Hyundai's new foray into the luxury car market is eerily reminiscent of the Japanese -- and specifically Toyota's -- entry into BMW and Mercedes territory more than 20 years ago.
Toyota, builder of small, fuel-efficient bargain-basement cars in the '70s and '80s, announced a new luxury nameplate in 1987 to the snickers of European and American manufacturers. Well, as we all know today, the joke was on BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar, Cadillac and Lincoln. One of the first two products of the oddly named Lexus brand was a full-sized clone of the Mercedes S-Class. Hitting showrooms as the LS 400 in the fall of 1989, it was as good as the Mercedes in most ways, but at a price many thousands less.
The meteoric rise of Lexus is automotive history. Lexus rapidly expanded its lineup and went on to become the top luxury-car builder in the world with a level of quality and reliability never before achieved. South Korean automaker Hyundai, reviled for its cheap and shoddily built products after it entered the U.S. market in 1985, has steadily improved its vehicles over the last decade until now it sells some of the most well-built, well-designed and fuel-efficient cars and sports utilities in the world.
Hyundai is as ambitious today as Toyota/Lexus was 20 years ago. That ambition is evident in Hyundai's first luxury undertaking, the 2009 Genesis full-sized rear-wheel-driven sedan. We think that this time there won't be any snickers from the Europeans or the Japanese luxury manufacturers over the Korean's first attempt at a premium sedan. There might even be some consternation because, for the most part, Hyundai has hit the nail squarely on the head. The one thing that may hold the Genesis back is its Hyundai nameplate.
Will a Genesis shopper seeking a less expensive alternative to his Lexus or Infiniti, think twice about driving off in a Hyundai, known for its inexpensive family of compact and mid-sized sedans, no matter how impressed he is with the car? You can hear his slightly aghast status-driven neighbor proclaiming, "I knew things were bad George, but trading your Lexus for a Hyundai? Didn't know they were that bad, partner." Of course if old George can overcome the Mercedes/Lexus status issue, it won't take him long to wow his neighbors who then may think him the wisest shopper at the country club.
We say you can get 50 grand quality and substance for a fraction of the cost with the Genesis that tops out at around $42,000 for a lavishly equipped 4.6-liter 375-horsepower V-8 model. As usual, Hyundai has taken the best from the competition and molded it into a well-rounded automobile. This has been their modus operandi for the past decade. The styling is handsome yet conservative. The front end resembles a S-Class Mercedes and the profile has a striking resemblance to a Lexus LS 460. The rear end includes some BMW traits. And the Hyundai insignia is purposely missing from the grille.
The well-thought-out dashboard looks much like some layouts in the current-generation Infiniti. After a couple of hours behind the wheel and in the passenger seat it was easy to reach the conclusion that the Genesis is much more than a well-executed clone. It carries its own unique personality. It breaks no new ground, but it's a well-rounded and well-executed luxury sedan with all the current technology.
Hyundai says it used the Chrysler 300C, Lexus ES 350, Pontiac G8 and Cadillac CTS as its "primary competitive set" and the Lexus GS, Infiniti M, BMW 5-Series and Mercedes E-Class as its "image target competitors." We're not sure what that means. Hyundai officials seem to be saying they have set their sights on a wide range of competitors to match up with the least expensive 3.8-liter V-6 trim level up to the well- equipped 4.6-liter V-8. The base 3.8 makes 290 horsepower mated to a six-speed automatic. One published performance number has it rocketing from 0 to 60 in 6.3 seconds and completing a quarter mile in 14.8 seconds at 95 mph. Considering gas mileage of 18 city and 27 highway on regular fuel and a well-equipped starting price of $33,000 including destination charge it's a solid package and matches up well with the Acura TL, Cadillac CTS, Lexus ES 350 and Mercedes C-Class.
The real kicker, however is the 4.6-liter V-8, which generates 375 horsepower and 333 pound-feet of torque. It can nail a 0-to-60 run in a heart-pounding 5.5 seconds and finish off a quarter in 14 seconds at nearly 104 mph. Gas mileage on premium fuel is rated at a class-leading 17 city and 25 highway. Hyundai says its acceptable to pump in regular if you don't mind losing six or seven horsepower. This car can go head-to-head with the big boys including the 5-Series BMW and E-Class Mercedes.
We know that's a bold statement, but it was made after spending a morning inside a extremely quiet Genesis 4.8 cockpit with its rich- looking and rich-feeling leather interior, a dashboard that sweeps gracefully from side to side, a well-designed center stack and comfortable chairs. The doors shut with a solid thunk. The one-touch power windows silently go down and up with a touch. The ride is ever so slightly on the firm side with a smile-inducing smoothness over rough road surfaces.
Back-seat passengers will find stretch out room in comfortable seats. That's because the Genesis is a relatively big car stretching out 196 inches with a 74.4-inch wheelbase. That's six inches longer than the Lexus GS 460 and five inches longer than the E-Class Mercedes.
Trunk space is relatively generous at 16 cubic feet, but the rear seat does not fold down for those pesky long items.
For $33,000 including destination charge you can purchase a very well equipped 3.8. Standard stuff includes a full array of safety features, leather interior, a sunroof, dual-zone climate control and full power accessories including power tilt and telescoping steering wheel.
A $7,000 technology package adds navigation, rear backup camera and what Hyundai officials say is the most advanced audio system in the industry, a 500-watt 17-speaker Lexicon surround sound system that includes an 11-channel amplifier.
A similar technology package can be ordered up for the 4.6 at $4,000. That means that for $42,000 you can have every amenity available on the Genesis. We call that a bargain.
And by the way, don't forget Hyundai's standard five-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper and 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranties.
Jim Meachen, www.car-data.com
Wednesday, November 12, 2008