How far will the proposed road tax changes influence what we actually buy in the new car market? Not as much, perhaps, as the government likes to think. After all, if you want something like the admirable Fiat Panda you are never going to look at the (differently admirable) Audi A8 anyway. It’s those in the middle where an additional hundred or two a year in tax might count, especially where you have different tax bands for different versions of the same model, as with the Ford Mondeo. Even here, though, the increase in fuel prices is likely to have — is already having — a much greater effect. Which would make the green road-tax hike unnecessary, unless — surely not — it’s really a way of increasing revenue?
It won’t affect me. My Discovery was built before 2001, while the 3.5 litre Range Rover I’m tempted to buy (a gratifyingly polluting vehicle) pays no tax at all because it’s pre-1973. I can’t imagine it would be a decisive consideration whatever I wanted to buy, unless they added a nought to all the bands, but it might count for something if I were buying a smaller contemporary car.
There are more good new cars available now than ever and, relatively, they’ve never been cheaper. This is partly because previously little-regarded manufacturers such as Skoda, Seat, Ssangyong, Kia and Hyundai have elbowed their way into the market. They’ve done it not just on grounds of cheapness and value for money but because they’re competitive with VW, Fiat, Citroën, Ford, Peugeot and so on in terms of quality, too. Or more than.
In terms of size, utility and market segment, for example, the five-door Hyundai i30 competes in a league headed by the five-door Golf. Granted, it doesn’t compete in range of engines nor arguably ride and handling; certainly not in terms of price — the Hyundai is £10,999–£16,605, the Golf £12,745–£25,345. Nor does it compete in status; the Golf has for so long reigned as the mid-sized hatchback champion famed for its practicality, solidity, durability, performance and style that it has become the classless pet of the middle classes. Deservedly so — I admire Golfs, approve of their virtues — but driving the i30 does make you question your assumptions.
To start with, this car comes with Hyundai’s across-the-range unlimited mileage five-year warranty. It’s worth dwelling on that for a moment. When it first came out rivals quipped that you needed every month of it. But Hyundai is a world-class heavy engineering concern, producing million-ton oil tankers and heavy earth-moving equipment. It knows how to make things, so when it turned its attention more seriously to cars you could reckon it would make those pretty well too. Its five-year warranty is based on the actuarial calculation that its cars are well enough made for such an offer not to prove expensive. Kia offers a comparable warranty on some models — seven years, limited to 100,000 miles — but then Kia is 70 per cent owned by Hyundai.
The standard safety and comfort equipment levels of the i30 — including ESP, active head restraints and iPod connection — should shame more prestigious makers such as BMW and Mercedes. The looks are unobtrusively stylish, there’s plenty of interior space, cabin materials are perfectly acceptable, the seats are excellent and fully adjustable, the gearbox is easy and precise, the foot rest is a surprising comfort and the ergonomics are well thought out. The diesel 1.6CRDi I tested performed quietly and well and was satisfyingly frugal; it proceeds smoothly in fifth at 30mph and runs at 2500rpm at 70mph. Another driver recorded 55.6mpg on a motorway run down from Edinburgh, averaging 69mph. My only criticisms were the headrests, which may seem a little too intrusive for some, the slightly too-firm ride and the noticeable tyre noise. This was on 16-inch wheels but there are 17 or 15 inch; unless low-profile tyres matter to you aesthetically or you corner at the limits, I suspect the 15 inch would be a smoother and quieter ride. And make allowance for the A pillars — they’re quite thick.
Which Car? and the J.D. Power survey both now rate Hyundai among the world leaders in customer satisfaction surveys. Police forces are buying them and some big fleets are becoming interested. We’re going to see a lot more of them.
So why wouldn’t you buy this rather than the Golf? Firstly, perhaps, because of the Golf’s almost unassailable status; secondly, because the i30 will depreciate far more quickly; thirdly, because the Golf feels more solid and probably has the driving edge. But if you live in the real motoring world of value for money, if you tend to hang on to your cars and if you drive like most of us, then try an i30. And if you buy the latest diesel, with a CO2 figure of 119g/km, you’ll pay £35 road tax. (You can check CO2 ratings and future tax bands on www.smmtco2.co.uk/co2search2.asp)