Editor’s note: be aware that the images are extremely large, in order to show off TTAC’s rare opportunity for amazing photo shoot locations.
What makes a flagship? It’s a question that gets to the heart of one’s philosophy as a car reviewer, and no better example exists to explore the issue than Hyundai. Here in the US, Hyundai’s unquestionable flagships are the large, rear-drive Genesis and Equus, well-equipped traditional luxury bruisers at a value price. And though these plush-but-understated cars sell well enough in these economically uncertain times (and they certainly help Hyundai embarrass the likes of Cadillac, which still lacks a true, large, rear-drive flagship barge), they don’t completely fit with the brand values that Hyundai has ridden to prominence across the globe. They’re not wildly efficient, they lack Hyundai’s dramatic “fluidic sculpture” design language, and they’re dreadfully conventional in light of Hyundai’s professed mission to promote “New Thinking, New Possibilities” in the automotive space. Indeed, they’re almost the last throwbacks to Hyundai’s old image of slightly stodgy cars that simply beat the competition hollow on value.
But if we look past the undeniable market logic to offering the Genesis and Equus in the US, it becomes clear that Hyundai has another flagship that almost perfectly captures the reasons the Korean brand has become such a force in the global car business in recent years. Though it might not be the right flagship for the US market, the Hyundai i40cw is far closer to representing the platonic ideal of Hyundai’s brand than any other car the brand offers. And as such it’s also just a damn good car.
Larger than Elantra but slightly smaller than Sonata (neither of which is available as such in Europe), the i40 is the largest family car offered by Hyundai in continental markets (Genesis is sold there only in Coupe form). And as if to confirm the model’s European focus, the i40 has been launched first as the slickly-styled wagon you see here, although a sedan version will launch next year. Based on the Sonata’s platform, the i40 is 5 cm shorter and has a 2.5 cm shorter wheelbase, bringing it more in line with the European D-Segment than America’s voluminous crop of family sedans. Still, the quarters are far from cramped; though the sleek roofline emphasizes style over space, there’s plenty of room for two six-footers in the backseat and less claustrophobia than you might think. Though clearly aimed at Europe, the i40cw isn’t fundamentally doomed to stay there.
The i40cw’s exterior styling is, in this reviewer’s opinion, the best example yet of Hyundai’s distinctive design language, and the car stands out even among the slickest of Euro-confections. But such determinations are fundamentally subjective; the interior of the i40 is much easier to praise in a purely objective manner. Though the design is not a major departure from the Sonata’s, it’s a little more expressive and gives a much higher impression of quality. Center instrument panel controls are more tightly clustered to create room for the larger display screen, and the design eliminates much of the Sonata’s cheaper looking and feeling materials. This pattern continues throughout the i40′s cabin, with great swaths of solidly-located, soft-touch plastics accented by minimal amounts of relatively high-quality faux-aluminum. In comparison with the brand-spankety new Euro-spec Volkswagen I drove in my second week in Europe (look for a review of that very soon), the i40 meets and in some respects even exceeds what you find in Euro-market benchmark vehicles.
As might be guessed from exterior images, outward visibility is somewhat compromised in the i40, especially in blind spots and the rear-view. But the slightly more compact dimensions and a suite of electronic gizmos that might seem like overkill in a car of this class more than overcome any downsides. Forward vision is excellent, and as I learned during a pitch-black ascent of an alpine pass, fully automatic headlights, which sense obstacles one either side of the car’s hood and adaptively add illumination where needed, keep the driver well-appraised of any obstacles and help navigate narrow roads and tunnels with ease. Parking sensors and a backup camera make parking a snap, even in spots and garages built for cars much smaller than the i40. Add an excellent navigation system (which need only update its information for Italian roads), and comfortable (if somewhat lacking in side bolstering) seats, and the i40 makes for a near-perfect European road trip vehicle.
Further making the case for its touring capabilities, as well as exemplifying Hyundai’s emphasis on efficiency, our 1.7 liter diesel drivetrain matched with a superb six-speed transmission kept the hits coming (if any part of the i40 should come to the US but probably won’t, it’s this slick six-cog box). Though making only 136 HP, Hyundai’s shockingly refined oil-burner churns out a far more respectable 243 lb-ft of torque, and hauls the 3,500-ish lb i40 to 100 km/h (~60 MPH) in a respectable 10.6 seconds. Though not fast by US standards, and demanding of a bit of gear-rowing to keep up a brisk pace, performance is more than adequate for a family car of its class. Let’s just say I had no problem cruising at 175 km/h (108 MPH) on Germany’s unlimited autobahns (although revs were a bit high at that speed), and managed to easily snag a speeding ticket after forgetting that Austria’s autobahns are not similarly lacking speed limits.
More importantly in countries where the i40 cost nearly €100 to fill with diesel, efficiency is exemplary. At 140 km/h (~86 MPH), where the i40 seems most comfortable making rapid touring progress, the onboard computer clung tenaciously to a 6 liters/100km readout (39.2 MPG), and shorter bursts on the German autobahn only brought it as low as 6.5 l/100km. Moreover, on interurban “B Roads,” mileage improved to between 5 and 5.5 l/100km (as good as 47 MPG), and thanks to the equipped “BlueDrive” technology (mostly a smooth stop-start system, as low-rolling-resistance tires were replaced with winter rubber), urban observed economy didn’t take much of a hit. We weren’t able to do any remotely scientific efficiency testing, but based on my impressions, this is a car that Hyundai could almost advertise in the US as a “40 MPG anywhere” family car. Suffice to say, we toured from Munich into the depths of Austria’s Salzkammergut, to Vienna, to Venice, back to Austria (including a side trip involving the afore-mentioned nighttime alpine ascent) and on through to Munich on less than two tanks of diesel.
Dynamically, the trip was far from a thrill-fest, as even Hyundai’s European offerings slightly lag the established competition in ride and handling. But compared to US-market Hyundai’s it’s still a big improvement: the suspension is more planted and the steering more feelsome than any US-spec Sonata. Conveniently light around town, the steering firms up nicely as you push on, but ultimately the i40 feels more comfortable making efficient rather than frantic pace. The nose is quite heavy thanks to the diesel lump, and the front suspension could use a bit more damping, or possibly a mild sport mode just to firm things up a little when the mountain roads call you onwards. But ultimately the engine delivers its torque in a fairly utilitarian manner, and in concert with a undertuned suspension, attempts at Alpine hoonery are soon abandoned in favor of gawking at the spectacular views. But for a visiting American, the i40 never ceased to feel like a competent, comforting ally in everything from cramped cities to unlimited autobahns.
In short, the i40 is not only a near-ideal family touring car for exploring the European continent, but I also came away with the impression that it’s Hyundai’s spiritual flagship. Expressive good looks on the outside meets a Winterkorn-scaringly high quality interior. Instantly-at-your-ease performance meets great fuel economy. Boatloads of sensible technology meets smart packaging and a unique aesthetic. Which leaves only Hyundai’s most traditional brand value: value. And here too, the i40cw lives up to its ascendant brand’s formula for success. Our “Style”-trimmed, 1.7 CRDi BlueDrive with “Plus Package” and Navigation costs a whisker over €33,000… but don’t go calculate that directly into dollars, as purchasing power adjustment puts the dollar and Euro on similar footing, practically speaking. A mid-trim Passat “Comfortline” TDI wagon with none of the Hyundai’s tech options costs about the same in Germany, offering a little more power, a little less (rated) efficiency, and (absent optional trims) less of a an impression of interior quality or slick exterior looks. In other words, the i40cw is a rolling object lesson in the priorities that Hyundai has ridden to world-class status, and the brand’s truest flagship.
Hyundai Germany provided the vehicle, insurance and one (expensive) tank of diesel for this review.