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Hyundai i800 Roadtest

Not quite an MPV, the Hyundai i800 is nonetheless a value-packed alternative for large families.

eight grown-up seats

"Mr Watson. Come here, I want to see you". These were the first words ever spoken into a telephone, by Alexander Graham Bell, allegedly the inventor of the said device. Nothing happened, so the next day Mr Bell thought about the principle and invented another telephone, to connect to the first, and Mr Watson duly came.

I know how Bell must have felt, when he sat alone, talking into a solitary instrument. I was the first-ever subscriber to Facebook, and for years waited in vain for a response that never came. Now look at it: several people have become subscribers and it is expected to become quite popular. But if you really want to network with your mates, try an i800.

With eight grown-up seats, the Hyundai i800 can be shared with friends and family, and all their luggage. In a similar mould to the Volkswagen Caravelle, the i800 starts out as a big box on wheels. And the Hyundai's simple design, and efficient two-box profile, equates to unparalleled roominess, with two large bench seats behind the twin front seats.

And there is so much luggage space behind the rearmost row that, as Hyundai points out, there is no need to provide folding or removable seats. The rearmost row is firmly anchored to the floor, which improves safety, reduces weight and cost, and does nothing to diminish the load-lugging virtues. The seat-backs recline, but otherwise there are no party tricks. The middle row is split asymmetrically, and the seats slide on long runners, which serve two purposes: firstly, to allow easy access to the rearmost seats, and, secondly, to offer the option of limo-like legroom when the rearmost seats are unoccupied.

Huge sliding doors admit all and sundry with ease, and an enormous tailgate serves as a useful shelter during loading, which could take some time. The capacity of 851 litres is equivalent to 30 cubic feet - around twice the volume of a typical boot. And the loading is easy: a low platform floor is supplemented by a large bumper topped with a plastic scuff plate, and the keep of the tailgate lock is recessed to prevent its snagging luggage.

However, there are a couple of drawbacks: you need at least four-feet clearance to open the tailgate, and plenty of headroom. And there is cause for one major complaint. For some reason, Hyundai has decided not to fit a rear wiper, let alone a wash-wipe facility, and on damp roads, the rear window quickly gets caked in road dirt, even at modest speeds. There is no remedy except to stop and clean the window by hand - every 20 miles or so, in my experience.

Some &Pound;10,000 Less Than The Cheapest Volkswagen Caravelle

Mind you, the door mirrors are large enough to satisfy a coach driver (which I was, for a while) and the flat sides of the i800 make reversing in tight spaces a doddle. And the length is not a problem: rear parking sensors are standard, but, of course, if you keep reversing to the point of a continuous beep, there's no room left to open the tailgate. At 5.125 metres, the i800 is fractionally longer than an Audi A8.

Unless you opt for any extras, the i800 is yours to drive away smiling for £19,580, some £10,000 less than the cheapest Volkswagen Caravelle, which has only seven seats. Standard features on the Hyundai include air-conditioning, with a separate control for the rear compartment; ESP with traction control; three ISOFIX mounts on the centre row of seats; 16-inch alloys; a CD player with an aux inlet and MP3 compatibility; and clever 'mood' lighting for the rear compartment, with a choice of colours.

The test car also had two-tone leather upholstery at £1,175, metallic paint at £340, and a hefty tow bar at the same price.

Given that this is a large car, with capacity for a seven-a-side team, and their chauffeur, it is surprisingly easy to drive. The raised gearshift falls easily to hand, the steering is equally light and precise, and the high seating position provides outstanding visibility - a useful safety factor on busy motorways, where anticipation is crucial. And despite its van-like proportions, there is nothing crude about the general ambience. Noise levels are surprisingly low, and the ride quality would not disgrace a regular MPV. This is largely a factor of the lengthy wheelbase, which soaks up bumps and smooths-out even minor country lanes.

And make no mistake - the seats are huge, and well able to cope with a full complement of adult passengers, with leg-room to spare.

Power takes the form of a smooth-running 2.5-litre diesel engine, developing a very useful peak torque of 392 Newton-metres in the range 2000 to 2500 rpm. This gives this large car a measure of flexibility that would not disgrace a small runabout, although with such a high peak torque, an extra gear would not go amiss - there is adequate torque to justify a six-speed 'box, even allowing for a full complement of passengers.

There Is No Shortage Of Style

An extra cog in the 'box might also improve the Hyundai's performance, which is quite leisurely, delivering a 0-62 time of 14.5 seconds, en-route to a top speed of 113 mph. The four-pot diesel engine is surprisingly parsimonious, considering it has to power a car weighing 2.2 tonnes, unladen. A combined figure of 33.2 mpg equates to a CO2 rating of 225 g/km, which is at the spiteful end of the new VED table: Band K at £300 per annum, to be precise. But if you equate that to bums on seats, the road-fund licence of the i800 is (pro-rata) cheaper than any of its competitors.

I mainly used the i800 on country roads, where it returned a figure quite close to the theoretical extra-urban figure of 39.8 mpg. Fully laden, that equates almost exactly to 0.125 gallons per occupant for every 40 miles, which makes it more than twice as fuel-efficient per passenger-mile as a 71 bhp smart fortwo, which would require 0.27 gallons per occupant over the same distance. Just to make that clear: an i800 would require a theoretical 1.25 gallons per occupant for a constant-speed journey of 400 miles. The same distance covered in four smarts would require 2.5 gallons per occupant. Nonsense, I know, but large families, or indeed taxi firms, could do worse than calculate the cost of motoring per occupant-mile, i800 style.

And there is no shortage of style. The test car was equipped with classy smoked-glass windows abaft the B-pillar, and the two-tone leather upholstery looked as sumptuous as it might in a Merc. And unlike the case in regular MPVs, adult occupants of the rearmost seats can engage in conversation: they are not hampered by the auditory challenge that arises from having their heads between their knees.

The company argues that it is a safety issue, but the only drawback presented by the rearmost row's being fixed to the floor is that it prevents the Hyundai's ever being considered a dual-purpose vehicle. If the rearmost row could be made to fold and tumble, the i800 would become truly versatile: as good with luggage as it is with passengers. Even as a compromise, Hyundai could do worse than consider a two-tier rear parcel shelf in the manner of the Volkswagen Caravelle: it would be worth a few dollars more to be able to segregate the luggage in a fully laden car.

But is it a car, or is it a van - albeit with posh seats and windows? Hyundai says not: the platform differs from that of its commercial vehicle range, not least in the fitment of rear coil springs, which do much to deliver the smooth ride remarked on by several passengers. Yet the i800 is not quite an MPV: the unalterable seating configuration sees to that. Neither could you be uncharitable and call it a minibus, with the obvious implication of bare essentials and basic seating. It is a people-carrier in the original sense of the term, when someone had the bright idea of making a de-industrialised and scaled-down minibus with room for plenty of bums on seats but cosseted in car-like comfort - and, as applies to the Hyundai - leather-clad luxury.

But if you have no need of such opulence, there is a cheaper version due out soon, which will allow the same number of bums on seats, but with fewer boxes ticked. Airport taxi firms could do worse than join the waiting list: even the fully spec'd test car I drove is cheaper than the most basic Galaxy or Caravelle, et al, and has more seats and more room.

And even if not all the seats are occupied, it still makes a great family car. The high seating position means that even small kids can see over most walls and hedges, which makes any journey more interesting. Even a day trip can turn into an adventure holiday: the huge boot will swallow small bikes, surfboards, picnic tables and chairs, and the older kids can sit right in the back where they can talk about grown-up things out of earshot. But should you need to get hold of them, you could always resort to ringing their mobiles. Ian Pod and Alex Bell have much to answer for.

Posted on 22.04.2009 by Graham Whyte
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