Hyundai's fortunes in Australia were originally built on its little Excel, a car that for much of the 1990s defined the cheap and cheerful end of the market. It was definitely cheap - ushering in the $13,990 light car price point - and cheerful, up to a point as long as you didn't hang on to it for too long.
But by 2002, Hyundai was keen to make a more respectable impact on the market and no longer be tarred with the cheap - and its quality associations - "Korean-made" brush and so the Excel nameplate was retired in favour of its new light hatch, the Getz. It was a significant step up in quality and refinement and now with its mid-life upgrade having just gone on sale, Hyundai has further cemented its viability as a worthy contender in all regards to the largely Japanese competition.
Heading the list of improvements are more safety kit, bigger and slightly more powerful engines and improvements to interior materials but with a sticker that still starts at $13,490 for the three-door 1.4-litre manual.
From the outside, you probably won't notice much difference from the Getz's predecessor with styling changes limited to a slightly reprofiled front end, new head and taillights and marginally modified bumpers. But it wasn't the exterior styling of this relatively cute small city car was deemed to need any work as three years since launch, it still appears fairly fresh in this massively crowded market.
There also haven't been any changes to the composition of the lineup although the previous nomenclature of XLs and GLs and the like has gone in favour of simply naming the vehicles according to engine size. Ergo, there is an entry level 1.4 three-door, a mid range $14,490 1.6 three-door and a $15,490 1.6 five-door, all with a choice of manual or $1890 automatic.
Apart from the obvious mechanical differences all Getz models carry the same spec level when it comes to comfort and convenience features. Standard kit runs to air conditioning, power windows and mirrors, remote locking, and a new higher output audio system. The new six-speaker CD/radio system is also compatible with both MP3 and WMA files.
Hyundai has also improved the look and feel of the relatively spacious interior with better quality looking grained plastics and a nice-feeling leather wrapped gearshift and steering wheel, with the latter also incorporating audio controls.
The front seats are reasonably comfortable although the backrest feels overstuffed as though it has a lumbar support on full. It doesn't actually have adjustable lumbar support, however, a wide range of other adjustments enable a good driving position.
There are plenty of storage cubbies around the cabin and a 60/40-split rear seat back allows decent cargo/people flexibility.
With more and more people looking at small cars for cheaper motoring, there has been an increased emphasis on safety from the manufacturers and with the new Getz, Hyundai has delivered with the company claiming the 1.6 three-door is the cheapest car on the market with standard anti-lock brakes on four discs and electronic brake force distribution. The ABS is standard on all 1.6-litre models although it remains unavailable even as an option on the 1.4 that still retains rear drum brakes.
Another welcome safety feature unusual in this class of car is the mechanical active head restraints that help reduce front passenger and driver whiplash injuries. Other safety kit includes dual front airbags and front seat belt pretensioners and load limiters.
The biggest news for the new Getz is under the bonnet where both previous engines have gained an extra 100cc in capacity. The now 1.6-litre four cylinder twin cam engine gains an extra 4kW and 11Nm with peak outputs now reaching 78kW @ 5800rpm and 144Nm @ 3200rpm. The old single cam 1.3-litre has been replaced by a 1.4-litre twin-cam engine that offers an additional 7kW and 9Nm to 70kW at 6000rpm and 126Nm at 3200rpm.
Despite the extra capacity and oomph, neither engine is thirstier with official fuel consumption figures either the same as or even slightly improved on the previous engines.
Both engines come standard with an upgraded five-speed manual gearbox or the option of a four speed automatic. The traditional small car suspension - front MacPherson strut and rear torsion beam - remains the same as previously although the dampers and springs have been retuned.
Where to start! According to the official VFACTS sales figures, there are no less than 22 competitors in what is dubbed the light segment of which the Getz is the top-selling hatch.
The only other model that comes close is Toyota's Echo - with sedan and hatch models it is actually about 300 units ahead of Hyundai to the end of September - but others that sell in decent volume include the Honda Jazz, Holden Barina, Suzuki Swift, Mazda2, Ford Fiesta and Kia Rio - with which the Hyundai shares its running gear.
ON THE ROAD
In what was a very short drive around Sydney's northern beach suburbs, the new Getz proved just how far Hyundai has come and matured as a manufacturer. First impressions are of a car whose doors close with a solid thunk reflecting an on-road reliability and quality that has taken some time to arrive.
Prod the accelerator and the 1.6 we drove responds with a decent forward urge that is more than adequate to get off the line. It's not, as you would expect, rocket-like, but more than ample and delivered with a reasonable degree of refinement. Only when pushed really hard into the upper levels of the rev-band does the engine make its presence felt in an unwelcome way but even then it is loud rather than harsh.
With some slight modifications, what was already a decent manual gearshift has been improved further and with a well defined gate and smooth shift, it encourages you to keep the perky engine in its strong mid range with regular gearshifts.
Over what were some very rough and cut up roads, the suspension seemed to cope well being compliant and controlled enough for good ride comfort while still sitting reasonably flat through corners. It only really came a bit undone - although not overly so - on severely chopped up corners and the ride comfort was only compromised when you hit a really big hole - and then you certainly knew about it.
Dynamically, the Getz is not a leader in the segment but it is also far from the bottom and its powertrain is competent and smooth and delivers what a solid small city car should.
Apart from the new Daewoo-sourced Barina, the Getz remains the cheapest entry-level car on the market but, on first impressions at least, it is able to hold its head high as a rival worthy for many of the more pricey competitors in the segment.