Take the Hyundai i40 for a spin

AS far as good years go, the last 12 months for Hyundai is about as good as it gets. In 2009 it smashed its own sales records and saw a 100% increase in market share over 2008. And in 2010 it did ever better. It’s been helped in part by the success of the scrappage scheme, but that’s of no use whatsoever if the cars aren’t up to scratch. Thankfully Hyundai has consistently improved the quality and performance of its cars without sacrificing value for money, a package that’s hard to ignore.

AS far as good years go, the last 12 months for Hyundai is about as good as it gets. In 2009 it smashed its own sales records and saw a 100% increase in market share over 2008. And in 2010 it did ever better. It’s been helped in part by the success of the scrappage scheme, but that’s of no use whatsoever if the cars aren’t up to scratch. Thankfully Hyundai has consistently improved the quality and performance of its cars without sacrificing value for money, a package that’s hard to ignore.

Following the new ix35, updated i20 and i30 and revised Santa Fe, there’s a first glimpse at the replacement for the Sonata saloon. Traditionally, the larger saloon segment has been something of poisoned chalice for anyone other than the premium manufacturers. Despite being packed with kit and offering exceptional value for money, buyers become ever more fussy and simply want a shiny German badge.

The i40 however is a determined attempt to change all that, and the first glance should tell you this is quite a different beast to its predecessor. For a start, it is undeniably handsome. It also undeniably owes something to the Mercedes-Benz CLS in terms of its looks, but this is certainly no bad thing. It has presence and style over and above what its price tag would suggest, and in such an image conscious sector that is a big advantage. The old bade trick would certainly be revealing: tape over the Hyundai ‘H’ on the front grille, and most punters would be hard pressed to spot it was a saloon of Korean origin.

The positive vibes continue on the inside too. For a start, there is plenty of space on the inside for front and rear passengers. Despite the sloping shoulder-line it’s a bright and airy cabin, particular when finished in the light grey trim colour. Sliding behind the steering wheel puts you in front of a pleasingly high quality dashboard too. The standard of fit and finish seems to improve with every successive new model from Hyundai, and in the i40 there’s a comprehensive equipment list as well as an attractive layout. Poke and prodding reveals plenty of soft-touch plastics and smooth button actions, the kind of things that help to maintain the good feeling once you’ve driven out of the showroom.

Out on the road, the i40 shows the hard work that’s been done by the engineers over at Hyundai too. Rather than going for the throat of BMW and producing a sporty saloon, the i40 is closer to the comfort end of the scale, and its softer suspension is unflustered by poor road surfaces. Should you choose to press on a little it doesn’t fall apart: the steering is accurate, all the controls respond well to the driver and it doesn’t roll a great deal either. Keener drivers may want a little more, but for 99% of the time the i40 is more than capable.

This early South-African specification car was fitted with a 2.0-litre petrol engine and a six-speed automatic gearbox, which meant low noise levels and an easy drive - there’s even paddles on the back of the wheel should you want to change gears yourself. But when the i40 reaches the UK, not only will it have a wider choice of engines including diesel options, but a number of detail changes will take place throughout to meet the exacting needs of the European driver. Expect the handling and ride to be further improved, an improvement in cabin materials and slight styling tweaks too.

But most importantly, the i40 will first appear as an even-more styling lifestyle estate, ahead of the introduction of the saloon. The sleek styling will translate well into the guise of a load lugger, and will undoubtedly offer plenty of space too. But the punchline will be the sticker price. At an expected entry of around £16,000 for the saloon and around £1,500 more for the estate, the i40 will cost about the same as entry-level versions of cars a size below. By sticking to a winning formula, it seems highly likely that the i40 will succeed just as its smaller siblings have done.