SANTA BARBARA, California - Concentrating on value pricing isn't enough for Hyundai anymore. The South Korean automaker, which grabbed a toehold in the U.S. market mainly because of tempting prices, is moving toward an upper level of the sedan market.
Rather than front-drive, like all prior Hyundai sedans, the new "flagship" Genesis sedan has rear-wheel drive. Intended as a sport/luxury model, it also comes with a choice of V-6 or V-8 engine.
Genesis is the first performance sedan with an available V-8 engine offered by a non-luxury Asian manufacturer. Built in South Korea, the Genesis features such interior touches as cloth-wrapped A, B and C pillars. The battery is trunk-mounted, and the hood is made of aluminum. Weight distribution is 54/46 (front/rear) with the V-8, but a slightly more even 52/48 with a V-6 engine.
With the Genesis, Hyundai intends to compete against the Chrysler 300C, Lexus ES350, Pontiac G8, and Cadillac CTS. "Image" target rivals include the Lexus GS, Infiniti M, BMW 5-Series, and Mercedes-Benz E-Class.
Developers didn't want a "polarizing design statement," said John Krafcik, vice-president of strategic planning. Genesis is supposed to represent rear-wheel-drive performance: "assertive, confident, refined, athletic."
Running on regular-grade gasoline, the 4.6-liter V-8 engine generates 368 horsepower, but premium fuel boosts output to 375 hp. (Few manufacturers provide separate horsepower ratings, depending on fuel used.) Torque output is 324 pound-feet (333 when using premium). Hyundai claims an EPA fuel-economy estimate of 17 mpg in city driving and 25 mpg on the highway. Acceleration to 60 mph should take no more than 5.7 seconds, according to Hyundai.
Hyundai's 3.8-liter V-6 develops 290 horsepower and 264 pound-feet on regular gasoline, with an EPA estimate of 18/27 mpg.
Both engines mate with six-speed automatic transmissions that incorporate Shiftronic for manual gear changes. The V-6 gets an automatic made by Aisin, while the V-8's is produced by ZF.
Eight airbags are standard, along with Electronic Stability Control, traction control, and active head restraints. Electro-hydraulic power steering is used, and a five-link suspension is mounted at both front and rear. Hyundai claims a Cd (coefficient of drag - a measure of slipperiness through the air) of only 0.27, in contrast to the 0.36 figure for Cadillac's CTS-V. Standard wheels hold 17-inch tires.
At 195.9 inches overall, the Genesis is 9 inches shorter than a Mercedes-Benz S-Class, but promises the same same passenger volume. Front/rear parking assist sensors are available, and pushbutton start is standard. Optional navigation includes a rearview camera. Additional options include an adaptive front lighting system and a 528-watt Lexicon audio system with 7L Surround Sound and 17 speakers. XM satellite radio and leather upholstery are standard.
With the V-6 engine, a Genesis responds with some assertiveness to pass on the highway or merge onto an expressway: not stunning, but effective. The automatic transmission is smooth-shifting, but some gear changes accompanied by slight bump.
Exceptionally quiet running, the engine can barely be heard at idle. Only a very slight snarl is evident on hard acceleration.
Good pavement yields a smooth ride, which remains satisfying on some rougher sections. But undulating surfaces can yield considerable body motion - even outright bounciness. Though the Genesis suspension is luxury-aimed, it feels somewhat non-compliant, even stiff, on imperfect pavement.
Generally, the easy-to-drive Genesis tracks neatly and stays readily in its lane. Steering feel is somewhat light, but not excessively so. Steering actually is reasonably precise, with just hint of reduced confidence in the occasional fast curve.
Seats are quite comfortably cushioned. Bolstering is just a bit on the snug side, but occupants enjoy excellent support for thigh and back. Positioning the manual-shift gate to the right of the gearshift lever makes it a little less intuitive. Front headroom is ample; leg good. Elbow space is only slightly restricted.
On the race track, a V-6 Genesis responded very well. Still, the V-8 is obviously superior for such purpose (though not necessarily needed otherwise). Passing with the V-8 sedan produces wholly stirring, resounding response, and the bigger engine is at least as quiet as the V-6. Despite less-even weight distribution, the V-8 model feels a bit more balanced and confident, even though suspensions are the same. Thus, the V-8 ride seeems a bit smoother, with a little less body motion.
Most Genesis owners probably won't notice the difference between this sedan's rear-wheel-drive configuration and the front-drive layout of Hyundai's Azera and Sonata.
Hyundai offers a simple lineup: Genesis 3.8 at $33,000 (including destination charge) and Genesis 4.6 at $38,000. A Technology Package adds $4000. Hyundai expects 80 percent of sales to be the V-6 model. The first V-6 Genesis was sold in late June; V-8 models arrive a little later.
Resale value has been a problem for Hyundai, but prospects are looking brighter lately. As predicted by Automotive Lease Guide, the average Hyundai should be worth 43.6 percent of its initial value after three years, compared to 40.2 percent in 2007. "Our actual used car values have been beating their values," said John Krafcik. The Genesis gets an ALG prediction of 49-50 percent, said to beat all rivals.
Looking ahead, Hyundai plans to introduce seven "all-new" products in 24 months, starting with the Genesis coupe. The list includea an Elantra Touring model, a new crossover, an entry-level crossover, a midsize sedan, and two entry-level cars (including a coupe).
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