Hyundai i20 2020 Mild Hybrid review

Mildly hybrid, mildly disappointing

15 November 2020

When it comes to electric vehicles, manufacturers across the spectrum have jumped on the bandwagon, creating a range of "mild" hybrid vehicles, more as a token of compliance rather than a way to solve the emissions problem.

Hyundai's 2020 and 2021 range has been brought into line with the direction in which most of the industry seems to be moving, and provides a battery instead of a spare wheel. Let's find out if the new i20 will charge you up, or is dead on arrival...

TL;DR

It's fine. All round, it's fine. The new i20 shines nowhere, but equally, fails nowhere. You can do a lot better for a vehicle of this size, but not without spending substantially more money.

Mild hybrid is not a selling point, and the battery adds significantly to the cost. However, if all or most standard vehicles are moving in this direction, as they seem to be, it's not like you have much choice.

Lacks the kind of fuel economy that should be standard on such a small engine, suggesting that Hyundai have ways to go with engine efficiency. As standard with most of Hyundai's range, though, there's more extras that you could possibly need, none of which are optional or paid.

Front quarter view of Hyundai i20 2020 Mild Hybrid in blue

About that "hybrid thing"

Technically, a mild hybrid is a hybrid vehicle, with battery assistance. In practice, however, you might as well plug a 9-volt into the cigarette lighter and reverse the charge, for all the benefits it provides.

To explain in more detail, this is not a plug-in vehicle. The only way to charge the battery (which occupies the boot space normally reserved for a spare wheel) is to allow the car to do it, from the power derived from the engine.

When I say "derived from", I mean that the engine is not directly charging the battery, but Hyundai's iMT (intelligent manual transmission, more on that later) will charge the battery while the engine is coasting and your foot is not on the accelerator, a bit like regenerative braking, similar to a KERS (kinetic energy recovery system) in Formula One.

The problem is that the amount of energy you're reclaiming this way is miniscule, and the direct effect on the car's acceleration is barely noticeable. This means that in situations where you want to go faster quickly, you need to rely on the engine itself to provide most of the power, and in situations where you don't care, the battery isn't utilised at all.

This is the dilemma then: governments around the world are putting pressure on manufacturers to create electric vehicles. How can they provide so-called "electric" vehicles while expending a minimum amount of effort? The answer seems to be the mild hybrid, which, yes, does improve efficiency over a non-hybrid, but by a tiny amount, and adds to the weight of the vehicle once the battery and other extra equipment is taken into account.

Premium price, Hyundai quality

Depending on your preconceived notions, you might take different things from the heading above. There's no doubt that mild hybrid vehicles are considerably more expensive than the plain-old-petrol counterparts. It makes sense really. The battery costs money. The energy recovery equipment costs money.

The model I ended up with is the 2020 edition of the i20, nicknamed the MHEV, or "mild hybrid electric vehicle", in the Premium trim. It doesn't feel very premium. Nor does it feel basic, and this is where your predilection comes into play. Personally, I'm not a luxury lover, coming from the notoriously bumpy, heavy-handed, but tremendously fun Hyundai i30N. If you were looking for more of a comfortable tourer feel though, even the Premium model won't  cut it.

Hyundai i20 2020 Mild Hybrid 998cc turbo engine bay

Engine and (lack-of-)power train

Although I tested the mild hybrid 1.5 litre turbo i30 as well, it was the 998cc, 3-cylinder turbocharged engine I chose in the i20. On paper though, everything looks rosy. 118bhp from a straight-3 single litre? Sounds too good to be true, and certainly seems like it when you first get behind the wheel.

Plenty of power in the 3-5,000rpm range as the turbo kicks in, from a standing start. Then you run into... issues. Firstly, remember that the majority of those 118 horses are coming from the turbocharger. A normally aspirated 3-cylinder with a 1-litre displacement isn't enough to move much at all. The effect is that at lower revs, it's an absolute disaster, and I often found myself dropping the clutch to rev up whenever I tried to, you know, actually accelerate at 2,000rpm.

Secondly, the torque curve is more like a torque cliff. Anywhere around 4,500rpm upwards, there's just nothing left, and beyond about 50mph is where you really start to notice you're in a car with a very, very small engine.

Thirdly, there's the sound. It's a beautifully whisper-quiet machine below 2,000rpm, but also one that has all the go of a whale after eating through a warehouse of cheese-its. The trade-off is to climb higher into the revs, but by 4,000rpm, there's a genuinely appalling 3-cylinder whine, rather than the humble roar you might expect from a larger displacement.

All this in moderation though; you aren't buying this car because you need to hoon around like Ken Block on MDMA. It's fine, a shade over ten seconds to 60mph, although much more than this if you value your ears, and it does fine, even up hills, if you recognise the torque profile and don't let the revs drop too low.

Efficiency

While you might not be setting lap records in your local Tesco car park in this thing, you might expect to be making records in fuel savings. It's a hybrid, after all! Isn't that what this is about?

Sorry to disappoint, but you're not going to find many efficiency gains here. Expect 35mpg urban and 50mpg extra-urban, for a combined figure of maybe 40-45. I honestly don't know how Hyundai have got this so horribly fuel-hungry, for such a tiny engine.

I've experimented a lot with hypermiling techniques to see just how many miles I can squeeze out of every ounce of dead dinosaur juice, but it doesn't seem to make a great deal of difference.

The i20 will cruise happily above 50mpg on the flat, between 40 and 60mph, and up to 70mph if you're very smooth with it (or you use the cruise control) but it's extremely guzzly on the throttle. There's little trade-off in consumption to be made when short-shifting, because the turbo lag means that at lower revs, you're relying much more heavily on the minimal engine torque, sucking in more of those precious millilitres of fuel.

"Intelligent" manual transmission

I love a bit of marketing bullshit, but I see right though it. Hyundai iMT is interesting, but ultimately no different. The basic premise is this: the engine will only be running when you actually need it, and will turn off completely when you don't.

It actually seems to work quite well, doing pretty much what it's designed to do, but that doesn't mean it's a smart design choice. Allow me to elaborate...

The engine has the ability to be switched off and on, by the vehicle, at any time, almost instantly. Gone are the harsh ignition-starts of the previous generation of auto-off vehicles.

If you're off the throttle, rolling to a stop at traffic lights, the engine is supposed to shut off, saving you the fuel, and stay off until you're ready to go again, presumably while you're (not) idling at the lights as well. That's all good in theory until you actually use it.

The main issue here is that the engine will only switch off (except while "sailing", more on this later) when you are using the brake pedal. Makes sense in the run-up to the lights; it turns off before you even come to a stop, allowing you to save fuel. But here's what grinds my gears (sorry, not sorry): the engine will restart the moment you release the brake.

This means that the "correct" way of driving goes out of the window. You'd usually bring the car to a full stop with the brake pedal, apply the handbrake, release the brake pedal, stick it in neutral, and release the clutch. AHA! say Hyundai, you let go of the brake pedal? You moron! We'll start the engine again for you.

So you can see my issue here: if you stop, and don't constantly hold the brake pedal down, you lose any and all efficiency gained by switching off the engine, because it will restart. Sure, many people will come to a stop and just ride the pedal. I feel sorry for those people; they have more tolerance for leg cramp than I do, clearly. I don't really want to be clamping my foot to a pedal for three minutes until the lights go green.

Yet this is the struggle of the iMT owner: change your (correct) driving style, or lose the efficiency game. I have since learned to keep my foot on the brake (although still using the handbrake as well and putting the thing in neutral, because screw constantly pushing two pedals down. It's very awkward, takes getting used to (unless you already [incorrectly] drive that way), and is just needless.

Hyundai simply needed to keep the engine switched off while either the brake pedal or the handbrake was engaged, or while the car is in neutral with the clutch pedal free, or until the accelerator was press... there's a million ways to solve this issue, and thanks to some really dumb design, Hyundai missed out on all of them.

Sailing

Where the iMT really comes into its own is with "sailing" mode. If you are just cruising and not using the accelerator, the car will switch off the engine and minimise rolling resistance, to allow you to save on fuel. This is a great idea, and although at first, I thought this would never be a situation in which I found myself, I was surprised by how often the car was able to do this while I was driving.

However... (why is there always one of these in a Hyundai review?) it's not all great news. As far as I could tell, "sailing" is disabled in Sport mode, and possible in Comfort mode as well (I can't guarantee this, but it never "sailed" for me in these modes), meaning you will need to be running in Eco mode to get any savings here.

Hyundai i20 2020 Mild Hybrid rear quarter view

Braking and regeneration

The iMT has another feature to which you might need to adjust: it slows down very quickly off the throttle. We're all used to engine braking in manual transmissions, which can be minimised either by selecting a higher gear, or by pushing in the clutch (not recommended unless at slow speeds).

Hyundai's energy recovery system means that when you aren't on the throttle, the car is always braking slightly. This force is used to charge the (pretty pointless) battery. This has the added benefit of making this car very capable at brakeless downhill stretches. Wait, don't tell me you're still using the brake pedal to maintain your speed while you're rolling down a hill?

You know (or should know) the drill in a manual: downshift with the throttle closed, and use the engine braking to maintain your speed, not your brake pedal. Unless you love buying new brake pads. If that's the case...

In the iMT-equipped cars, this braking effect is much heavier, enabling you to keep the car at a constant speed, down even quite steep hills, without shifting further down the box. Neat!

However... (again!) there's an annoying catch here. The system won't disengage even when the battery is full. So where's it putting that energy it's recovering for you? Nowhere; it's going to waste. Interestingly, this system can disengage while the car is "sailing" (see above), but I think what's happening here is that Hyundai skimped and didn't provide a way for the car to determine the charge level of its own battery.

This is further evidenced by the on-screen energy flow display. It shows whether the car is charging or draining the battery at any given moment, but there's no indication of what charge level it's currently at.

This comes back to mock-efficiency gains. You could be driving conservatively, because you care about the planet and all those whales with the plastic beer holders around their necks, and pandas and stuff... you could do that, but every bit of your effort might be in vain because your battery is already full and you have absolutely no way of knowing.

Combine this with the fact that the battery isn't used by the car, to accelerate, while you're hypermiling or driving conservatively, so chances are your battery is just going to get full and stay full, doing nothing for anybody.

Hyundai i20 2020 Mild Hybrid cockpit and steering wheel

Interior

Enough moaning. The interior is great. It's not fancy, but it's capable. The Premium is equipped with a rather fetching (but overly oblongular - that's a word, right?) touch screen, and the cockpit instrumentation is now one large digital screen. Dials and gauges are so 2010s!

The controls are in familiar places, nothing is overcomplicated or messy to use, and it's all really... functional, if not exciting. The "forward/back track" buttons are reversed from Hyundai's previous offering, so that'll be confusing to begin with, as you're frantically pressing "rewind" on Jason Derulo instead of skipping him as you try to mentally block the noise from deteriorating your brain in real time.

This is a fully key-based car with remote central locking, so you miss out on the push-button start and keyless entry of higher spec models.

Gone also are the fully electric seats. On the one hand, that means it doesn't take 20 minutes to move your seat back when a goblin has been driving it before you. On the other hand, you lose many of the benefits of the "driver profile" system, which would adjust the seat back exactly how you want it.

Other than that, the heated steering wheel and individually heated front seats make their return here. Unfortunately, it seems like Hyundai skimped on the steering wheel heat as well, as it gets noticeably less warm than the i30N's heated wheel, even after being switched on for several minutes. Seats, on the other hand: no complaints. Both the bottom and the seat back are heated, and there's 3 levels of heat to choose from.

Both automatic lights and automatic wipers are represented, with the option to use automatic high beams as well, but I've found those to be so unreliable as to pose an actual danger when they don't dip properly. Automatic wipers: have they ever actually worked in any car ever? If so, comments on a postcard...

Hyundai i20 2020 Mild Hybrid climate control and lower instrumentation

Dual climate control is missing here, with only a single temperature control, and, for some reason I don't understand, the temperature wheel has been replaced by a dumb uppy-downy thing that is ridiculously hard to use in a right hand drive car because it's so close to the steering wheel.

As you can see from the photography, the centre control is a complete dust magnet as well, so make sure you have some baby wipes on hand. But not those ones with plastic in them. They make those fatbergs in the sewers, and nobody likes a big ol' nasty fatberg.

We have a generous two USB sockets in the front, only one of which is a data connection (more on connectivity below), and a really stupid flappy cover over the cigarette lighter that makes it frustratingly hard to plug anything in, and only small devices are going to fit there. Again, as if Hyundai are tipping the hat to the left hand drive world, the data connection is on the "wrong" side of the car for right hand drive, meaning it's a bit awkward to use.

Hyundai i20 2020 Mild Hybrid cockpit instrumentation, speedometer, rev counter

Slow, slower, and slowest

Surprisingly for such a basic engine, there's selectable drive modes, consisting of Eco, Comfort, and Sport. They do actually make a significant difference to your driving experience, but not in a good way.

As shown here, the red mode is the Sport mode, because everyone knows red is angry and only angry people do sports. In a 998cc 3-cylinder.

It's important to note though, there's no ability to customise the settings for each mode, or add any new custom modes, or tweak anything at all, and the modes simply affect the ECU. They won't affect other driving characteristics such as suspension travel.

Sport mode has the closest to what I'd call a "normal" throttle response, and it has rev matching, so it will "blip" the throttle for you on downshifts to avoid clutch wear and jerky driving. Notably, unlike its companion, the i30N, there's no way to turn off the rev matching in Sport mode, so you're stuck with it.

It's also completely unavailable in the other modes, which is a massive problem. Unless you love replacing your clutch, you want to be manually rev matching on downshifts, or letting the car do it for you. In Eco mode, the throttle response is so slow that after pressing the accelerator, you have time to get out, get a cup of tea, and get back in before the engine responds, making the throttle "blip" nigh on impossible. Comfort mode is slightly better but not by much.

So if Eco mode is designed to save the planet, but it means unnecessarily burning out your clutch, because of another crazy Hyundai design decision, is it worth it? You'll have to be the judge of that, but it's a frustration I'd much rather be without.

Hyundai i20 2020 Mild Hybrid touch screen with a warm fireplace display

Tech

Being a fan of in-car tech, I wasn't disappointed. The basic i20 comes with the smaller touch screen, but the Premium is equipped with a 12" one, and it's fantastic to use. Gone are the days where you have to stab frantically while you're driving because the first press didn't register. Typing letters used to be a nightmare on the "squashy" screens of yore, but this is much more like typing on a modern smartphone, which is great.

But whhhhhy is this screen so wide and skinny? The Hyundai software is designed to use a screen of this size,  but Android Auto and Apple CarPlay are not, which leads to a tiny picture and a lot of wasted screen space where nothing shows up except the "Android Auto" logo. You'd think Hyundai might have tested out this choice before releasing this absurdly-shaped screen to the public. To be fair, this might get rectified if future versions of Android and Apple tech can detect and adjust the screen size.

It's 2020, and wireless connectivity (using WiFi) has arrived in Android 11. And yet not for Hyundai. Another massive missed opportunity. Right now, as previously, if you want to use your phone with your car (outside of just regular crappy Bluetooth) you need to keep it connected with a cable.

But not just any cable, no! A magical, special USB cable of immeasurable grandeur! Actually, I don't know. What I do know is that I had to use three before I found one that worked. The phone would just rapidly connect and disconnect over and over, and this actually locked up the Hyundai touchscreen, even after completely unplugging the phone, before needing to shut off the vehicle, fully lock it, unlock it to get it to restart...

This is beyond diabolical and potentially dangerous while driving, because the screen is flickering constantly, enough to distract anyone. Thankfully the main cockpit instrumentation didn't go on the blink as well, so speed and other information was still working at the time.

Going their own way

Let's face it: car manufacturers are really shit at software development. One of the main reasons for my lack of enthusiasm over buying a BMW is their stubborn refusal to allow customers to override their own terrible system and use Android Auto.

The same "terrible system" descriptor could have been applied to Hyundai's last-generation offering as well. Clunky, confusing, difficult to use, and immensely lacking in the UX (user experience) department.

They've taken significant steps to remedy this situation now, thankfully, with a much better system that still, sadly, shows their relative lack of experience compared to the "big boys" (Google and Apple).

Hyundai i20 2020 Mild Hybrid in-car navigation system

Navigation returns in style, much improved, and much easier to use. Frustratingly, the zoom level and text display are not right. Letters are too small on the little tiny roads, and sometimes don't appear at all. Directions are pretty sound, but it leaves you wondering why they bother, given that almost everyone will have either Android Auto or Apple CarPlay available nowadays.

Other pointless features include an "ambience" player, where you can listen to incredibly unrealistic renditions of classics such as "warm fireplace" and "outside café". I can't imagine anyone in their right mind using this, but it's there just to remind you that your hard-earned cash paid some Hyundai engineers to develop this.

Most in-car things are controllable from the driver profile and settings screens, such as the behaviour of the headlamps, wipers, indicators and others, which means two drivers of the same car can have their own preferred settings (but this doesn't include the non-electric seats). This is good to see but as always, there's some bad news here...

Lane-assist

Lane assist has turned from a pointless feature (unless you are prone to not paying attention, in which case why are you driving?) to a downright danger in the new generation.

There are three settings: off (which I recommend you steadfastly insist upon), warn, which will provide an audible warning when the car (almost certainly erroneously) thinks you're outside the lane markings, and corrective, which will physically take control of the car's steering.

I shouldn't have to explain to you why this is an awful idea and you would be very wise to never use it. There are times when you are driving when you will cross some kind of white line without using the turn signals, and at that point, the car will be wrestling with you to try to steer itself where it wants to go.

There is also no setting to turn this off permanently, unlike the other settings. It will always be switched on every time you enter the car, regardless of your personal choices, and requires a 5-second press of the "lane assist" button to turn off. Every single time you get into the car.

Focus on safety

I've no issue at all with Hyundai's other standard safety features, and they're more than welcome in fact. Especially notable that these are not expensive extras; they're just always included with the car.

First up, collision avoidance, where the car will automatically brake for you if it detects an upcoming collision. I've never had this go off when it shouldn't. Notably, most of these systems aren't designed to completely prevent a crash; they are much more likely to significantly lessen the damage of an impact by slowing down most of the way for you. Nice to see on such a relatively budget car.

The other feature I find really fascinating is the speed limit detection. This works by scanning the area in front of the vehicle for speed signs and showing the current speed limit on the dashboard in front of you. There's also a flashing warning when you exceed the speed limit, with tolerance settings, so you can stop it from flashing when you're 1mph above. This can be disabled too, for those drivers who absolutely defend their second amendment right to "drive as fast as I bloody want thank you very much".

All this front-sensing technology makes it curious to me why Hyundai don't yet have their own adaptive cruise control in the new i20. Regular cruise control is still a welcome addition though, and this generation now includes a "current target speed" indication on the dashboard, so you can actually see what speed it thinks you've told it to do, which was weirdly and frustratingly missing last time around.

Drive and feel

It's shit.

Well, what did you expect? You're buying a small, economy car.

The main problem with this car's driving feel is the lack of steering weight options. The power steering is insanely strong, to the point where you can easily steer with one finger (but please don't). This takes all the feel away from the road surface and disconnects you from the car.

It's an underpowered front wheel drive, although the standard kit has 17" fairly wide tyres, so road surface contact is no issue. The problem lies in the car's desire to always be economising, always pulling those plastic beer holders off the fish.

It feels fundamentally different to be approaching a corner when the engine is running, compared to when the car is "sailing", because there's a huge difference in the natural braking force off the throttle. This leads to an uneven feel when you come to apply the throttle into the corner.

The suspension is obviously tuned for comfort rather than cornering, and this leads to a lot of body roll and imprecision in steering movement. It made it harder for me to read the car, and, unlike in the i30N where you could engage tighter suspension on the open road, and loosen it up for all the potholes and speed humps in urban areas, you have no choice in the i20.

I've tested the car through a number of road conditions in day and night, from very dry to insanely heavy rain, and it performs admirably in all of these, for a car of its class. It's way off the mark in terms of being a driver's car, and is not well suited to the open road, thanks to the severe lack of power and very urbane default settings.

Happily it's much better suited to town driving, where tighter corners are the norm and you will never build up enough speed to worry too much about finesse in car control. Unfortunately, these slower stop-start sessions are where most cars, even this mild hybrid, suffer most in terms of fuel economy.

So on the one hand, you have a car that could achieve a decent open road fuel economy, but on the other, it's set up to be a town driver.

Should you buy an i20 Mild Hybrid

I'm sorry to say, no.

If you want a driver's car of this size and price, you would be better looking towards a Fiesta ST. If you want a luxury feel, and don't mind spending a bit more, look to the Audi A1 range.

If you want something that's strictly for driving around a town or suburbs, or if environmental concerns are really priority for you, you should seriously consider buying a plug-in hybrid or full electric car.

There's just no single niche type of driver that the i20 seems to appeal most to. It aims to appeal to everyone, with stylish looks, premium interior, high technology, and advanced efficiency, but really does fail on all these counts to some degree.

The crying shame here is that with just a few tiny tweaks, Hyundai have a winner on their hands. A 4-cylinder 1.2 would go a long way to eliminate the turbo lag. Fully wireless Android Auto is surely coming in the near future. A button to control rev matching. A button to control steering weight. Sensible design for the intelligent manual transmission. Any one of these additions would make the car so much better, but all in? This one would be a winner.

You definitely won't be desperately disappointed if you were to own a new generation i20, and there's certainly many worse cars for the same price, but I know you want better than this!

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