PRODUCT EYE: Hyundai i40 1.7 CRDi

By Glenn Brooks | 29 October 2013

The i40 saloon went on sale across Europe in October 2011, five months after the launch of the Tourer (estate)

The i40 saloon went on sale across Europe in October 2011, five months after the launch of the Tourer (estate)

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Is the Hyundai i40 a Korean car? It might seem a silly question, but Glenn Brooks finds this is a far more of a German-engineered model than most people realise.

For some reason, it has taken me two years to get around to driving the i40. I remember seeing it first as concept - the i-flow HED-7 at the Geneva show in March 2010 (it was a diesel hybrid sedan but nothing ever came of that powertrain) and then in production form one year later as an estate. The sedan was launched a couple of months later at the Barcelona show in May 2011. It was a clever strategy, with the elegant lines of the Tourer, as it is known, not only ensuring it was much photographed by the mainstream press at Geneva, but it meant that journalists were made to ask the question ‘why launch it as an estate’?

Hyundai Motor Europe, unlike Kia Motors Europe, somehow was able to persuade head office back in South Korea that to properly compete in the region’s D segment, you need a wagon. The Brits, Germans, Dutch and Swedes especially like large estates and as UK market sales of the Kia Optima prove, saloons are less favoured. These models in fact share an architecture, which is Hyundai-Kia’s Type-N. This front-wheel drive platform also has AWD applications for the Hyundai Santa Fe and Kia Sorento, while all of the brands’ big FWD-based sedans use it too. That includes not only the Optima/K5 but also the Carnival/Sedona MPV, as well as Cadenza/K7 and it Hyundai twin, the Grandeur/Azera sedan.

The first model for Type-N was 2009's sixth generation Hyundai Sonata and new cars are still being launched with this as their basis, as the Hyundai Mistra proves. That one is a C/D segment sedan - think Suzuki Kizashi or VW Jetta-sized - that for the moment, is unique to China. It has just entered production in Beijing, while the Dongfeng Yueda Kia JV should gain its own derivative in 2014, to be built in Yancheng and marketed as the Kia K4.

The platform used by the i40 being so obviously adaptable, it should come as no surprise to find a variety of powertrain options in the car. The base petrol unit is Hyundai’s Gamma 1.6 with gasoline direct injection and continuously variable timing for both intake and exhaust valves. It further features all-aluminium ladder frame construction which Hyundai claims both improves durability and reduces NVH. Power is 135PS. The bigger seller in the UK is the same U2 1,685cc four-cylinder CRDi turbo diesel that works so well in the Hyundai i30, as well as the Kia cee’d, Optima, Carens and other models. A lower power engine produces 115PS while the high output one I tried delivers 136PS and 326Nm of torque. CO2 is 134g/km and the VED band is E.

If the i40 looks and feels like a car which was engineered in Europe, then that’s because it was. For the last ten years, the company’s regional operations have been based in Rüsselsheim near Frankfurt, while only last month, a new European Test Centre was officially opened at the Nürburgring. If you look closely, you notice things such as the location of cash machines on the SatNav’s screen denoted by a euro symbol, while the instrumentation lighting is an understated ice blue, and the manual six-speed gearshift suits keen drivers. You can also have a six-speed automatic if you wish and even with such a transmission, the car I tested returned an average of 44.9mpg over many hundreds of miles.

The GBP26,070 of the test car included GBP490 worth of metallic paint as the only option, which means there’s a lot of equipment for the money, including a big glass sunroof. This has a novel one-touch opening feature which sees two covering panels trimmed in the same material as the headliner retract from the middle of the ceiling towards the windscreen and rear window respectively. One glass panel then tilts and slides rearwards. From the outside it looks like a fully glazed roof in the style of the Jaguar XJ. Dark rear windows add to the premium priced look.

The interior is perfectly put together - the i40 is built at Hyundai’s Ulsan plant in South Korea - but a couple of small things could do with revision when it comes to mid-life revisions time. That would include automatic folding of the mirrors when you lock or unlock. It’s a surprisingly omission. And for an interior that is otherwise so intelligently and thoughtfully designed, the fact that the button you must press to fold/unfold the mirrors is amongst a group of switches that are not illuminated makes this doubly annoying at night or during winter mornings and afternoons.

That an oversight with some buttons is something that needs to be singled out shows just how good the rest of this car is. Compared to the Mondeo and Insignia, it doesn’t quite match their steering accuracy and handling, but the standard set by these two is high. So there is no disgrace in being ranked amongst the others just below the top level of the D segment.

I prefer the i40 over an Avensis, and while we can’t buy a Laguna in the UK, the Hyundai is a better car than the last one of those that I drove. That was just before Renault stopped imports to the UK in early 2012. How does the i40 compare to the C5, 508, Optima, Octavia and Superb? There isn’t much in it though you can’t have the Kia as an estate. These are all very good cars but not quite as good as the Vauxhall/Opel and Ford, while the Passat is competitive but looking and feeling its age. The same applies to the oft-overlooked Accord, and the Legacy. While more modern than the Honda, the big Subaru is nonetheless another rare sight on European roads.

Compared to the previous model, the fifth generation Sonata, this one is like chalk and cheese. I haven’t driven the current YF series Sonata, a model that was designed more for the lower speeds of the US, Canada and South Korea and which isn’t sold in Europe, which is understandable as there is no diesel or wagon. To my eyes, the i40 (codename: VF) looks better and for once for a car with a low roof, there is no trade off with roominess. Not only is there is way more than adequate space for five occupants but the boot space is an impressive 505 litres.

There were some manufacturing innovations for Hyundai when the i40 was new. This includes premium ultra-high tensile strength steel being specified for key body areas. The company says the steel is so hard that it must first be pre-heated to 900ºC before stamping. The benefit is claimed to be improved protection for the driver and passengers in the event of a collision. For the same reason, there is a steel multi-coned structure in the front end and bonnet. These are designed to absorb most of the force of a front-end smash. The A-pillars are constructed from ultra-high tensile strength steel, adding to the whole frontal safety-cage concept.

I might have taken my time to try the i40 but I’m glad it finally happened. The styling is as fresh as when it was launched, and the Tourer is to many peoples’ eyes the most futuristic looking of any car in the European D segment. Judging by typical Hyundai lifecycles, we should see four more years of production, with a minor refresh for styling inside and out and a software update for the infotainment system due in either late 2014 or early 2015. If Hyundai Motor Europe can keep pricing where it is, then this first generation i40 will be on course to be easily the best selling big car the brand has offered here, and deservedly so.