Words: Aatish Mishra Photography: Rohit G Mane
I have an embarrassing confession to make. I’ve never properly driven the Hyundai Elite i20. You see, I joined the evo India team two years ago, and back then I was an intern. This meant I was assigned the role of daily coffee brewer and errand runner. Getting behind the wheel of a car? Long shot. We had an Elite i20 in our fleet back then — it was our chief photographer Gaurav Thombre’s daily driver, but ever so often the editors demanded to drive it. From the conversations floating around the office, I gathered that it was a rather capable car. And it must have been: it has consistently been one of the best-selling cars in India, something that is normally a stronghold of much more affordable cars. It wasn’t selling well because it was a novelty either, its been three years since it was introduced and it still manages to muscle its way in to the charts. Clearly, Hyundai were on to something. What was it? I wasn’t sure. This brings me to this story. I had this itch to take the Elite i20 on a road trip for a while. I just needed to understand what the big deal is all about – how is it that it keeps selling in such large numbers? So I came up with this elaborate plan on how I would take the Elite i20 to Hampi as a part of this Chasing the Sun series – Rohit would get some spectacular shots, the magazine would get a fun story and I would finally be able to drive the car to my heart’s content and form an opinion on it.
I am the happiest man in the evo India office because the monsoons have blown over. I have been chasing the sun across the country for months, the destinations being decided by the lack of clouds above them. Now my chasing will only involve driving to destinations instead of the minor meteorologic study I would normally have to conduct on them beforehand. With the whole country open to discovery (save for Delhi, where the sun is on a permanent vacation), I was really keen on going somewhere really spectacular. My Instagram feed is flooded with Bengaluru-based friends driving down to Hampi – the place seems beautiful in their amateur phone camera shots, just imagine what would happen if Rohit had a go at it!
Apart from Hampi being a really picturesque place, I wanted to drive there because the route gave me a wide variety of conditions to put the Elite i20 through. First, Bengaluru’s dreaded traffic. I could have easily have avoided it by driving out of the city early. However, I wanted to see how the i20 handled traffic and there was no better test than slugging it out in Bengaluru’s rush hour. No, this has nothing to do with the fact that I hate early mornings and didn’t want to wake up at 5am. Straight outta Bengaluru, you hit NH4, the highway which goes all the way to Pune. We were in no mood to head back to base just yet, so we’d be turning off at a town called Chitradurga. From there, it was a dash down NH50, all the way to the town of Hosapete, pass by the Tungabhadra reservoir and then head to Hampi.
That is a total distance of some 350km, plenty to conclude whether the Elite i20 deserved all the recognition it gets. And my conclusion? Oh yes, it does. Let’s break it down; what makes the Elite i20 a good car? Well, for starters, it is a smart looking car. It is a hatchback, but it is nicely designed with smooth lines and sharp edges in the right places. It isn’t a polarising design, but one that most seem to like and those with a finer eye for detail will truly appreciate. Hyundai’s Fluidic Sculpture 2.0 design language is central to how the car looks — right from the headlight and taillight cluster, the strong shoulder line, the blacked out C-pillar and the wheels. The Elite i20 has been around so long and is so common on our roads, yet the design seems fresh. That is quite an achievement. The fact that it looks so similar to the Hyundai WRC team’s cars adds desirability by the bucketloads. In fact, it is the only car in the Indian market with a direct connect with WRC — up to the 2016 season, the body shells of the car that Thierry Neuville, Hayden Paddon and Dani Sordo were thrashing around the world were manufactured at Hyundai’s facility in Chennai (this season, the team has shifted to using i20 Coupe body shells). Nothing like a car with links to global motorsport, eh?
The insides are in harmony with the outsides. The central console is well laid out, with a touchscreen being the centre-piece and a climate control system below it. The interiors get a dual tone beige and and black finish, something that I’m not a fan of, but it looks rather good in this car. The i20 is a hatchback, and conventional thinking would say that space should be limited on the inside, but it is a rather big car. At 3985mm, this is nearly as long as some sedans in the market today and that should give you an idea of how spacious it is on the inside. Hyundai have developed this reputation of selling cars packed with features, and forget being an exception to that rule, the Elite i20 pioneered it. We were driving the top-of-the-line Asta (O) variant and I will run out of space if I start listing the features it gets here, but let me give you the highlights: six airbags (only available on this variant, though all variants get a driver and passenger airbag), ABS, reversing camera, cornering lamps, navigation, all sorts of mobile phone connectivity including Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and MirrorLink, a height adjustable seat and steering adjustable for reach and rake. Forget how a car drives, you’ll be surprised how many cars sell simply because they have a good, functional, feature-laden interior.
But we’re evo India so we’re not going to forget how it drives. This particular car you see in the images is equipped with the 1.4-litre turbo diesel engine, that comes with just one gearbox option: a six-speed manual. It makes 89bhp, which might not sound like much but these turbocharged oil-burners have huge reserves of torque – 220Nm in this case. That’s plenty in real world terms, and an average person whose usage consists of mainly city as well as highway runs, will never need more. In the city, you’ve got the tractability to keep you comfortable in slow moving traffic. The gearshift action is extremely slick, and it is actually enjoyable shifting through the cogs. Bengaluru’s roads are rather good (at least the ones I was driving on were), so the pliancy of the suspension wasn’t really tested. What I did enjoy in the city is how it cuts out the outside world, and keeps you comfortable in your little cabin. Out on the highway, the engine has the pull to tug you along at comfortable speeds. The suspension is soft but it never feels bouncy and floaty. And even on bad roads, it holds its composure really well. Refinement levels are good and honestly, there is not much to complain about.
The drive to Hampi was more than comfortable. For those of you who don’t know, Hampi is essentially this collection of ruins left over from the Vijayanagar empire. The city was apparently extremely prosperous and was one of the largest medieval cities in the world, second only to Beijing according to some historians. However, the Vijayanagar empire was defeated and the city was ransacked in the late 1500s. What remains today is but a remnant of that past – temples, bathing areas, markets and other medieval city infrastructure.
Another highlight of Hampi, and something that drew me there in the first place, is the landscape. Geologists believe that the rocks here were originally part of one massive monolith. But with the passage of time, the erosion by wind and storms led to cracks, causing the monolith to split up in to smaller rocks. Falling rocks are sometimes precariously balanced on other rocks and that is what gives this landscape its beauty. However, mythology has its own take on things. In folklore, Hampi is believed to be the monkey kingdom that is mentioned in the Ramayana. The two princely brothers Vali and Sugreeva were locked in a bitter battle, during which the two armies threw massive boulders at each other and these are the same boulders we see littered around Hampi today.
We reached Hampi just in time to see the sun dip behind the sea of boulders around us. That evening has to go down as one of the most spectacular sunsets I have ever seen. As the sun dipped lower and lower, the light got more dramatic and it lit up the rocks like orange beacons in the deep blue sky. That, contrasted with the greens and yellows in the landscape around us, is properly seared in to my memory. The white Elite i20 parked against that backdrop, just made everything all the more special. I finally understood the draw of the car. It is so versatile and does everything that is asked of it so well, which is why it sells so much.