Ever since its inception, the Hyundai i20 has had a smooth run due to its stylish looks, feature-rich cabin and myriad trim levels to suit varying needs. Hyundai even gave it a mid-life update in March, 2012 to freshen up the appeal of its premium hatchback by giving it the carmaker's fluidic sculpture design treatment. Its rival, the Volkswagen Polo, has now also been updated and makes a compelling case for itself with typically understated styling, a premium-looking cabin and almost as much kit as the feature-rich i20. So, of the two premium hatchbacks, which makes for the better buy?
Performance and refinement
The 1.2-litre, three-cylinder engine under the hood of the Polo makes 74bhp, which means power is adequate. In the city, you will find a slight lack of responsiveness at low engine speeds, but this improves as the engine starts spinning faster. Performance after 4000rpm is good and the engine pulls in a linear, predictable fashion. The gearbox is slick and the short-throw gearlever is a joy to use. The sound of the three-cylinder engine gets a bit intrusive when you rev it though.
The i20’s 1.2-litre engine makes slightly more power at 83bhp, and has one more cylinder than the Polo’s. So it is slightly smoother and quieter, and quicker flat-out as well. But press harder on the throttle and you will find a curious lack of extra urge, and you have to downshift to get going fast again. The i20’s clutch and gearbox actions are slightly lighter than the Polo’s as well, so drivers might find it a bit easier to drive. Those looking for an effortless car to drive may prefer this.
Ride and handling
No question about this, the Polo is the one to go for if you love driving. The steering is more direct and weighty, the car has more grip and it feels more secure at speed as well. The ride isn’t bad either. You do get the occasional whack from the suspension, but it is generally pliant at low speeds and a lot more composed at higher speeds, and it has that all important big-car feel. If we had to nitpick, it would be about the tiny bit of pitching thanks to the soft-ish front suspension.
The i20’s low-speed ride is good, it absorbs bumps without transferring too much to the occupants. However, go faster and the car gets skittish and doesn’t handle bad bits with the authoritativeness of the Polo. It gets thrown off by bigger bumps as well, and this forces you to exercise caution. Even when it comes to driving pleasure, the i20 simply doesn’t make the cut. The steering is too light, it runs out of grip faster and the brakes aren’t as good as the Polo’s.
The Polo’s dashboard is very straightforward and a bit boring. Still, the plastics used and the fit and finish are much better than the i20’s, and there’s a certain tactile feel in the way the switchgear works. Finding a comfortable driving position is easier as well, thanks to a steering that is adjustable for reach and rake, and the reasonable amounts of adjustability the front seats offer as well. The Polo’s high dashboard may hamper visibility for shorter drivers though.
The i20’s dashboard is certainly more extroverted than the Polo’s. The splashes of silver and the blue backlighting for the dials and the two screens on the centre of the dashboard make for a far younger design than the Polo’s. However, none of the controls work with the same heft as the Polo’s and nothing in here has the same build quality as the VW. We did like the front seats more though - they are really supportive. The i20’s steering adjusts for reach and rake as well.
Space and practicality
The Polo’s biggest drawback is its rear seat, which is short on headroom and legroom, especially if you are on the taller side. This makes it primarily an owner-driven city car. The front seats, however, have plenty of space and the cabin has quite a few big cubbyholes for storing stuff. Massive front door pockets that can easily hold full-size water bottles add to its practicality. The Polo’s 294-litre boot is usefully big and it’s well shaped too.
The i20 has more space, front seats and rear. There’s more legroom, headroom and it feels wider than the Polo as well. Its 295-litre boot is slightly bigger than the Polo’s and the cabin has plenty of storage space as well. Where the i20 has a decided advantage is with its longer rear doors, which make accessing the rear seats even easier –handy when you have to ferry elderly people around. It is the better all-rounder in this respect and the better multi-purpose car.
The Polo in its top-end Highline trim costs Rs 5.84 lakh. For this price, it is reasonably well equipped, with two airbags, ABS, alloy wheels, rear parking sensors, electrically adjustable mirrors, a trip computer, remote locking and USB connectivity. It has Bluetooth connectivity as well, but it’s an add-on system unlike the i20’s integrated system. It misses out on features like climate control though, and there’s no aux-in port either, which is a small disappointment.
Like all Hyundais, the i20 is very well equipped. This Sportz variant’s Rs 5.85 lakh price tag is comparable to the Polo Highline and it gives you everything the VW has and then some. It gets electric folding mirrors, climate control, a reversing camera, six speakers and an aux-in port. The only rather essential feature it lacks is a rear wash-wipe function, which the Polo has. Sure, neither car is particularly cheap, but the i20 simply gives you everything a saloon would.
The Volkswagen Polo, then, comes across as a hatchback that is nice to drive, is well built and has a more premium feel to it compared to the i20. It is even reasonably well-equipped and, for Rs 5.84 lakh, comes with almost as much kit as the feature-rich i20. It misses out on features like automatic climate control and aux-in capability. Its rear seats are also quite cramped, making this primarily an owner-driven city car.
The Hyundai i20 on the other hand, has more space, front seats and rear. It is loaded with features and, at Rs 5.85 lakh for the 1.2 VTVT Sportz petrol trim, has a price tag that is comparable to the Polo. The downsides are its lacklustre engine and bland driving experience. That said, it gives you almost everything the VW has and then some, making it a car that has practically everything Indian car buyers want.