Wednesday, June 25, 2008
First Drive: 2009 Hyundai Genesis sedan
Autoblog recently spent time in Korea driving pre-production versions of the new Hyundai Genesis. This is the car that, according to Hyundai, will usher in a new era of luxury. Them's big words, and we only got a limited amount of time to figure out how true -- or not -- they were. But the main thing you need to know about the Genesis is this: unless they pull a bait and switch on the price range they mentioned, the car will be worth every penny Hyundai charges.
The parking lot statistics are these: the Genesis is a big car with a fair bit of horsepower. The car is longer, wider, and has a longer wheelbase than the BMW 530i, Mercedes E350, and Lexus ES350. It's also good looking -- massive and curved without being bulbous -- although it's not designed to be controversial or, frankly, beyond the grille, that memorable. All you'll be left with a few hours later is, probably, "It was a good looking car." That is not a bad thing, since most people wouldn't remember exactly what an ES350 looks like, either, and this slice of the mass-market segment is not where you're trying to compete with Gaudi or Scaglietti... or Bangle. But if you're really worried about the price of gas, you'll be happy to know it also has a better Cd than any of those other cars, too.
Under the hood you get your choice of a 4.6-liter V8 or 3.8-liter V6. The bigger lump corrals 375 horses when sipping premium, and 368 with regular gas. Torque numbers are 333 lb.-ft. and 324 with premium and regular, respectively. Those numbers put it in the mix of luxury offerings from Infiniti, BMW, and Mercedes, the Lexus GS460, along with the Chrysler 300C, and Pontiac G8, with slightly more horsepower than all but the E550, and slightly less torque than any of them. Hyundai's first in-house V8 also gets high-zoot tech like a two-step variable induction system and dual continuously variable valve timing. The 3.8-liter Lambda V6 gets 270 hp and twists 233 lb.-ft., which keeps it in good company as well. It also provided quite the surprise when we got behind the wheel, but we'll get to that in a moment. Through the six-speed automatic transmission, your mileage will be 17/25 in the V8, and 18/27 in the V6.
Inside, the Genesis is nice. No, we mean nice. We admit that we're suckers for a cockpit that looks like mission control, but that's until we're actually driving at speed and have to figure out where the button is to stop cold air from blowing in our face. Then we hate it. Credit goes to Hyundai for creating an IP interface that we like almost as much as the Jaguar XF's, which has just the right amount of buttons to get crucial functions handled quickly. The difference is that the Hyundai doesn't have a touchscreen, which would have been wonderful, but hey, this is only round one, and that Jag screen will cost you quite a few Korean won more...
Seating, driving position adjustability, and the view from inside are all top notch. The back seat, however, was our favorite place. That had nothing to do with not wanting to drive the car -- it's simply an enormous back seat area. With the cars exceptional length and wheelbase, there is enough room for people in front and back to stretch out at the same time. If you don't get too rowdy, you could probably even have a game of ring-around-the-rosie back there. And swing a few cats. It's that roomy.
Fit and finish, stitching, touch, materials, and integration are all very good. Now, before anyone goes scanning pictures through an electron microscope and saying "Well, it kinda looks like...", remember, we're talking about a car that will probably come in well under $40K -- and that's for the V8. And while we don't want to hit the price refrain too often, this isn't about making excuses, it's about keeping in mind what the competition is. Is it as nice as a BMW interior? In absolute terms, no -- if the BMW is a 10, the Hyundai is 9-and-change. But for practical purposes, yes, because that extra percent will cost you at least $7K more to access, and it's not that much nicer. Sit in a Genesis and see what you think. In fact, sit in a BMW 530, sit in a Genesis, and then sit in a fully kitted out V6 Honda Accord, and you'll see where the Genesis is playing.
BMW can take credit, however, for Hyundai's Driver Information System (and COMAND, and MMI, and so on...). BMW, having pioneered that type of interface, has had to watch as other companies got it (more) right. And the DIS is a pretty straightforward and simple to use, incorporating HDD nav, voice recognition, Bluetooth handsfree, multimedia, climate control, and vehicle dynamics.
But let's get to the driving. We only had a day with the Genesis, and that was on a proving ground, so we can't really talk about the finer points of long distance driving and handling. Things like day-long comfort and suspension capabilities will have to wait until we can spend a week with the car next month. For now, know that the V8 car has a weight balance of 54:46, the V6 posts a 52:48. We were told there was about a 400-pound weight difference up front between the V6 and V8, factoring in both the engine and associated components.
The car gets a five-line suspension front and rear with some aluminum components like knuckles, links, and brackets. The shocks have amplitude selective damping. The power steering motor and pump unit have been isolated from the engine to improve steering feel, and that feature also improves fuel economy. The body is 74-percent high-tensile steel, with an ultra-high-strength steel cage around the cabin that is laser welded to form a continuous seam and provide appreciably more stiffness and rigidity and less flexing than the luxury competitors.
We tried increasing speeds through the slalom, and the car handles admirably, with almost no wallow. Irretrievable pendulum action didn't occur until we got to toward the end of the six cones at speeds a little higher than those we were advised to drive at, having accelerated through. Let off the throttle in the middle of a screeching tire turn, and the car settles right down. The car isn't begging to be driven like that -- you won't race through a slalom and be itching to turn around and do it again -- but the car's capabilities are more than enough when emergencies dictate sawing at the wheel.
Take the car up to 70 mph and hit the brakes, and you'll find yourself back at zero in just over 160 feet. Among its luxury competitors, that beats everything but the BMW 535i by almost ten feet or more.
On the handling course, the V8 has a rewarding, linear curve. Again, it's not the kind of car that you're going to throw into Eau Rouge at top speed -- and that's not the point. But you know what the car is doing, and you can walk it toward its limit without worrying that you'll go beyond it first. It's a big car, so there's quite a bit of weight, so while the car is taut, you're going to feel it shifting and settling when you're blazing through sweepers. But the Genesis didn't need a few moments to decide what it was going to do around the corner, and didn't complain. You set your speed, turn the wheel, and the Genesis sorts it out.
Get frisky through hairpins and the sedan -- specifically its integrated ESC system -- will have something to say about it. Throttle control kicks in first, and if matters out back are still too loose, the rear outside brake clamps down for a fraction of a moment. However, none of the intrusions are abrupt, there are no shrieking chimes or strobing lights, you're not suddenly out of power in the middle of a turn, and you know where the car is the entire time.
It was on the high speed oval that we began to wonder about the V6 versus V8 question. The V6 at top speed, (130 mph) in the highest lane, was rock solid, while the V8 at about 145-MPH suffered some suspension squash and wandering. In the middle lane, at 100 mph, the V8 was solid as granite, with the V6 just a fraction behind it in solidity. All of this is mainly due to heft of the engine. The important things to take from this are: 1. We drove a Hyundai at 145 mph and didn't have any concerns about it; 2. we drove a Hyundai at 130 mph and 100 mph and described the experience as rock solid; 3. Nearly all Genesis drivers will never have to worry about how the Genesis handles on a high-speed oval; 4. Nearly all Genesis drivers will be pleasantly shocked that a Hyundai handles superbly past the century mark.
And the final thing to take away is this: we couldn't understand why we should buy the V6 over the V8. They perform nearly identically. The V6 is almost as fast. The interiors are the same. They look almost identical, with nothing other than a small badge on the rear valance to differentiate the two. Even the tailpipes are identical. And the V6 gets better gas mileage. We're a high-horsepower guys... but if we were going to buy a Genesis, we'd buy the V6.
Is there anything wrong with the Genesis? Sure, there are certain luxury trimmings they didn't include: the turn signals don't click three times (and even Volkswagens have that). You need to use the key or the button inside to open the trunk-- there's no release on the lid. And there are some places, such as the trunk, where the trim isn't quite finished. But again, this is round one.
The real question: who will this car compete with? It's being pitched as a competitor for the 5-series et al. Let's not look at this as a luxury lifestyle proposition yet, where brand-brand-brand rules the day. Let's look at this as a financial proposition, because, really, that's what it is for the time being. We all know that Hyundai doesn't have the brand equity to stand toe-to-toe with BMW. Yet. And we're not saying they will -- that's up to them. But remember, at one time, even BMW didn't have the brand equity to compete with today's BMW.
If the Genesis is reliable and Hyundai stands behind it until can make an impact with the brand-conscious, it is going to sell. That is not in question. Based on what we know of the Genesis so far, anyone in the market to spend $35K on a luxury sedan must at least give the car a chance. After that, the question any potential buyer should ask is: Do I want to score a 9.5 out of ten on the European luxury scale and save myself $10,000 or more while doing it? We can only believe there are a lot of people out there who will answer "Yes" to that question.