What is it?
This is Hyundai’s first serious entry into Europe’s hard-fought Mondeo market. Based on the same all-new platform as the US-market Sonata, the i40 will come as an estate (from April 2011) and then a saloon (from autumn).
There won’t be an i40 hatchback because, aside from the UK, Europeans overwhelmingly buy estates, which make up some 65 per cent of this market segment.
The i40’s exterior is modern and striking, though the deeply sculpted sides and odd, curved D-pillar detail are rather less restrained than is the norm in this segment.
Hyundai engineers say they benchmarked the i40 against the Volkswagen Passat and Toyota Avensis. A longer wheelbase than a Passat ensures greater interior space.
The company is also claiming the i40’s body shell is 11 per cent torsionally stiffer and 23 per cent stiffer in bending than the Passat. A significant 62 per cent of the i40’s structure is made of very high-strength steels, which should pay off for ride and handling as well as safety.
What’s it like?
Even five months before the start of series production (we drove the 17th and 25th i40 estate models to be built), the i40 is surprisingly good.
We tried both the diesel engine and the petrol engine at Hyundai’s Namyang proving ground, albeit in heavily disguised development cars.
There are two 1.7-litre diesel engines, offering 113bhp and 134bhp, with the lower-tune motor offering CO2 emissions of just 113g/km and the more powerful one 124g/km. In 2012 a more powerful twin-turbo version of this engine will be launched.
While the new the 2.0-litre GDI direct-injection petrol engine pulls strongly at high revs, there’s some way to go on engine refinement, as Hyundai acknowledges. However, it is claimed to return around 50mpg, significantly better than rivals can manage.
Even at this stage, however, it’s clear that the 1.7-litre diesel engine will probably be the power plant of choice. Already more refined than the GDI engine, the diesel also pulls more readily from low revs and is well matched to both the six-speed manual and six-speed automatic gearboxes.
On the high-speed bowl, the i40 was very stable and well planted at 100mph, which bodes well for long days on the UK motorway network, though it wasn’t possible to estimate the likely effect of side winds.
On the handling circuit, the Hyundai was more than competent, refusing to understeer when pressed on long, fast bends. The steering feel and weighting also held up on the fast curves, allowing the driver to make accurate inputs as the corner’s radius shifted. It’s likely that the car’s super-stiff body is paying dividends here. Overall, the i40 appeared to hit a very happy medium between comfort and alertness.
The i40 also benefits from a wide and well laid out cockpit, with plenty of storage space and an attractive centre console that is dominated by a large control wheel. The material quality and the attention to detail (especially the mix of chrome highlights and satin finishes) look to be up there with the best Europe can offer.
Rear seat passengers are particularly well provided for, with excellent rear legroom and good headroom. The boot is also sizeable, although it’s not very deep between the load bay floor and side windows. There’s room for a full-size spare wheel, though.
Should I buy one?
Hyundai acknowledges that the European Mondeo sector has shrunk dramatically over the past few years and it will be tough for it to break into the market. But it feels it needs a car of this size to compete, especially for fleet orders.
These pre-production i40s were extremely promising: distinctive and spacious, with a fine interior and excellent interior packaging. Even the handling felt impressively European, although we were testing the car on its home ground.
We’ll know more next spring, but the i40 looks very competitive.
Hyundai i40 1.7 CDTi Estate
Price: tba; Top speed: tba; 0-81mph: 18.4sec [only figure given]; Economy: tba; CO2: 124g/km; Kerb weight: 1485kg; Engine: 4 cyls, 1688cc, turbodiesel; Power 134bhp at 4000rpm; Torque: 243lb ft at 2000rpm; Gearbox: six-speed manual