Wednesday, May 28, 2008

This Is Just the Beginning

Genesis. Sounds like a great new beginning, and it is. The 2009 Hyundai Genesis sedan is the first V8-powered rear-wheel-drive luxury sedan from the Korean carmaker for our market, and it's a game-changer in many ways. As with the Sonata and Azera that preceded the Genesis, Hyundai is taking the fight to the establishment.

This time, however, it has taken aim at the Germans. In its own words, Hyundai says of the 2009 Hyundai Genesis V8, "It's the size of the BMW 7 Series with the performance of the 5 Series and at the price of the 3 Series."

It's an imposing goal, yet we have to admit that the Korean company has missed the target only slightly. Instead we'd say what Hyundai has actually produced is a car that's the size of the first-generation Infiniti Q45 with the performance of an M45 and at the price of a G35.

That's still pretty darn good in our book. And that isn't even accounting for the budget-friendly 2009 Hyundai Genesis V6 that will also be available this summer.

Free the Korean Eight
At its core, the top-line Genesis is powered by an all-new, ultra-clean-running, DOHC 4.6-liter V8 that produces 375 horsepower at 6,500 rpm while running on premium fuel (or 368 hp with regular fuel). It produces 333 pound-feet of torque (324 lb-ft on regular fuel) at 4,500 rpm.

Power is routed through a ZF-built 6HP26 six-speed transmission to the rear wheels. While shift-paddle control for the six-speed is being developed for this transmission as we write, the car now features a shift lever mounted on the console.

This car looks substantial in person, measuring 195.9 inches long, 73.4 inches wide and 58.3 inches tall. The wheelbase is commensurately long at 115.6 inches, while the front track is 62.0 inches and the rear track is 62.2 inches. It weighs in at 4,006 pounds. Just as you'd expect from a sport sedan, a multilink suspension with coil springs is featured at every corner, as is a P235/50R18 Dunlop SP sport 5000M tire.

Proving Grounds

We were given the opportunity to put our test instruments on a KDM (Korean domestic market) version of the Genesis V8 (which has already gone on sale there), right on Hyundai's elaborate proving grounds not far from Seoul. It's an impressively modern facility, meant to be a real showcase of the company's capabilities just like the rest of Hyundai HQ.

Even while running on regular fuel and thus producing just 368 hp rather than the full 375 hp, the Genesis V8 stopped the computerized clock of our VBox test equipment at 5.9 seconds to 60 mph (5.6 seconds with 1 foot of rollout as on a drag strip), confirming Hyundai's claim of breaking the 6-second barrier to 60 mph. The quarter-mile marker flew by at 103 mph in exactly 14.0 seconds. These fleet figures put the Hyundai Genesis V8 in the company of any V8-powered Audi, Benz or BMW sedan, a significant accomplishment.

While a stopping distance of 124 feet from 60 mph isn't what we'd call world-class, that's still pretty good for a 4,000-pound sedan wearing all-season tires. And while we didn't pack all of our test gear required to time the car through the slalom, we did set up a standard course for a slalom evaluation and made a number of runs. The car surprised us with its neutral handling balance. It felt a little soft and slow as it made the transition from one slalom gate to the next, but it always was obedient.

We'll have to wait a couple more months to get a U.S.-specification car here in the States for an official track day, but these numbers and early impressions should only improve.

High Roller
Inside the cabin, the Genesis V8 is outfitted like a true luxury sedan. Spacious, richly appointed and fully decked out with a comprehensive list of convenience features, this Hyundai looks and feels very much like a top-line Lexus. The seats are as comfortable as they appear, although they lack the kind of firm, highly bolstered Germanic treatment a sport sedan enthusiast might enjoy. The instrument panel's white-on-black electroluminescent gauges look like they came straight out of a Lexus.

The soft curves of the sweeping dashboard architecture are complemented by an elegantly adorned center stack with numerous HVAC/audio buttons, many of which are thankfully made redundant with more ergonomically friendly controls on the steering wheel or by the multimedia controller on the center console just aft of the shift lever.

Nearly all the electronic conveniences are connected by a fiber-optic network, the latest thing to improve the speed and reliability of an automobile's electronic nervous system. Hyundai has dedicated more than $160 million to bringing such advanced electronics to its automobiles, and has entered into a long-term agreement with Microsoft to co-develop a next-generation infotainment system for both Hyundai and Kia.

Other than the Rolls-Royce Phantom, the Genesis is the only car that presently offers a Lexicon-brand 7.1 discrete audio system with HD radio, 17 speakers and more than 500 watts of power. If the 40-gigabyte hard-drive-based navigation system is ordered, the dashboard of the Genesis is enhanced with an 8-inch color display and XM NavTraffic, plus digital music storage and a back-up camera. Like all 2009-model Hyundai cars, the Genesis comes standard with XM Satellite Radio and USB/iPod connectivity.

Firm and Quiet

The Genesis is built from a rigid unibody that's received as much CAD work as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Double-laminated glass, anti-vibration pads and acoustic sandwiches in its design and construction only begin to tell the whole story. We'd be negligent if we didn't say that Hyundai Genesis is one of the quietest cars we've ever driven.

World-class crashworthiness is also expected from this car due to special attention to its construction, as well as a full complement of active and passive safety features such as fully integrated electronic stability/traction/braking systems and airbags a-plenty.

As you'd expect, the Genesis rides softly on an aluminum-intensive suspension to enhance ride quality by minimizing unsprung weight. The electrohydraulic steering assist leaves the rack-and-pinion steering feeling more isolated from the tires than we'd prefer, but the steering itself is still precise and appropriate given the scale and mission of the car. Nobody will ever mistake the Genesis for a BMW when it comes to steering, but Infiniti or Lexus owners will find it familiar.

There's Room To Grow
During our visit to Hyundai HQ, company brass forthrightly addressed several pertinent issues about the new car for us. The new V8 doesn't feature direct-injection technology to attain its lofty horsepower figures. Is D.I. a future possibility? Absolutely, but this is only the first iteration of the all-new 4.6-liter Tau engine family and it's meant to be relatively affordable to build, and it already features an elevated 6,500-rpm redline, fully variable valve timing, a variable-volume intake plenum, cast stainless-steel exhaust manifolds and ULEV-II level emissions. There's more to come.

We noted that the KDM Genesis on sale in Korea has an adjustable air suspension. Could future U.S. Genesis sedans be so equipped? Again, as a cost-cutting measure, Hyundai chose to introduce the car to the U.S. without it to be more competitive on price. It may become an option next year.

All-wheel drive? Diesel or hybrid powertrains? Hyundai says it has no current plans for the Genesis to evolve in these directions.

Finally, the elephant in the room was recognized by the Hyundai executives. Why didn't Hyundai kick off a premium channel in its model lineup with a truly premium car rather than a luxurious sport sedan, something more in keeping with Lexus rather than Audi? The Hyundai execs gave this possibility serious attention, but concluded it would not only cost the company too much (about $2.5 billion), but it would also put undue stress on the current dealership network. Hyundai estimates that the gains it has taken 13 years for Lexus to enjoy would take something like 20 years for Hyundai to recoup. But it still might happen someday, they admit.

Instead, Hyundai has dedicated a special area within its nearly 800 dealerships in the U.S. to the sale of the Genesis sedan in its V8 and V6 iterations, and it has specially trained those who will be charged with selling the Genesis sedan.

It's a Bottom Line Business
If we take Hyundai at its word that the price of the Genesis V6 will mirror those of either the BMW 3 Series or Mercedes-Benz C-Class, it would mean a bottom line between $33,000 and $39,000 depending on equipment. Hyundai predicts 70 percent of Genesis sedans will fall into this category.

Our estimate for the base price of a 2009 Hyundai Genesis V8 is $40,000-$45,000, or $7,000 less than a Lexus GS 460 and a whopping $15,000 less than a base Mercedes-Benz E550.

While we don't for a minute believe anybody shopping for an E-Class or 5 Series would even consider a Japanese luxury sedan, much less the Korean-built Hyundai Genesis, those looking at Lexus or Infiniti would do well to visit a special little corner of a Hyundai dealership. One test-drive might begin to tip the scale. The clincher would be the sticker price and amazing warranty terms.

The 2009 Hyundai Genesis might not be here yet but, like those first few raindrops that precede a slow-moving thunderstorm on the horizon, there's going to be a thorough soaking before it runs its course. This is just the beginning.

By Chris Walton, Chief Road Test Editor

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