Powerful Car May Catapult Hyundai

Powerful car may catapult Hyundai

Keep an eye on Hyundai’s stand at the New York auto show this week.

The South Korean automaker has a rare chance to re-create its image. Hyundai could vault from selling largely on the strength of low prices and long warranties to becoming a desirable brand that competes with performance and technology.

The car to watch is the Genesis, a rear-wheel-drive concept sedan that’s a thinly veiled version of a production model coming next year.

If you want to build a credible, big, powerful car — anything more than a Honda Accord, Ford Fusion or Saturn Aura — rear-wheel-drive is vital. Along with all-wheel-drive, it’s the only way to get the most performance out of upper midsize cars because running too much horsepower and torque through the front wheels affects steering and handling.

The car’s weight also tends to be more evenly distributed over its entire length, and the long-nosed proportions of rear-drive cars lend themselves to striking designs.

How big an impact could the Genesis have on Hyundai?

Think Chrysler 300. Great design, good price and rear-wheel-drive coalesced to create a car that catapulted Chrysler from minivan maker to award-winning star of rap videos.

The Genesis features a 4.6-liter, 32-valve V8 engine that Hyundai says produces more than 300 horsepower. There’s a six-speed automatic transmission from German drivetrain expert ZF.

Hyundai will reportedly also offer two V6s in the production model.

Assuming Hyundai launches the car with good quality — a safe bet, given its recent track record — it must get two other points right to cash in on the new model’s possibilities: price and dynamics.

Dynamics come from engineering skill and executive decisions. Hyundai’s engineers can probably create a car with competitive ride and handling if the suits in the corner offices let them.

Big rear-drive cars like this are limos in South Korea, and Hyundai executives have already inflicted a soft ride and squishy handling on the brand’s other sedans.

The brand’s other big sedan, the front-wheel-drive Azera, may determine the new car’s pricing.

That could be a problem. Hyundai executives reportedly worry the new car will steal sales from the Azera unless it’s priced above the existing car, which typically sells for around $26,000, according to Edmunds.com.

Saddling the new car with an inflated price — $28,000 or more for a V6 model, according to people who should know — would be a mistake.

If Hyundai wants to become a prestige brand — and it does — it can’t hamstring its most promising new car to protect a model that represents the company’s past.

April 1, 2007
BY Mark Phelan Detroit Free Press
Free Press Columnist

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