Hyundai i20 1.4 Active: More bark than bite

Hyundai i20 1.4 Active: More bark than bite

Everyone wants an SUV — but not everyone can afford one. Hyundai’s answer is to dress up its newly facelifted i20 subcompact hatch in rugged-look apparel to create an SUV-style image. In this case, however, there’s more off-road bark than bite...

The world has gone SUV mad. A formula that should essentially define a large all-terrain vehicle with four-wheel drive is being wrapped around anything from compact runabouts to sporty coupés.

It seems as if a slightly taller ground clearance, some body cladding and a set of roof rails have become the only requirements to qualify for SUV status. But the truth is that most of these so-called SUVs are little more than conventional cars dressed up in SUV gear.

The Hyundai i20 Active is a good case in point. It’s the new flagship of a freshly updated subcompact hatchback family.

The i20 has been a top seller in a tough market without any need for go-anywhere fancy dress. But that hasn’t stopped Hyundai from replacing the previous Sport model with the newly introduced Active.

It’s called following market trends, I suppose: if the customer base wants something that looks the all-terrain part, it’s wise to meet that demand, or lose the customer to the competition.

In this case, that competition primarily consists of Volkswagen’s Polo Vivo Maxx, and the Toyota Yaris Cross. But you could also include other compact crossovers, such as the Renault Captur, Ford’s EcoSport and the Toyota Etios Cross in this discussion.

So, let’s look at what the i20 Active brings to the make-believe SUV party — and why buyers would want to spend an extra R13,000 to own it, compared to the similarly powered and equipped i20 1.4 Fluid.

In visual terms, the Active is distinctively different from its more conventional urban runabout siblings. The main differences are upfront, where a plainer, gaping grille is partly obscured by a mock scuff plate and nudge bar.

At least the prominent roof rails have a practical purpose: they make the fitment of accessories such as bike carriers or luggage boxes easier. But they also contribute to that all-important SUV-look.

Put the Active model next to an i20 Fluid and you’ll notice the former’s taller stance. At 170mm, it’s only 20mm higher than the Fluid, but it does suggest some mild all-terrain talent, even if that’s limited to coping with pesky middelmannetjies on farm roads, or clearing slightly rockier terrain.

The wheels are handsomely styled 16-inchers, shod with resolutely road-biased, low-profile rubber: further proof that one shouldn’t venture too far off the beaten track in the Active.

The rear echoes the front’s silver scuff plate theme as part of the rear bumper, which also includes rounded recesses for the rear fog lamps. And there’s a rooftop spoiler to add a touch of zip to the otherwise rugged look.

To be honest, the result is more cohesive than one would expect, and the Active certainly exudes a great outdoors image. However, the unadorned Fluid 1.4, with its sculpted grille and cleaner, sharper lines just looks so much fresher — and more convincing.

The interior is where the Active shines brightest, however. Like the rest of the updated i20 range, the cockpit gets a new dashboard and centre stack, complete with a 7-inch touchscreen display.

The display acts as a user-friendly interface for the car’s infotainment system, which includes four-speaker audio, an FM/AM tuner, Bluetooth telephony and music streaming, and the option of satnav for the investment of an additional R2,500.

USB and analogue auxiliary sockets allow wired connections to smart devices and audio players. The instrument binnacle combines pleasingly legible dials for speed and rev count with a digital trip computer.

There is also a multifunction steering wheel that provides convenient controls for the audio system and hands-free cellphone calls, and also affords access to the trip computer’s scrollable information set.

Unique to the Active model are bright-coloured inserts around the air vents, while the same hue is also repeated on the seat bolsters. The effect is bright and cheery in an otherwise monochromatic space.

Also admirable is the sense of quality exuded by the cabin – despite the vast expanses of plastic, there’s nothing cheap or nasty about it, and the smoothly contoured shapes contribute to an overall aura of spaciousness often lacking in smaller hatchbacks.

Leg and headroom for rear passengers is decent, given the compact dimensions of the i20 Active, and the boot will swallow a useful 285 litres of luggage, despite the laudable presence of a full-sized spare wheel under the cargo floor.

Need more cargo space? The split rear seatback folds down, expanding luggage capacity to 1,001 litres.

In all, the cabin is a pleasing, functional place to spend time in. Given its flagship status, the Active also gets all the nice bits: auto aircon, electric windows and mirrors, remote central locking, and plenty of cupholders and other stowage spaces.

Also included are dual front airbags plus seatbelts with pre-tensioners and load limiters, while the ABS anti-lock brakes employ discs both front and rear – another welcome feature in a category where rear drums remain prevalent.

Notable omissions are any form of stability or traction control, which might have proven useful for those who do venture off the beaten track. And there’s no cruise control, which is not only convenient over long distances, but a fuel saver, too.

The Active gets its urge from a 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol mill powering the front wheels only. Maximum power output comes to 74kW, coupled to a torque peak of 133Nm at fairly steep 3,500 r/min.

It’s a willing little engine, but one that needs to be exercised throughout the rev band to show off its best. At least the six-speed manual gearbox does a good job of harnessing the power plant’s urge.

Even so, the Active doesn’t feel as snappy as the performance figures suggest. Yes, it gets off the mark eagerly enough, but at Reef altitudes, the sub-12 sec 0-100 km/h sprint time is optimistic.

By the same token, in-gear tractability feels lethargic, so be prepared to use the gearbox often — which isn’t a bad thing, given its quick and positive shift action.

Let’s not forget that the i20 Active isn’t meant to be a pocket rocket, though: instead, it should be considered a versatile runabout, more likely to spend its time in the urban jungle than on the open road, with the exception of weekend countryside jaunts.

It’s a role the little Hyundai performs well enough: ride comfort is good for a small car, and not compromised by the increased ride height, while the handling is secure and predictable. The steering is light and could do with more feedback, but it suits the Active’s easy-to-drive character, and benefits manoeuvrability.

The suspension updates, introduced across the refreshed i20 range, become more apparent when you swap tar for gravel. Despite those low-profile road tyres, the Active feels sure-footed and predictable, easily soaking up rougher sections, and riding bumps and dips with confidence.

In that sense, the Hyundai does vindicate its semi-SUV image. But you’d be silly to expect it to do more than tackle the occasional dirt road.

Put it this way: if compact SUV-style motoring grabs you, there are more convincing examples of the all-terrain art. Specifically, the new Renault Duster is more spacious, more rugged and, depending on model, better equipped for similar money.

But here’s the real question: are those semi-rugged cosmetics and extra ride height really worth the extra outlay over the more conventional i20 Fluid? The latter looks tidier, is a few kilograms lighter, and costs a whole R13,000 less.

Clearly, the fascination with SUVs will ensure that the new Hyundai i20 1.4 Active finds a steady stream of buyers who value that SUV image enough to pay the premium. But the smart money is on its less pretentious, ultimately more convincing and equally well equipped 1.4 Fluid stablemate. DM


Fresher aesthetics linked to softroader attitude make for an attention-grabbing package.


Despite the image, this is still very much an on-tar urban runabout. Fluid model is the better buy.

Hyundai i20 1.4 Active

Vital stats


In-line four-cylinder, 1,368cc, DOHC


74kW @ 6,000rpm


133Nm @ 3,500rpm

Power-to-weight ratio

71.57 kW/ton


Six-speed manual, FWD


16-inch alloy, 195/55 R16 tyres

0-100 km/h


Top speed


Fuel tank capacity

40 litres

Consumption (claimed)

6.7 litres/100km

Range (claimed)


CO2 emissions

155 g/km

Retail price



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