The Hyundai Genesis boldly goes where no Korean car has gone before

Nothing in Hyundai’s lineup has recalled the 1986 Excel in a long time, and thank goodness for that. From the ashes of that less-than-stellar entree into the American market, the Korean automaker has forged a reputation for building high-quality cars with an exceptional value equation. If various surveys that place Hyundai on par with the likes of Honda for quality don’t offer convincing-enough evidence, then these numbers should: Hyundai’s U.S. sales have quadrupled over the last decade.

Yet nothing in Hyundai’s lineup could prefigure the 2009 Genesis, either. Bigger, more powerful, more well-appointed, more high-tech–and more expensive–than any other car in the automaker’s history, the Genesis thrusts Hyundai headlong into the strange, new world of the luxury segment.

That the Genesis features rear-wheel drive and optional V8 power only adds to its legitimacy; Hyundai didn’t just gussy up an Azera, stuff it full of electronic whiz-bangery and slap a fancier badge on its butt. The Genesis is a clean-sheet design, and a more-impressive first effort than expected.

Initially, you might not guess that. The exterior looks weirdly familiar–as with many Korean cars, its design feels like an amalgam of several identifiable models–and surprisingly conservative. There’s little in the way of surface excitement; it’s fairly slab-sided, and the rear end is forgettable. But its face is somewhat handsome, marked by a large grille sporting sensuously curving slats.

Inside, the Genesis comes with nearly as many luxury, comfort and electronic features as any vehicle in its class, housed in a plush environment that’s not only pleasing to the senses but looks well made of high-quality materials–rich-looking wood, leather and brushed-aluminum cover most surfaces. It’s a clutter-free interior, too, the center stack housing most controls laid out in a compact, easy-to-navigate fashion. Opting for the Driver Information System with its 30-gig hard drive puts a now-ubiquitous shuttle wheel on the center console, while the optional navigation system removes separate radio controls.

Auxiliary audio input jacks and Bluetooth connectivity come standard on every model, while the options list includes high-intensity discharge lamps, adaptive front lights, front and rear parking sensors, a 17-speaker Lexicon audio system featuring 7.1 premium surround audio and six-disc in-dash CD player, backup camera, cooled driver’s seat and rain-sensing wipers.

The Genesis draws power from one of two engines, the base vehicle getting the familiar 3.8-liter V6, mounted longitudinally in this application and tuned to turn out 290 horses at 6,200 rpm, with 264 lb-ft of torque available at 4,500 rpm. Unlike in the slightly smaller, front-drive Azera, the 3.8-liter swaps out a five-speed box for an Aisin six-speed automatic transmission.

The big story, however, lies with the optional engine, the first V8 developed in-house by Hyundai. Called Tau, the all-aluminum 4.6-liter unit features a host of sophisticated technologies, including a dual-stage intake manifold and continuously variable valve timing applied to both the intake and exhaust events, to help push output to 375 hp at 6,500 rpm (368 hp when using regular fuel). That lines up nicely against the Lexus LS 460’s 4.6-liter engine, with its peak 380 hp at 6,400 rpm. But Hyundai’s effort falls short in the torque department, turning out 333 lb-ft at 3,500 rpm to the Lexus’s 367 at 4,100.

Likewise, when stacked up against the BMW 750i, the Hyundai ultimately produces more power (15 hp), but can’t keep up with the Bavarian’s torque figure, which bests the Korean’s by 27 lb-ft.

To be fair, the shortfall shouldn’t hamper the Hyundai’s performance; weighing 4,012 pounds at the curb, the V8-powered Genesis undercuts the BMW by 474 pounds and the Lexus by 232. With an expected 0-to-60-mph time of 5.7 seconds, the Genesis should match up well against both of those luxury-segment big-hitters. On top of it all, the smooth-running V8, mated to a ZF-sourced six-speed automatic, returns an EPA-estimated 17 mpg in the city and 25 mph on the highway, better than the Lexus (16/24) and the BMW (15/23).

On the road, the Genesis boasts a supremely quiet cabin, coming darn close to Lexus territory, if not matching it. First off, Hyundai jammed insulation into just about every void it could, from the floor to the roof to the pillars, and decked out the greenhouse with double-paned glass all around. Perhaps more important, the Genesis benefits from an impressively stiff body structure, a copious use of structural adhesives reducing the potential for vibrations.

That stiffness serves the car’s road worthiness, too. Combined with a five-link front- and rear-suspension setup, with coil springs and antiroll bars fore and aft (V8s get 18-inch tires, V6s get 17s), the Genesis handles fairly well even if it tends to understeer with a more generous use of the throttle. The ride, however, leans much more to the Lexus side of the equation than BMW, with a soft, but never floaty feel and well-controlled body motions.

Hyundai wants to align its luxury-intent ride against the midsize offerings from Lexus, BMW and Mercedes-Benz (GS, 5-series, E-class). But size-wise, the Genesis splits the difference between those and the larger LS, 7-series and S-class models. The Genesis sits on a wheelbase of 115.6 inches, with an overall length of 195.9 inches. That’s only 1.3 and 2.1 inches shorter than the LS, but 3.4 and 5.9 inches longer than the GS; its performance certainly holds its own against the bigger models.

But on a sticker-to-sticker basis, the Genesis more closely resembles its competition’s entry-level cars. The V6 Genesis starts at just $33,000 (including $750 destination charge), $1,950 less than the ES 350, $1,075 less than the 328i and just $25 more than a C300 sport sedan. The V8 Genesis starts at $37,250, but full-zoot reaches just $42,000.

We say “just” $42,000, but therein may lie the catch: Is the universe ready for such an expensive Korean car, even if it offers a whole lot of luxury bang for the buck? With a modest U.S. sales goal of 30,000 units per year, we’re betting Hyundai will find enough buyers willing to join it on its latest venture.

2009 Hyundai Genesis

ON SALE: Now
BASE PRICE: $33,000
DRIVETRAIN: 3.8-liter, 290-hp, 264-lb-ft V6; RWD, six-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT: 3,748 lb
0-60 MPH: 7.0 sec (est)
FUEL ECONOMY (EPA): 21 mpg

By NATALIE NEFF

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