By on December 22, 2011


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.

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62 Comments on “Review: 2012 Hyundai i40cw BlueDrive (Euro-Spec)...”

  • avatar

    Someone at Hyundai is loving them some 1959 GM styling and translating it into 2012. Well done!

    • 0 avatar

      The styling on this car is just plain weird. Overly wrought front end which rivals the crazy clown look on the mazda3. Add in that fat rear end with tiny rear windows…..then you get a “damn good/fine/impressive” car. A expression that has been repeated many times for whatever reasons on this page.

      This vehicle is a cheap imitation of a Mercedes R Class, with not once once of design.

    • 0 avatar


      I thought it was an R-Class.

  • avatar

    Their design language does seem to work better here than in other applications. The Sonata went from looking cool and different to just plain gross, to my eyes anyway. I want to say that the best car wearing the new design is the Elantra, at least the proportions look right.

  • avatar

    The rest of the world gets affordable, attractive, well designed station wagons and shooting brakes.

    We get the Crosstour.

    • 0 avatar

      Ain’t that the truth.

      I find myself holding out buying my next car for the Forester to get Subaru’s latest fuel economy treatment. Not really satisfied with the idea, but don’t see a lot of alternatives on the U.S. market.

      Barring that, it’s a Camry or Fusion sedan.

    • 0 avatar

      Well, to be honest, in Europe they’re buying crossovers, MPVs and “versos” as much as wagons, and in greater quantities every day.

      So, yes, they get this. They also get the Fiat Multipla, Kia Rondo and all sorts of similar dorkboxes. And they buy them. The only difference is that their crossovers don’t universally pretend to be rock-hoppers.

      • 0 avatar

        Really it is that Europeans realize that sedans are a pretty useless throwback to when a “trunk” was in fact a box strapped onto the butt of the car. And the smaller the car, the less sense it makes. “Wagons” whether they be long or short or tall or squat are simply a far more efficient and flexible way of carrying people and stuff around. And with fuel more than double what it is in the States, few are willing to pay the penalty for faux offroad capability that they do not need and will never use.

    • 0 avatar

      What about the Toyota Venza and the Mercedes R-Class? This one looks like the love child of the two.

    • 0 avatar

      I went looking for a decent wagon and was fortunate to find a TSX wagon I like.

  • avatar

    Being used to more affordable cars is a double edged sword in the US. Nice to see they are fully capable of making an interior that competes with the best, even if it costs too much for us to handle. It would be really great if they could translate the suspension improvements to American models. That lack of isolation is my biggest issue with Hyundai (and my Elantra).

    • 0 avatar

      The engineers who do the suspension/steering tuning for the USDM market Sonata could learn a thing or 2 from Hyundai’s Euro engineers or Kia’s Australian tuners (probably the best of the lot), but I suspect the steering tuning for the US is due to what they think the typical US driver wants (easy turning in mall parking lots).

      The i10 is highly regarded in Europe and the original i30 was seen as a decent competitor, but the i40 will be the vehicle that really changes Hyundai’s reputation across the pond.

      The i40 Estate won the prestigious Golden Award at the EuroCarBody Conference in Germany, becoming the 1st Asian automaker to win top prize.

      • 0 avatar

        My assumption is that so much of it has to do with building a car to meet a pricepoint, which so often is the overriding factor in cars sold in the US. The pressure here seems to be “How can we make the next model for less” instead of “How can we make the best model possible”. Not that simple obviously but so much of American ‘tastes’ seem to be focused on price.

      • 0 avatar

        That plays a part of it, but Kia did a better job tuning the Optima than Hyundai the Sonata.

        Also, the Aussie Optima is supposed to have the best tuning for the more enthusiast-minded drivers (better than either the Euro, US or KDM Optima) – so the talents of the engineers and gearing the tuning to the specific market also plays a role.

      • 0 avatar

        Most reviews I read of this car lament the fact that the steering/suspension is still too soft and numb compared to the Euro competition. I think 5th gear did a take on this car and said the same thing, so it’s not just the guys who are bound to say this kind of thing regardless of how the thing actually drives.

  • avatar

    Ah, the Holy Grail! The 50MPG, 6-speed manual diesel wagon!

    Oh you are SUCH a tease…

  • avatar

    PLEASE tell me this is the next Elantra Touring!

    (Isn’t the current Elantra Touring based on the old European-spec i40?)

    • 0 avatar

      Sorry, you’re thinking of the i30. This is an all-new model that is basically the European version of the Sonata. Sadly none of us should be holding our breath for this to make it to the US…

      • 0 avatar

        Well, they have an Elantra Touring, why not a Sonata Touring? This is a fine-looking wagon. Your photos betray a lust for the rear-quarter view.

      • 0 avatar
        Felis Concolor

        That’s a very big bummer. Make that one the Sonata Touring in the US market, then sit back and wait for the “HFS” exclamations from the buying public.

        It’s a very nice look despite the rising beltline rendering the rear side glass useless. The styling falls into the same category I put Citroen’s DS5: lots of lines in the sheet metal, never looking overly busy. And that is excellent integration; from nose to tail, nothing looks out of place.

      • 0 avatar

        I refuse to argue with that logic. I hope they do bring it here.

        Andrea is the photographer, and her architectural background shows… she likes to “capture the motion” of stationary objects, and the i40’s lines of motion go aaalll the way back.

        I am going to add a few more shots to the gallery to give a better sense of the design. The shot on the ferry does exaggerate the look of the front end a bit, and I see a few more on the cutting room floor that might help illustrate the look. Both when taking and culling the photos, we were a bit distracted by the scenery…

    • 0 avatar

      The new i30 is supposed to be pretty nice as well (tho, I like the new Kia cee’d better) and the hatch version will make its way over to the US as the Elantra Touring.

      There’s an outside chance that Hyundai may bring over the i40 Estate as the Sonata wagon (better to just call it something different like what Toyota did with the Venza), but considering the low sales of these types of vehicles in the US, the chances are pretty slim (esp. since the i40 would require a higher pricetag than the Sonata).

  • avatar

    That is one GREAT looking car !

  • avatar

    Nice work Ed. You are completely right about the halo comparison between the Genesis and the i40 as larger diesel wagons are truly the European holy grail of family motoring.

    It’s harder to see in the photos – how does the interior quality compare with the US Elantra and Sonata?

    • 0 avatar

      Sorry about the lack of quality interior shots… I always forget them until the last minute and end up having to shoot them in bad light. You can find better shots via Google Images.

      As I say in the review, the more refined, understated design requires less cheap-looking plastic accents. Overall aesthetics are similar, just more toned-down, sober, classy and the material quality is better across the board. Relatively fine-grained (say, in comparison to a contemporary Euro VW) soft-touch plastic throughout, and the admirable solidity of assembly (say, in the dash) that Hyundai still isn’t getting enough props for.

      An anecdote might help explain: at the end of my trip, I was in Paris for 24 hours, and I stopped by Citroen’s Champs Elysee boutique to peep the new DS line, which all look amazing in pics. Design-wise, their interiors are nice (though not mind-blowing), but the overall material quality and general feel of assembly couldn’t touch the i40s. Hollow-sounding plastics, cheap surfacing, and an overall budget feel that seems at odds with the DS’s status as a premium, boutique line of Citroens. And if I had to choose between the interior on the brand-new VW we drove in week two (not a Passat, but a near-identical base price as the i40) or the Hyundai, it would be close but the i40 would still get the nod.

      All told, a damn impressive interior… if I had a complaint it might be that it was too understated, but that’s not a complaint I often make.

      • 0 avatar

        That said Citroen ain’t really the benchmark. Most reviews I’ve read the i40’s interior is appreciated but at the same taken as a whole it’s still not considered on par yet with the best of the Euro offerings in this segment (the i40 is mainly compared to the Skoda Superb).

  • avatar

    … or you could just go buy a Jetta Sport Wagon TDI right now.
    Just Sayin.

  • avatar

    Personally, if I bother to buy a four-door (or 5-door) car, I’ll try to find one where rear passengers can actually look out their side windows. The back seat of this thing looks to be a coffin-like experience. An all too common complaint with recent car designs.

  • avatar

    It’s a better execution than the US Sonata, which, now that the shock-value has worn off, just looks ridiculous. But I cannnot approve of the ugly gigantic headlines stretching back to past the front axle. Likewise with the gargantuan taillights. Terrible. You want to use the headlights to drive the A-line, and the taillights can resolve the entire rearward visual flow, but the lights here just blot out the rest of the composition.

  • avatar

    Nice car, nice review, nice photos, nice locations; what’s not to like? Thanks.

  • avatar

    That is Sweeeet. They would sell a ton of those in Canada. Our market isn’t so truck-focused as the US (My home of Alberta excepted). I really like Hyundai’s recent designs except for the grille, way too fussy. Of course I’d love to see what KIA does with this platform.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t expect Kia to do anything with this platform, since the Optima is supposed to be Kia’s offering (albeit larger) in this segment (also, one reason why the quality of the materials in the Optima is nicer than the Sonata).

      Kia just doesn’t have the resources that Hyundai does to offer a full separate Euro lineup (i10, i20, i30, i40) and instead, offers just the Picanto and Cee’d to go along with the “world” Rio and Optima.

      The good news is that the RWD Kia GT seems to be a go and that Kia is considering a 2-door coupe and wagon versions as well.

  • avatar

    Great looking car, and it has everything you would want for the family, and yet chances are we’ll never see it here.
    The choice of wagons in NA is so bad that the Toyota Venza, which I had written off as bloated and hideous, is now starting to look okay.
    Not great I hasten to add, just okay, same goes for the Outback.
    The Crossturd however, is still an atrocious design that convinced me Honda NA has indeed lost it’s mojo.

    • 0 avatar

      BTW love your avatar picture, my first car was an ’87 Mazda 323. It took a lot of a abuse. I almost never see them anymore, feels like I just spotted Waldo!

      • 0 avatar

        Thanks. I’ve had faster and more fancier cars but it’s my trusty old Mazda 323 that I miss the most.
        Never should have sold it.

      • 0 avatar

        Yeah it wasn’t technically mine as I shared it with two older brothers before I was driving legally, so you can imagine the abuse it took with three teenagers. If I could find another one (sedans are even harder to find) I’d want it just to drive once in a while. It had a great dash for an 80’s econobox.

  • avatar

    There is clearly a reason why the US spends almost zero time on art in public school.

    Hyundai’s styling look like a waded up piece of paper that has been squeezed into a shape of a vehicle.

    How can everyone be saying this is such a great looking car? It’s not quite as ugly as an Aztek, but almost like like the Aztek’s not as ugly second cousin.

    • 0 avatar

      Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean that it’s ugly. In fact, it may even be the opposite!

    • 0 avatar

      Your are clearly in the minority opinion as evidenced by the Sonata’s sales boom…

      • 0 avatar

        That I do not disagree with.

        But McDonalds sells a lot of Big Macs and quarter pounders.

        Home Alone with McCauley Caulkin was a very high grossing film.

        During the 1970s, bell bottoms sold very well.

        What I’m saying is, and based on the examples I’ve given above, a lot of people have terrible taste.

        I think we can all mostly agree that just about anything that comes out of a McDonalds is disgusting, yet it sells quite well. Home Alone was a terrible movie, but people lined up to see it. And Bell Bottoms were a pretty terrible fashion trend, yet it was all the rage. Except for McDonalds, its just taken some years to pass for people to be able to look back and wonder wtf they were thinking…

        I think within five-10 years most people are going to look back on Hyundais styling and wonder wtf people were thinking buying such ugly vehicles.

        I do like the Genesis though.

      • 0 avatar

        I’m glad we can agree the McD burgers are pretty gross.

        “I mean seriously, you can’t say the i40 is worse than say, the outgoing Honda CR-V or Crosstour; now that’s getting to Aztec territory.”

        Aside from the Edsel, I don’t think anything is quite as ugly as the Aztek. The crosstour is pretty horid. CRV, while not ugly, per se, is far from attractive.

        Personally, in regards to the i40, and the rest of hyundais lineup, aside from the Genesis sedan, I find their styling to be too busy, and flavor of the day. From my perspective working in the design field, non-traditional design which may look okay for a season, does not hold up well over time. Take the bell bottom example again. Or look at the horrible buildings that were constructed during the 1960s and 1970s compared to what was built pre WWII.

        In regards to Honda or Toyota, their styling for the most part, has been pretty non-offensive. I guess I just care a little too much what other people think. I’d rather be driving a non offensive car, than a polarizing one. But actually, if money were no object I’d prefer a gen 5 Quatroporte, Aston Martin, or a Jaguar based purely on the sheetmetal. And even the tesla model s is pretty hot (aside from it’s grille).

        But maybe not every car company can design these types of automobiles. Just like not every female can have the physical attributes of an E. or N. European woman. Because if there were not the 300 pound 5’2″ American women nourished on supersized McD value meals, how would you know who the really beautiful ones were?

        We’ll revisit this in ten years. Any maybe my opinion will change, and you’ll all have been right all along. Or maybe I will have been right all along.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree with you Dynasty, most of Hyundai’s designs are horrid….with some exceptions.

      • 0 avatar

        That’s a horrible analogy.

        McDonalds sells a lot of Big Macs and Quarter Pounders b/c they’re cheap, can be had quickly and people can expect the same taste/quality pretty much every time they get one (most people don’t actually regard them as actually good burgers).

        While Hyundai’s design language is a bit polarizing, it’s a big, big reason why Hyundai has seen such a big increase in sales.

        Buyers have stated that the design as one of the TOP reasons for purchasing a Hyundai model – something that didn’t happen with the previous model.

        Design, otoh, has not been one of the top reasons for buying a Toyota or Honda (so that McDonalds analogy would actually work better for them).

        I mean seriously, you can’t say the i40 is worse than say, the outgoing Honda CR-V or Crosstour; now that’s getting to Aztec territory.

  • avatar

    I know I’ve seen at least one of these here in China, and my impression of it matches yours.

    It’s a damn fine car and I think Hyundai would be foolish not to bring it to the USA.

    I think part of the reason everyone is crazy about SUV’s is because we have no good alternatives. The last affordable alternatives were mostly garbage of one type or another.

    I think it’s as much a case of out of sight out of mind, no one thinks wagons because no one sees wagons. If people saw more of them you would probably see more being sold. But I don’t think any big mainstream car maker wants to take that chance in the USA.

  • avatar

    yeaah bring it to USA, i couldnt agree more with this.. i knew this car when i was i China, it was awesome. definately will be one of the best New Car 2012

  • avatar

    What, no all wheel drive? Fail.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    It’s called R-Class.

    But I want reliability.

    I love this car! Great color too. Thanks Ed!

  • avatar

    I saw a review of this car by German car TV show, compared it with a bunch of competitors, I think it was 9 other wagon. It came third, and was positively regarded. Quite a coup for Hyundai! Considering that a review of Toyota Avensis wagon is not so glowing, proclaiming it competent but still below others. Hyundai seem to have found what Europeans wanted, while Toyota (after many attempt) still hasn’t. That and steering columns that doesn’t rattle like VW!

  • avatar

    The styling looks like it would be more suited to an RWD V8 Genesis wagon than an anemic 136hp FWD vehicle.

  • avatar

    This car looks exactly like a lot of other cars over here. I don’t like the transparent headlights, and for this car specifically, it’s ass looks terrible. Seen from the front, it could have been any peugeot, opel or jap.

  • avatar

    Hot damn, that’s a fine-looking car. Hope it doesn’t come here, as I would probably trade in my 2008 Elantra in for it.

  • avatar

    America used to be the land of the station wagon, but it seems the car companies would rather sell you a more expensive and profitable “crossover” version of the same platform and American consumers seem to like the higher riding height that the crossovers offer. I don’t think we’ll ever see station wagons capture the kind of market share they did in the past, not unless crossovers fall out of favor, anyway.

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