Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Evolution of Hyundai

With the Genesis sedan, automaker makes good first impression in entry-luxury segment

The hotel valet looked at today's test car and said, "It looks like a Lexus -- but it's a Hyundai!"

That was an astute 10-second assessment, but I wondered how he saw that my Genesis sedan was a Hyundai.

From the front, there is no Hyundai badge on the grille or any company identifier. And the styling, while contemporary, it is also familiar -- and so subtle that even I didn't recognize the car when he pulled it around later in the day after a news conference.

Hyundai is making a big move into the entry-luxury segment with this large-class Genesis. And it can be compared in features and technology with the best luxury marques on sale today. But the company is not just breaking into a new segment, it has to break through a glass ceiling of perception that Hyundai makes economy cars.

Hyundai makes quality vehicles with long warranty coverage through accommodating dealerships. And the company has been gradually moving uplevel with every new generation of its cars and crossovers.

Genesis, like its name, represents the evolution of the company.

If this were the company's first human son, he'd be facing years of therapy to shoulder the stress of family expectations. But as a car, this one makes a good first impression. Hyundai gave Genesis the budget to be a contender.

This large, rear-wheel-drive sedan is sold in V-6 and V-8 models, with six-speed Shiftronic automatic transmissions. Pricing ranges from $33,000 to $38,000.

The standard equipment is considerable, but the $3,000 Premium Plus package adds desirable extras, including a 14-speaker Lexicon surround sound audio system, leather-wrapped dashboard top (not just a steering wheel), power tilt and telescopic steering wheel, auto-defogging windshield and 18-inch Hyper Silver wheels.

Buyers will surely scrutinize this car, as I did. And they will find attention to refinement in the cabin that some top-tier luxury brands overlook.

It is how quietly the windows glide open and closed. It is in the padded cups of the door grabs and the softly padded armrests. The standard leather upholstery looks like leather, not like extra-thick vinyl. The dark-brown leather in the test car was beginning to show a patina like that of a gently worn bomber jacket. It will age well, while most seat leather doesn't.

The interior is an environment of fine stitching, tasteful chrome accents, appealing textures and materials. All controls are in place and easy to figure out.

I might have wished for more swagger to the exterior styling, but the architecture has extraordinary interior space: 40.4 inches of headroom and 38.6 inches of rear legroom, with a big, easy-to-access trunk. Visibility is good all around. The doors open wide and seat hip height is comfortable for easy entry and exit.

The driving experience is, like Hyundai, efficient and youthful. The suspension is taut and, perhaps, too firm for those shopping for the Korean Buick. Braking is strong and flat from 12.6-inch discs, which was once the specification size for fast sports cars.

The engines are sophisticated, smooth and all aluminum. The 290-horsepower, 3.8 liter V-6 is plenty powerful while returning 27-plus mpg on the highway using regular unleaded gasoline. The 4.6-liter V-8 has 375-hp on premium fuel or 368-hp on regular. With 0-60 mph in 6.2 seconds, this engine is just five-tenths of a second faster than the V-6, and still delivers fuel economy of 17/25 mpg.

The car did everything so well in a week of driving more than 300 miles that I had to look deep for complaints, but, of course, found a few. The center back seat is the size of a kindergartner's chair. The map lights are brilliant white and overwhelming. And now that Suzuki can include a navigation system as standard equipment on its least-expensive car, I expect that type of (standard) differentiator from Hyundai on its most expensive car. Navi with a rearview camera is available in an option package.

The exterior styling is the only vague element to the car. There is some imprint of Lexus -- or is it Mercedes-Benz? And the rear quarter has some BMW in it. Hyundai styling is fairly distinct for its mainstream vehicles. You know those Hyundais when you see them. But there needs to be a more distinct DNA for its large and more expensive vehicles, which includes the Veracruz crossover. It is not good enough in today's market to look a little like this one and a little like that one.

As an entry-level luxury sedan, Genesis may not distract a BMW or Lexus buyer, but it will be an ideal step up for the current Hyundai customer, or those from Honda, Toyota or other imports.

The rear-wheel-drive, large-class Hyundai Genesis sedan is sold in V-6 and V-8 models, with pricing that ranges from $33,000 to $38,000.

2009 Hyundai Genesis 3.8

Body style: large, five-passenger, rear-wheel-drive sedan

Engine: aluminum, 290-horsepower, DOHC 3.8-liter V-6 with continuously variable valve timing

Transmission: six-speed automatic with Shiftronic manual shift mode

Acceleration: 0-60 mph: 6.2 seconds

EPA fuel economy estimates: 18 mpg city, 27 highway; 87 octane recommended

Fuel capacity: 20.3 gallons


Trunk space: 15.9 cubic feet

Front head/leg/shoulder room: 40.4/44.3/58.3 inches

Rear head/leg/shoulder room: 37.3/38.6/57.9 inches

Length/wheelbase: 195.9/115.6 inches

Curb weight: 3,748 pounds


Standard equipment includes: automatic lock/unlock with electric push-button ignition, fog lights, automatic headlights, 17-inch alloy wheels, acoustic laminated windshield and front side glass, dual power heated body-colored side mirrors with turn signal indicators, leather seating surfaces with heated front seats, power front seats, cruise control, floor mats, electroluminescent instrument cluster, leather-wrapped tilt steering wheel with audio controls, dual zone automatic climate control, electrochromic rear view mirror with HomeLink integrated transceiver and compass, CD audio system with XM satellite radio and iPod-USB input jacks, Bluetooth hands-free phone system

Safety features include: advanced front air bags, front and rear seat-mounted side bags, roof-mounted side curtain bags, electronic active front head restraints, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, electronic stability control with traction control


Base: $33,000, including $750 freight charge; price as tested, $36,000

Options on test car: Premium Plus package, $3,000, includes 18-inch Hyper Silver alloy wheels and 235/50 tires; Lexicon 14-speaker surround sound audio system; leather-wrapped dashboard and door trim; power tilt-slide sunroof; power tilt-telescopic steering column; memory presets for seats and mirrors; rain-sensing wipers; auto-defogging windshield

Final assembly: Ulsam, Korea

By Mark Maynard, Wheels editor

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