This is going to be a big year for Hyundai New Zealand: an avalanche of important new models and a quiet ambition (don't let anybody tell you otherwise) to challenge for a podium place in the sales charts.

In fact, consider passenger cars alone and the Kiwi-owned distributor is there already: it was the third-best-selling brand in 2011, with 6072 cars.

If the company's contention that sales were hampered by supply last year is true, then 2012 is shaping up to be a Korea-defining calendar year.

Hyundai ended 2011 with the launch of the all-new Accent: an honest but hardly exciting small car. First up for 2012 will be something entirely more sexy: the i40 wagon, which is set for local release in the next six weeks.


Driven grabbed an early evaluation model for a preview drive this week.

So the i40 is a wagon version of the i45, right? Sort of, but not really. If they look a little different, that's because they are: the i45 was designed with the American market in mind, hence the blingy exterior and comfort-oriented chassis.

The i40 was designed in Germany and is aimed mainly at the European market, which is why it's sharper-looking in a simpler way and more driver-focused.

It's also why the i40 will be available with a diesel engine: a 1.7-litre unit that is getting rave reviews in Europe. Sadly, that's not the car we drove: instead, we sampled the 130kW/213Nm 2.0-litre petrol, with a six-speed automatic transmission.

Not that there is anything to complain about: the direct-injection petrol powerplant produces 8kW/15Nm more than it does in the entry-level i45 sedan and the automatic gearbox seems superbly calibrated. But the 100kW/320Nm diesel is likely to be the star of the i40 show.

There's some visual sleight-of-hand in the i40's svelte lines. It looks impossibly long, mainly because of the low roofline. In fact, it's 50mm shorter overall than the i45 and rides on a 25mm-shorter wheelbase.

We drove the entry version - at $44,990, just $2000 more than the base i45 sedan. Really, there's no competition in terms of looks and driving dynamics.

Hyundai has been struggling with the i45's wriggly cornering attitude since 2009, with at least one major suspension retuned along the way. The i40 is much more confident in the corners, despite the eco-biased Kumho tyres' lack of grip in the wet. In the rain, the tendency towards understeer was a constant distraction in our test car - in the dry, it was a composed and capable affair.

Underneath the style, it's a spacious wagon as well. Rear legroom is vast and the load area is generous despite that sweeping roofline. There's 553 litres with rear seats in use or 1719 litres when you fold them down - just a few litres less than the benchmark Ford Mondeo wagon.

With a 70-litre tank and Combined fuel economy of 7.7 litres per 100km, you're even guaranteed decent range between fills. It's bound to be a no-brainer for fleets - but I'm tempted to say it feels a little too classy for that.