (if I remember correctly), so maybe we’ll get that here.

    • 0 avatar

      Hi Michael and Paul,

      Here in Brazil we don’t get this car, though we get its siamese twin (I’m guessing), the Kia Picanto. It seems to be selling relatively well, I meaqn they sell in the volume they import, but its sure not mass market. Here the car suffers from 2 problems, people with little money shy away from imported cars due to fears of high cost replacement parts (and they are right in doing so) and the trunk is too small. The Gol, the Palio which would be a hair longer than this car and just a tad wider manage trunks that are double in size. SO, as this car here in Brazil competes as a “family” car it isn’t really competitive. Cars like the Palio et al have a market share of 50%.

      Its strong point is that with the 1.1 engine it comes with an automatic. This makes it the smallest car with this kind of transmission in Brazil. SO together with the slightly high price, I guess it works as a kind of image car as I see it driven mostly by young stylish women.

      Hyundai supposedly is working on a specific car to compete in this segment in Brazil. It might also be Hyundai’s first production car in Hyundai yet to be innaugurated Brazilian factory. It wo’nt be as tall as this one, and if the Koreans study the market well, the trunk will also be bigger. It will have a sleeker look. And, if the price is right, will shake the market to its bones.

  • avatar

    while I likely wouldn’t buy one, if it was all I could afford, I probably wouldn’t be crying myself to sleep.
    Maybe it’s the red interior.

  • avatar

    Reminds me of the first gen Honda Insight. 1.0L L3 SOHC with vtec-e, 67 hp. Honda’s three uses pulses from the integrated motor to balance the engine. Rated at 80g/km with the five speed, albeit while punching a much smaller hole in the air.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    The intake manifold is front-mounted, a la the Honda K-series.

  • avatar

    Looks a bit like an Echo hatchback (Canada only model). Not a horrible looking car. I imagine they could sell some in the U.S. But probably not enough to justify meeting U.S. standards. I thought at first that the speedometer had been changed to imperial even though it’s just a test vehicle, but then I realized it says km/h.

  • avatar

    I think this is the Getz in PI. Never looked at one.

  • avatar

    Given the $10k base price for an Accent, I don’t see a spot in the lineup for this.

  • avatar
    Uncle Mellow

    Reviews of the i10 have been extremely positive in the UK, and it has sold well, thanks to the scrappage schemes. It is probably the best car in its’ class. I don’t care for it because it is just too narrow – I would rather buy a s/hand car from the class above than a new one of these.

  • avatar
    Ian Anderson

    Oh my word it’s a modern Geo Metro! Three/four pot and all. I could see Hyundai trying to market some of these for $9K or so the next time gas prices jump. If people will pay $7K for a Geo Metro… Who knows, it could work!

  • avatar
    Mark MacInnis

    These are the kind of cars Pelosi, Reid and Obama want all of us to drive, to save the world and make us less dependent on their friends who sell us oil.

    Not that any of THEM or THEIR families will ever, ever be caught dead in one of these, mind you.  No sir, no ma’am no effing way.  But for us peasants…just fine, or so THEY think….

    Thanks but no thanks.  You can keep my gun and my keys to my Jeep once you pry them out of my cold, dead hand….and when you do, my other hand will still be frozen in a rigor-mortis induced one-finger salute to Obama, Reid and Pelosi….

  • avatar

    This car is actually one of the best in its class.
    Roomy, nice price and nice interior are the main strengths.
    Not suited for high speeds though.

  • avatar

    The i10 should be manufactured in Alabama and become the new government employee automobile. 

  • avatar

    These cars are made in India for the 3rd world market.

    The i20 and Suzuki Altos are not really suitable for western markets.
    The i30 is an appropriate size for Westerners who do not generally lack parking nor have the repressive registration or road taxes that some places have.
    Why would you ever drive a car this small if you didn’t have to?

  • avatar

    There is a certain ugliness with this car, due to its proportions. OK, it is tiny, it has tiny wheels, but that is no excuse for ugliness.
    That’s why I try to avoid “ever be caught dead in one of these”. It is simply “too narrow”, as has been mentioned above. Thank God, there are better, more comfortable (not so narrow) options to prepare for such an event,  even being on a budget.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Scooter or i10?  For me scooter, but if it is all you can afford and really want a good new car… It isn’t the most horrid little thing ever foisted on a buyer.  It would be comical to see this in a showroom though next to the Eqquis (sp?)

  • avatar

    Having owned both a Ford Festiva and a Geo Metro at one time or another (both from new), I’d love to have a chance to drive one of these.  And yes, I’d be one of those who’d consider owning one.  It sure beats putting on the rain suit and climbing on the Triumph to get to work on a wet morning.

  • avatar

    This is Brian with Media Needle…Hyundai ceases to impress me. I thought your readers might appreciate this video comparing the Bentley with the Equus. It’s pretty funny and does a good job comparing the two cars’ levels of luxury.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    Is that Baruth’s house with the lavender trim?

  • avatar

    Hyundai needs to do a CVT or dual clutch catch-up.

  • avatar

    Wait. Is Hyundai putting the 5.0 in this? Now that would be a car…
    Loveland pass, Denver junkyards, Coors beer. This site is going to send me back to Colorado I swear!

  • avatar

    A man can dream, though. A man can dream…

  • avatar

    Widen the track, lower the roof, remove 2 doors, add a healthy dose of sexiness (and $5000), and viola` – a Fiat 500.

  • avatar

    Not so pretty in red, but works on the interior.  Decent enough mid 90’s type Geo Metro with great gas mileage.  And I have to agree, none of our “leaders” would be caught dead in this thing.  A true polished turd I am sorry to sound that way.

    This, and the Metro, from personal experience are not safe to drive in frantic LA traffic unfortunately.  Need stability and decent handling to weave through our road insanity.

  • avatar

    My guess is it wouldn’t do as well here in the Iowa snow as one of those clumsy SUVs.

  • avatar

    I enjoyed the review. I think the i10 is kind of cute, but for some reason I am craving cherry gumdrops.

  • avatar

    I saw this or one like it in Louisville about a year ago. Reminds me a little of my old Honda Z600. Less is more, I’d at least test drive one.
    How about the lavender trim on that house!

  • avatar

    College campuses will be awash in these things.

  • avatar

    I believe with $4/gallon gas, these would sell in the US.  A few more HP and decent handling would go a long way.  It looks good for it’s size.

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