From Genesis to Revelations: The Korean upstart tries to pull a luxury rabbit out of the Lexus top hat. And pretty much does.
Hyundai established a beachhead in the U.S. market with affordable economy cars in 1985. Over the years, the number of models offered increased, and steady improvements in quality resulted in steady gains in the market. Now Hyundai is headed upmarket, and the full-size Genesis sedan is its first entry. It has rear-wheel drive, an optional V-8 engine, and all the indulgences one finds in a big luxury car but at a price significantly lower than the Germans or Japanese charge.
Sounds like a remake of the Toyota story line of 1989, when that Japanese automaker launched the Lexus luxury brand with the big LS400 sedan. At least Hyundai wants us to think it’s the same story. That Lexus changed the automotive landscape, and we’ve seen plenty of imitators try to repeat that feat, but none with the Lexus effect. Moreover, the price range the Genesis plays in–base price is $33,000 for the V-6 and $38,000 for the V-8–is both more crowded and more competitive than it was in 1989. And the Genesis doesn’t enjoy a new brand and dealer network as Lexus did. So, is the Genesis the second coming of the LS400 or just another heroic but failed attempt at redefining luxury?
The LS400 earned its fame not just for offering its luxury for two-thirds the price of Mercedes or BMW equivalents, but for refinement, attention to detail, and a superb dealer experience. All of these qualities persist throughout the Lexus lineup and have been adopted by the German competition as well. From an engineering standpoint, the Genesis makes a strong case for being considered an equal in that crowd. Take, for example, what Hyundai has done to cancel out cabin noise. More than 275 feet of structural adhesive (that’s glue) is applied to the body shell to damp vibrations and improve stiffness. The roof panel alone has six anti-vibration pads, and the floor is covered with them, too. Even some of the open space inside the body pillars is stuffed with insulation. The windshield and door use double-paned glass for more sound insulation. If the Genesis isn’t quiet, it’s not for a lack of trying.
The suspension, as well, is as sophisticated as they come. The four main links on the two front corners are each attached to the hub with a ball joint. This arrangement locates the steering axis much closer to the center of the tire’s contact patch than it would with a conventional unequal-length control-arm suspension, which should improve steering feel and reduce bump steer. It’s an expensive setup, made more so by the use of lightweight aluminum for the links, knuckles, and brackets, and further evidence that Hyundai is making a serious effort here. That front suspension setup also hints at a yet-unannounced four-wheel-drive version because that arrangement reduces torque steer. The rear suspension knuckles are aluminum as well, connected to the chassis with five links. The power steering is hydraulically assisted, but an electric pump supplies the fluid pressure, which Hyundai says increases fuel economy by 2.7 percent.
The centerpiece of the Genesis is the all-new, Hyundai-designed 4.6-liter V-8, codenamed “Tau”. The output of 375 horsepower on premium gas (a fill-up of regular reduces power to 368 hp) puts this engine in a fairly exclusive crowd, more so when you consider its specific output of 81.0 horsepower per liter. The base 3.8-liter V-6 is rated at a competitive 290 horsepower. Both engines are mated to a six-speed automatic; the V-8 version’s is supplied by ZF.
In contrast to the advanced engineering in the Genesis, the styling is more cautious. Hyundai went for a mainstream look, convinced that bold designs tend to age quickly. So there’s a bit of S-class in the headlights, a hint of Lexus GS in the hood, some 5-series in the taillights, and a BMW- or Nissan-like kink in the C-pillars. At least the grille is unique, and it manages to elevate the looks of the Genesis from well proportioned and anonymous to well proportioned and handsome. Speaking of proportions, the 195.9-inch overall length of the Genesis makes it just about the same size as a Pontiac G8 or Chrysler 300C, a few inches longer than a 5-series, and a few inches shorter than a short-wheelbase 7-series.
If the exterior sets modest expectations, the interior exceeds them. The Genesis isn’t just the best-appointed Hyundai, it’s good enough to be judged against established luxury marques. High-gloss wood accents are plentiful, and every version except the base V-6-equipped car comes with a leather-wrapped dash. Standard items include keyless entry and ignition, heated seats, XM satellite radio, iPod and USB audio integration, and Bluetooth phone connectivity. A fully loaded Genesis with the Technology package includes navigation with live traffic information, adaptive HID headlights, a 17-speaker audio system, a cooled driver’s seat, a reverse backup camera, a power tilting and telescoping steering wheel, automatic wipers, an automatically defrosting windshield, a rear power sunshade, and a multifunction knob similar to the ones found in BMW, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz vehicles. Adaptive cruise control will be an option in late 2009.
On paper, the Genesis looks like it’s everything it aspires to be, and our test numbers for the V-8, gleaned at Hyundai’s R&D center in Korea, support that. The results include a 0-to-60-mph time of 5.6 seconds, a quarter-mile performance of 14.1 seconds at 103 mph, a skidpad figure of 0.86 g, and a 70-mph-to-standstill braking distance of 169 feet. That puts the Genesis in with the lofty company it aspires to compare with. Hyundai claims the V-6 should be about a half-second slower to 60 mph. Our brief driving impression revealed well-controlled drive motions, predictable handling, and an excellent powertrain. We’ll need more time behind the wheel to be sure, but all signs point toward a well-tuned chassis. We’re not suggesting banishing that 5-series just yet, as the Genesis is tuned more for Lexus-like isolation than BMW-like involvement. And that, at least ideologically, is one of the few minor shortcomings of the Genesis. Lexus makes fine cars, to be sure, but the Germans and Infiniti have more to offer in the fun-to-drive category.
Then there’s the price. A top-of-the-line Genesis V-8 costs $42,000, or about $10,000 less than a base 2008 Lexus GS460 (a loaded Genesis V-6 tops out at 40 large). That’s also significantly cheaper than the mid-size offerings from Audi, BMW, Infiniti, and Mercedes-Benz, and the Genesis comes with full-size dimensions. But 1989 was a long time ago, and a Lexus-like upset of the luxury-car order is unlikely if not impossible in this era. Plus, the Genesis is expensive for a Hyundai, and it is pricier than the less luxurious 300C and G8. That said, the Genesis stands poised to make drivers reevaluate their perceptions of the Hyundai brand, which is good for Hyundai and bad for the competition. In that respect, then, it looks like 1989 all over again.
BY MICHAEL AUSTIN
Car and Driver