Johannesburg - Like craft beer and artisanal food, it’s become the crowd-enticing trend.
Take a hatchback, give it some plastic body ‘armour’ and raise the suspension and voila - you have yourself a pseudo adventure vehicle. Not quite an SUV, but let’s call it a hatchback in hiking boots.
Renault did it with the Sandero Stepway, and VW with the Polo Vivo Maxx - to mention a couple - and now Hyundai’s done it with its i20 Active.
It’s based on the i20 compact hatch but in Active form it’s butched up with SUV-style roof rails and plastic front and rear skidplates. To make it stand out even more, the front bumper and grille are styled differently to the rest of the recently-facelifted i20 range.
Inside, the Active gets a splash of extravagance with red or blue colour trim (depending on the exterior body colour) on the seats, dashboard and gearshift.
Though it’s front wheel driven like the rest of the i20 line up and has minimal offroading aspirations, the new 1.4 Active gets a raised ride height (from 150mm to 170mm) to give it better ground clearance on gravel.
It’s the new flagship of the updated i20 range and is available in a single 1.4-litre, six-speed manual model selling for R279 990, which includes Hyundai’s five-year/150 000km warranty and three-year/60 000km service plan.
The Active gets the i20’s familiar 1.4-litre petrol engine with outputs of 74kW and 133Nm, paired with a five-speed manual gearbox.
In all i20 models the infotainment has been upgraded to a large screen system with Bluetooth and USB music connection, while navigation can be ordered as an optional extra. All versions also come standard with keyless entry, driver and passenger airbags, ABS brakes, aircon, and front electric windows.
The top-specced Active replaces manual aircon with automatic climate control, swops steel wheels for 16” alloy versions, and throws extra features like automatic headlamps, LED daytime running lights, rear electric windows, a centre armrest, and rear park assist into the mix.
I like the new touchscreen infotainment with its large and simple-to-use icons. Apart from Bluetooth smartphone-pairing, the car comes with AUX and USB connectors for your music.
The cabin is smartly finished and the contrasting colours give the black interior an appealing splash of colour. It’s also reasonably roomy for a compact car, with adults able to fit into the rear seats without requiring specialised yoga skills. The 285 litre boot is a useful size and expands to a cavernous 1 001 litres with the rear seatbacks folded down.
The car has perkier performance than you’d expect from a humble normally-aspirated 1.4. It scoots about the suburbs with no fireworks but no sluggishness either, and also finds a happy place on the freeways where it quite easily cruises at the 120km/* speed limit - and will max out at 182km/h according to Hyundai.
It’s unthirsty too, with our test car averaging 6.7 litres per 100km.
Hyundai’s compact hatch impressed me with its soft-spoken refinement too. The smooth-running engine never gets noisy or buzzy even when revved hard, and the lack of wind noise and general feel of rattle-free solidity gives the car a grown-up vibe.
The gear shifter is light and slick, but less impressive is the electric power steering which is hesitant to self-centre and requires small corrections to keep the car going in a straight line. It’s a somewhat annoying trait we’ve also experienced in other Hyundais, including the Creta.
The slightly raised ride height doesn’t notably affect the cornering agility, for those who might fear that the extra 20mm might have turned the car into something that handles like a pudding. This is very much still a car-like driving experience, with nimble road manners.
The ride is quite comfortable too, and while this Hyundai isn’t realistically intended for dirt adventures, it does come fitted with gravel-friendly high-profile 195/55 tyres.
The i20 Active is a pleasant little ‘adventure hatch’ with good refinement, eye-catching looks and a bit more pace than its humble engine suggests. But it’s also quite expensive, with an asking price that’s similar to more powerful rivals (see comparison table).