Rumours of the demise of the Hyundai i45 in New Zealand have been greatly exaggerated. Last month, Hyundai Australia announced it was dropping the i45 sedan to concentrate solely on the i40 sedan.
Last week Hyundai New Zealand also gathered the motoring media to launch the i40 sedan, leading to speculation that it, too, would eventually phase out the i45. In truth, we motoring writers might have fuelled those rumours, for the i45 has never been a favourite.
While most of the Hyundai range has progressed rapidly towards sharp styling and driver involvement, the i45 has always been more about chrome and ride comfort - especially compared with the i40, which was launched here last year in wagon form only.
There are no such plans, says Hyundai New Zealand general manager Andy Sinclair: "The reality is that Australia wanted guaranteed production of 6000 cars this year and the Korean factory could not promise that, so they've gone i40-only. Obviously we don't need 6000 i45s, so we will continue with the car."
What's the difference anyway? The i45 was designed primarily for the Asian and American markets, which means more ornate styling, a gentler driving character, petrol-only powertrains and no wagon body.
The i40 was designed in and for Europe: it's less flamboyant looking, geared more towards roads with corners and offers the option of diesel engines, plus both sedan and wagon bodies. The diesel/wagon combo is why the i40 was launched in New Zealand as a wagon last year.
Usually, i45 and i40 would never meet: New Zealand is one of the few global markets that sells both, because they are essentially part of the same mid-size market segment. However, the i45 is slightly larger: 80mm longer, an extra 25mm in the wheelbase and a boot that's 18 litres larger.
If the i45 is so popular, why offer the i40 sedan at all? After all, the medium market is shrinking: from 8213 cars in 2010 to 7714 last year. The segment's share of the total passenger-car range is falling, too: 13.3 to 10.1 per cent in the same period.
However, Hyundai sees value in having a diesel/economy alternative in the market: in fact, the i40 is only being sold in diesel form here, to minimise competition with the i45. Although diesel is only 10 per cent of the medium segment, it's offered by the top-selling Ford Mondeo and will be part of the new Mazda6 range this year (the current model was number three last year). The Toyota Camry (number two) is not available as a diesel, but does offer a hybrid.
I suspect Hyundai also sees substantial brand value in having a true driver's car in the segment: both Mondeo and Mazda6 are known and admired for their sporty demeanour.
Driving i40 and i45 back-to-back emphasises the difference in character. The i45 is brisk, with its 148kW/250Nm 2.4-litre petrol engine (there's also a base 2-litre model), but the steering is extremely light and body control suffers in bumpy corners. This is despite suspension changes by Hyundai Australia, kindly completed just before they discontinued the model. Other changes include a new grille, alloys and tail lights.
The i40 feels taut, with accurate steering and an agile chassis, although its 100kW/320Nm 1.7-litre turbo diesel can run out of puff on uphill stretches or during overtaking.
The i40 sedan line-up mirrors the wagon: the entry model is $46,990, while the Elite is $51,990. Both are $2000 cheaper than their wagon equivalents. There are no changes to i45 pricing, from $42,990 for the base 2-litre to $52,990 for the Elite Limited.
Hyundai is also the first brand in New Zealand to offer satellite navigation compatible with the Suna traffic system. Suna collects and analyses traffic flow data from road authorities and motorway management systems in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. It communicates with compatible sat-nav devices to monitor routes and redirect motorists to avoid heavy traffic areas and accidents.
Suna was launched here last year and is compatible with selected devices from Magellan, Navman and Garmin. But Hyundai is the first car brand to have it operating as part of an integrated factory-fit sat-nav.
Suna sat-nav will be standard on all Veloster models from next month and the forthcoming Santa Fe Elite. It's an option on i30, ix35 and i40 (pricing still to be announced).
That's another thing the i40 has over its i45 sibling: due to differences in the hardware used for each model, sat-nav mapping is not currently available for the i45 in New Zealand.
Suna won't be a Hyundai exclusive for long, concedes Sinclair: "I know for a fact that other brands are currently in negotiation, so everybody will have it soon.
"But it's still nice to be able to say you had it first."
Latest of a proud line
Like the i30 hatchback, Hyundai's new i30 wagon was designed in Europe. However, unlike the hatch, the little load-carrier is built there.
The i30 comes from Hyundai's new plant in the Czech Republic, which produces more than 300,000 vehicles a year. The i30 wagon is the first Kiwi-market model to come from the factory, which also manufactures ix20 and ix35.
The small-car segment is over a quarter of passenger-car sales in New Zealand and wagons of this size have a small but dedicated following, particularly among small-business owners. Hyundai has a proud history in the segment, dating to the popular Lantra wagon of the 1990s.
The i30 wagon rides on the same wheelbase as the hatch but is 185mm longer, with a 150-litre increase in luggage space (528/1642 litres seats up/down). Hyundai has always had the knack of making its small wagons look as good as (perhaps better than) their hatchback equivalents and that's certainly the case here. However, there is some opportunity lost with the new wagon: while the 1.6-litre diesel engine is carried over, the petrol version is also powered by a 1.6-litre (the petrol hatch has a 1.8-litre motor).
There's a $2000 premium for the wagon, with prices ranging from $36,490 to $41,990. Perhaps reflecting its more functional status, there is no Elite version of the wagon offered. At least not yet.