Daily Archives: July 10, 2008

2009 Hyundai Genesis Sedan: First Drive

One thing was clear long before we first set eyes on the Hyundai Genesis premium rear-wheel-drive sedan prior to the April 2007 New York International Auto Show: the Genesis four-door phenomenon is only partially about driving the car.

This big Hyundai (not the smaller and rather unsurprising coupe replacement for the Tiburon, which is also inexplicably called Genesis) had better be ready for the toughest critics in the world to peel its business case apart like a pile of kimchi and analyze every bit of it for credibility. Hyundai has big notions of what the Genesis sedan can accomplish, and the company needs to convince a mess of people to jump on board. With the U.S. intended to buy just under 40 percent of all Genesis four-doors per year (more or less 30,000 units), this event is only slightly less important than Hyundai’s unassuming launch into the U.S. market in 1986 with the two-door Excel hatchback.

Following a really well-executed drive event and information download at the HyundaiKia proving grounds outside of Seoul, we feel honest in giving the bigger Genesis a solid eight out of ten score. We were allowed free rein through obstacle courses and around the high-speed 43-degree banked oval, and we did so back-to-back with not only the 375-horsepower Genesis 4.6-liter V-8 and 290-horsepower 3.8-liter V-6, but also with a 268-horsepower BMW 530i, 272-horsepower front-wheel-drive Lexus ES350, and 275-horsepower Infiniti M35. This all proved enlightening, to say the least. (We also have to mention that while being bussed to the drive location, we spotted a Maybach 62 in the heavily guarded R&D parking lot. Talk about your benchmarks.)

Project “BH,” as the upmarket sedan is called internally, started back in 2003. Our firsthand knowledge of BH dates back to late November 2005 when we were brought to the then new Namyang design center to eye the final three full-scale models and give our opinions and our pick. Turns out our pick was the version put forth by the HyundaiKia Engineering & Design Center in Irvine, California. And thank goodness that one won out in the end, because suffice it to say that the other two non-California versions were really dumpy. The California BH is handsome work from any angle, to our eyes representing a lot of what the BMW 5-series design should have been. We could do without the very Korean-taste gleaming grille treatment and slightly cheap-looking wheels, but the full package is hot stuff.

So, from the start of BH sightings and showings we’ve liked this car a lot from the outside. Having the Lexus, BMW, and Infiniti on hand, though, allowed us to get inside all four in quick succession and make our judgment. In short, the Genesis sedan’s interior wins in the balance. What we mean is that there are individual categories among the many where one of the other three cars beats the Genesis, but overall the Genesis interior feels like more of a whole and well-cared-for product. In every single passenger dimension you can think of, too, the Genesis gives more room without feeling at all bloated.

Most importantly, however, is the fact that we’re as much enamored of the inside as we are of the outside. Whereas BMW interiors are only now beginning to awaken from their deep gray funeral-parlor world, the Genesis is simply handsome and enjoyable to look at and live with. In the case of the Infiniti M35, the interior is fine but weirdly incongruous with the exterior form, especially with its swathes of wood veneer and the step effect of its dashboard. Lastly, the Lexus ES350 interior–despite the model’s popularity that in theory would indicate the opposite–is almost embarrassing in its dated un-handsomeness versus the really attractive Genesis approach.

Now, we drive. The first two hurdles were a brisk double lane-change and then a slalom set. This was a great baptismal, since it showed right away where the Genesis stands among these three competitors, or versus a Mercedes E350, Audi A6, and so on. BH chassis director Baeho Jeong and his team have done some excellent work balancing cushioning and dynamics. In this pair of tests the Genesis V-6 and V-8 proved themselves almost identical in feel to the 530i, the heavier V-8 approaching the sensations of a 550i. With the Genesis wheelbase at a class-leading 115.6 inches (overall length at 195.9 inches is roughly five inches longer than any competitors mentioned here), this agility was slightly surprising to us. The Hyundai dynamicists have incorporated aluminum steering and suspension knuckles, aluminum front link arms and brackets, a sophisticated five-link suspension geometry at all four corners (as on the Lexus), and a simple yet solid all-around Amplitude Selective Damping system. The best of the cars through these first two sections was definitely the Infiniti M35, though we are again left a little conflicted over the overall package and image of the Infiniti brand. At a glaring opposite end of the spectrum handling-wise was the Lexus ES, which was heavy and laborious through both the lane-change and slalom exercises. Hyundai engineers also confirm that the suspension feel for North America will be less soft than the Korean setup, so the final U.S. version may be even better than what we drove at Namyang.

Hyundai executives repeatedly mentioned that the Lexus was their chief benchmark target, with the BMWs a close second. All we can say, at least based on the Lexus ES present at the test, is that the Genesis out-handles and out-drives the ES quite easily. Then on the rough pavement section at the proving grounds, the Lexus on its factory-issued wheel and tire setup transmitted almost thunderous road noise to the cabin. While the ASD system of the Genesis works as well comfort-wise as the Infiniti or Lexus in a straight line or gentle curves while cruising, it is calibrated to a fairly unsophisticated rebound feel over bumps. The default damping on the 530i with its straight-six was noticeably the best of the bunch, though one would hope so at a base price tag approaching $50,000. Hyundai aims to bring the V-8 Genesis to the U.S. this summer starting at just under $40,000. The already satisfying 3.8-liter V-6 sedan, however, is our favorite bottom-line choice and set to begin at roughly $33,000.

Hitting the big high-speed oval at the R&D center shed yet more light on the Genesis sedan’s credentials. Both the V-6 and V-8 with outstanding six-speed ZF automatics are great cruising powerplants, the V-6 reaching 140 miles per hour after some waiting, the V-8 shifting to sixth gear right at 140 mph on its way up to a 155-mph v-max. While the V-6 idles at 625 rpm, and more quietly than any car in this class at just under forty-two decibels, under acceleration it shows (as the new V-6 in the CTS Caddie showed us) just how much harder it has to work to compete with V-8s. The new Tau 4.6-liter V-8 is right in range of the biggest players in this class so far as acceleration, responsiveness, cabin noise, and fuel efficiency are concerned (17 miles per gallon city and 25 mpg highway, according to the EPA; 19/27 for the V-6). The V-8 Genesis sedan also boasts a respectable 0-60 acceleration time estimated at 5.8 seconds. Initial dealer orders for the car in the States show a 70 to 30 percent V-8 to V-6 split, but Hyundai expects that to balance out over time to a 40-60 split in favor of the V-6.

Entering and heading through the steeply banked curves of the oval at top speeds on fairly sturdy standard eighteen-inch Dunlop tires, the Genesis required a slightly firmer hand at the wheel, with a little more steerage to the right required to stay on the perfect line. This is a sign of a lower-tech steering setup, but it is honestly not a black mark. How often will you be driving at 140 mph on a 43-degree banking for half a mile? Off the banking at tippy-top speed on the flats, either Genesis is a fine contender for any buyer in this part of the market.

Complementing the widespread use of aluminum (including the engine hood) and a consequent contained curb weight for its size of 3748 pounds (4006 pounds for the V-8), the Genesis boasts a heavily streamlined coefficient of drag of 0.27, which is top of its class. We noticed an acceptable level of wind noise off the front pillars and side mirrors. In addition, the extensive use of high-tech adhesives for joining chassis sections and sheetmetal is reflected in equally class-leading torsional and bending rigidity. NHTSA has just awarded the big Genesis a five-star rating, too, in all front and side impact tests. One particular luxo touch that we noted immediately is the substantial laminated windscreen and front window glass. Opening and closing the front windows is an absolutely silent operation a la Rolls-Royce. Genesis is also the first car for sale in the U.S. with major use of fiber-optic technology for onboard systems, reducing the complexity and weight of a traditional wiring harness.

As a side note, the Genesis sedan has been on sale in South Korea since January, and it had 10,000 advance orders when deliveries started. Customers are still willing to wait two months to get their car. By 2009, there will be a stretch version of the Genesis sedan (VI is the name internally) to replace the current and still popular Equus in South Korea, China, and the Middle East. The front-drive Equus with iron-block V-8 sells for the equivalent of $80,000 U.S. dollars and is the most expensive domestic car available. The Genesis four-door–stretch or normal–is by comparison a huge step up in the Korean premium image, and Hyundai is hoping this home market enthusiasm translates in more mature markets. Meantime, the BK Genesis Coupe we featured in the May 2008 issue of WINDING ROAD starts U.S. deliveries in early 2009.

And herein lies the challenge for the larger Genesis in the U.S. Are buyers for this style of car ready to see all the pluses this product obviously represents? Or will they automatically shell out the extra bucks and go for the Bimmer or the Lexus, unable to see past the Korean tradition in America of cheaper durable goods? The Japanese succeeded over a twenty-year period and are now conquerors. Hyundai has fewer funds to spend in support of such a long campaign in search of high-margin credibility, but it absolutely needs to take on the challenge or the Genesis effort will fizzle like a Volkswagen Phaeton or Ford’s Merkur franchise. A first step is to retrain Hyundai dealers and service people to be as top-notch as a Lexus or Mercedes store, not to mention dressing up the sales environment a bit. Then the residuals on Hyundais also need to improve significantly, a trend that has already begun.

In truth, what has led to the Genesis sedan being launched as a Hyundai flagship and not as its own brand is the sheer cost to adequately set up a luxury brand these days. When Hyundai finished the initial due diligence back in 2005, it projected a cost of $2.5 billion and then twenty years to actually turn a clear profit. General manager of the HHyundai North America team H.C. Kim and others tell us that once we’ve had three full years of Genesis sales in the U.S. that only then will the idea of a separate Genesis division be proposed with all the requisite number crunching and dealer input.

For now, we like what we see and enjoy what we’ve driven. A key marketing angle Hyundai wants to press home for the Genesis is that it approaches the size of a BMW 7-series in packaging, gives the performance of a 5-series, and costs the price of a 3-series. All true.

Source: Winding Road