Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Hyundai puts its spin on luxury sedans
Hyundai's all-new Genesis is unlike any car the Korean automaker has brought to the United States before. It's a rear-wheel-drive, full-size sedan available with Hyundai's first V-8 engine in a passenger car. After driving the car extensively, it's clear to me that Hyundai got most of the important elements right: The driving experience and the cabin's ambience and amenities are all there.
What's less certain is whether buyers will be accepting of a Hyundai - a brand better known for small, affordable cars - with a starting price of $32,250, even though that price includes a number of standard safety and convenience features. It's going to be difficult, but it helps that Hyundai has a remarkable first effort on its hands.
Most of Hyundai's models fall on the bland side of things where styling is concerned, but the automaker has taken a couple of chances with its new flagship sedan. The first of these is the lack of Hyundai's "H" badge on the grille, which instead features a winged design not seen on other Hyundais in the United States. Though the symbol's absence here (there is one on the trunk lid) misses an opportunity to tell onlookers that the Genesis is a Hyundai, the flip side is that it might intrigue large-sedan shoppers and prompt them to take a closer look. Based on the car's sleek, stylish appearance overall, I suspect many who investigate further will be impressed.
Though the Genesis doesn't blaze any new trails, it does possess an athletic look for a large car, and it's also well-proportioned. The Genesis has a timeless elegance.
Hyundai positions the Genesis as a performance sedan, and I admit I was skeptical about whether the automaker was willing to do what it takes to truly deliver a sport-sedan experience. Having driven the sedan on a variety of roads, I'm now able to report that Hyundai has backed up its talk with a true performer.
Giving the Genesis a rear-wheel-drive platform - as opposed to a front-wheel-drive one like the full-size Hyundai Azera and Toyota Avalon - was one of the first right moves Hyundai made; the superior dynamics afforded by RWD were eminently apparent on winding mountain roads. The Genesis navigates tight corners like a much smaller car - body roll is well checked and the balanced chassis encourages you to push it harder. The Azera, by comparison, offers softer responses when traveling on undulating roads; it's more of a cruiser, whereas the Genesis is a carver.
Along with this sporty performance comes a ride that's definitely more taut than most Hyundais. The four-wheel independent suspension, which features a five-link setup in front and back, is sensitive to pavement imperfections, transmitting the pockmarks of the road up to the cabin. This was on mostly smooth roads, too.
Where the Genesis differs from a number of other performance sedans is that its steering effort is fairly light; it doesn't take much exertion to turn the wheel. It spins with impressive smoothness and has a consistency across its range of motion that lets you follow a curve with precision. Personally, I would have liked a little less power assistance in the steering, but many people will buy the Genesis more for value-oriented luxury than for its handling, so I can understand why Hyundai tuned it the way it did.
Hyundai's first production V-8, which goes in Genesis 4.6 trim levels, is a powerful engine, much like the 380-horsepower, 4.6-liter V-8 in the Lexus LS 460. It has the same displacement as that Lexus V-8 and makes nearly as much power: 375 hp when using premium gas (368 hp on regular). The V-8 powers effortlessly up hills and allows the car to build speed quickly; I looked down at the speedometer one time and was surprised to find I was going almost 90 miles per hour. All this power wouldn't be worth much if accompanied by any harshness or vibration, but the V-8 is impressively smooth and refined, just like the Lexus V-8.
Joining Hyundai's V-8 is an equally good six-speed automatic transmission. It's made by ZF, which also supplies BMW, and includes a clutchless-manual mode for driver-controlled shifts.
The automatic shifts smoothly and feels well-matched to the V-8. It's also easy to control downshifts using your right foot - pressing the gas pedal will make the transmission kick down for a quick pass around a slower-moving car.
Though the new V-8 is big news for Hyundai, the automaker expects 80 percent of Genesis sedans sold to have the standard 3.8-liter V-6. This V-6 isn't new (it's optional in the Azera), but it produces more power in the Genesis than it does in other Hyundais: 290 horsepower.
The V-6 feels plenty strong, if not quite as powerful as the potent V-8, and like the larger engine it can power the sedan to excessive speeds before you know it. The V-6 also works with a six-speed automatic, though this one is manufactured by Aisin. Like the automatic in the V-8 sedan, it's responsive and smooth.
When it comes to gas mileage, the V-6 has a slight advantage over the V-8; it's rated at 18/27 mpg city/highway while the V-8 gets 17/25 mpg.
Genesis occupants are treated to an upscale cabin that features premium materials, like an optional leather dashboard, and a high level of fit and finish. I prefer the look of the base dashboard and its simulated wood trim, but regardless of which way you go, it's clear Hyundai looked to the standard in the luxury segment - the Mercedes-Benz S-Class. The similarities between the dashboards are undeniable.
Like the S-Class, the Genesis is available with a multifunction control knob that operates the audio and navigation systems. BMW started this trend with its iDrive system. Even though they offer varying degrees of user-friendliness - with BMW's iDrive near the bottom and Mercedes' Comand near the top - all of them are supplied by Harman/Becker, according to Roger Shively, a chief engineer with the supplier. Fortunately, Hyundai's system is like Mercedes's in that its menus are more intuitive.
The Genesis' front bucket seats are finished in standard leather upholstery, and I found them to be quite comfortable for a day of driving. They offer good thigh support and enough side bolstering to keep you situated during aggressive driving without being restrictive. Three-stage heated front seats are standard, and a cooled driver's seat is optional. Back seat passengers also enjoy spacious accommodations, particularly when it comes to legroom.
The Genesis' trunk measures 15.9 cubic feet. This is slightly smaller than the Hyundai Sonata's 16.3-cubic-foot trunk, but it's larger than the Avalon's 14.4-cubic-foot trunk and the Chrysler 300's 15.6-cubic-foot cargo area. Unlike the 300, the Genesis doesn't have a split-folding backseat, but it does come with a trunk pass-through for carrying long items.
The list of standard safety features includes antilock brakes, side-impact airbags for the front and outboard rear seats, an electronic stability system, and active front head restraints.
Crash-test results for the Genesis weren't available.
The base 3.8 trim is priced at $32,250 and features 17-inch alloy wheels, dual-zone automatic air conditioning, cruise control, power front seats, keyless entry and starting, a leather-covered steering wheel, and a seven-speaker audio system with both a USB port for controlling an iPod through the system as well as an auxiliary input jack for plugging in any type of portable music player.
Besides the V-8 engine, 4.6 models, which are listed at $37,250, gain 18-inch alloy wheels, rain-sensing wipers, a power rear sunshade, a moonroof, a power tilt/telescoping steering wheel, a memory feature for the driver, higher-grade leather seats, and a six-CD Lexicon stereo.
Greater levels of content are available in option packages. For $2,000, the Premium Package for the 3.8 trim level adds all of the 4.6 features except upgraded leather seats and 18-inch wheels.
The Technology Package is a $4,000 option that's available for both models, though it requires the Premium Package Plus group with the 3.8. It includes a Lexicon surround-sound system with 17 speakers, a knob-controlled navigation system, a backup camera, front and rear parking sensors, and a cooled driver's seat.
You'll pay a little more for the Genesis, but it outpaces mainstream competitors like the 300 and Avalon in many respects. However, it should also put more expensive competitors like the Mercedes-Benz E-Class and BMW 5 Series on notice because it can keep up with them in some areas, too. In the end, the Genesis is yet another example of Hyundai doing what it does best: bringing value to a segment of the market, in this case the luxury sedan segment.
2009 Hyundai Genesis
EPA fuel economy
17-18 mpg city; 25-27 mpg highway
290-hp, 3.8-liter V-6; 375-hp, 4.6-liter V-8
6-speed automatic w/OD and auto-manual
New or notable
V-6 or Hyundai's first V-8
Available multifunction control knob
What we like
Powerful, smooth V-6 and V-8 drivetrains
Front- and rear-seat comfort, space
Detailed, high-quality interior
What we don't
Ride may be too firm for some
Tilt-only steering wheel in base model
Back seat doesn't fold
No AWD option
Popular features locked in pricey packages
Faux-silver dash buttons
By Mike Hanley
Cars.com / August 10, 2008