Road Test: 2009 Hyundai Genesis 4.6
By Tony Swan of Car and Driver
Before we buckle up, we must first invoke a temporary vocabulary-restraining order: At no time will the term luxury sports sedan be used to describe this car. At least not by us. Luxury, yes, and sedan, obviously. But sports, nope, sorry, we're putting that appellation on hold.
If you've already checked the specifications, you may wonder why we post the proviso. The Genesis looks pretty formidable on paper, particularly with the optional 4.6-liter V-8 engine, and a lot of people in the Hyundai organization think their new car measures up pretty well against sporting stalwarts from BMW, Mercedes, and Audi. A clue to their conviction can be seen in the Genesis promotional literature, which is sprinkled with "sports sedan" references.
There's no question that, in general, Hyundai's development team checked the right boxes for their ambitious leap to this high-stakes, high-profit game. However, this isn't really a huge surprise because, after all, they had a script, written by Toyota for the development of the 1989 Lexus LS400. So the formula is one that's now familiar: respectable performance, decent quality, and lots of features wrapped in attractive sheetmetal at an even more attractive price.
That last — pricing — has been the key to Hyundai's remarkable progress since it made its first appearance in the U.S. market in 1985 with the Excel, which was loosely related to the Mitsubishi Mirage and also sold as the Mitsubishi Precis. With a 0-to-60-mph time of 16.3 seconds, our test crew called the Excel "faster than speeding molasses," [C/D, March 1986]. But thanks to lower Korean labor costs, Hyundai was able to price the Excel considerably below competing small cars.
The Genesis, obviously, shares only a brand name with that primitive '80s Excel, but the marketing theory is similar. Pricing for this new luxo four-door starts at $33,000, including the $750 destination charge. That's for the 290-hp, 3.8-liter V-6 version. The 375-hp, 4.6-liter V-8 adds $5000 to the base price — $58.82 per pony. Not all that much, really, when you consider the cars with V-8 power that Hyundai seeks to usurp. The base price for a BMW 550i is $59,625, and the least expensive 5-series, the 528i, starts at $45,425.
Others: Audi A6 4.2, from $57,075; Infiniti M45, from $51,065; Lexus GS460, from $53,785; Mercedes E550, from $60,575. (We should add that with the exception of the Genesis, these are 2008 prices.)
Here's what you get for your 38-grand base price. In addition to the V-8 and ZF six-speed automatic (the 3.8-liter V-6 is mated to an Aisin B600 six-speed auto), the luxury inventory includes a power tilt/slide sunroof; two-tone leather upholstery and upper dash, stylishly stitched; tasteful wood trim; heated power front seats; a 15-speaker sound system; electroluminescent instruments; Bluetooth hands-free phone connectivity; dual-zone automatic climate control; memory presets for seat position and steering column (power adjustable for rake and reach); a power rear sunshade; and cruise control (Hyundai will add an adaptive feature later).
Our test car had the only option group offered, the $4000 Technology package: 17-speaker audio with an in-dash six-DVD changer, XM satellite radio, an iDrive-style control that's actually user-friendly, a nav system, HID headlamps, a backup warning camera, driver's seat cooling, and front and rear park-assist sensors.
You get the idea — lots of the goodies you'd expect of a luxury car, in a handsomely executed interior. Make that handsome and exceptionally roomy. This is a big car by the standards of the class to which it aspires — bigger than any of its target competitors, with interior volume that's more consistent with cars one size up the scale. Lots of trunk, too — 16 cubic feet.
Hyundai has taken pains to make sure the Genesis is as quiet as it is roomy — another page from the Lexus playbook. At a 70-mph cruise, the needle on our sound meter once quivered just below 69 dBA, but we wound up with an average of 70 — good but not exceptional. Noise suppression is fine, of course, but how silent should it be? We think a little basso profundo in the exhaust note would enhance the driving experience. To which we'll return shortly.
Exterior design is obviously critical to a company attempting to invade the prestige ranks, and here again it looks as though Hyundai has followed the Lexus script. Created to invade German turf, the original LS400 was a shameless Mercedes derivative that worked. The Genesis can be perceived as derivative, too, but pinpointing the origin of the derivations provokes debate. Mercedes? BMW? Lexus? The S-class-style grille is eye-catching, and the short front overhang suggests athleticism, but the overall look is a little generic.
Driving Impressions and Market
On smooth freeway stretches, the ride is creamy and quiet. But on those back roads, contoured and crinkled by Michigan winters, it was not difficult to use up all of the suspension travel, yielding hard bumps and episodes of head toss.
Grip from the all-season Dunlop SP Sport tires (235/50-18) was so-so at 0.83 g, and braking performance was decent at 170 feet from 70 mph. But the Genesis absolutely refuses to be hurried through corners, exhibiting understeer that starts at resolute and progresses if the pilot persists with the throttle. This reluctance also colors the car's transient response, aggravated by variable-assist, power rack-and-pinion steering that confuses effort with feel.
The back-road contrast between the Genesis and a BMW 528i we borrowed to put the new Hyundai in perspective was revelatory. BMW defines the luxury-sports-sedan realm, and assessed by the 528i's standard of response and balance, it's a fraternity to which the Genesis does not yet belong [see next page].
But competing as a luxury cruiser, the Genesis rates well. Besides quiet operation, a handsome and roomy interior, and a pleasant freeway ride, there's the seductive thrust of its V-8 engine, code-named Tau.
Sophisticated suspension and all-new rear-drive platform notwithstanding, the DOHC 32-valve all-aluminum Tau V-8 is the most significant engineering achievement connected with the Genesis. It breaks no new ground — continuously variable valve timing and dual-length intake runners are not uncommon today — but Hyundai manages to extract more horsepower per liter than competing V-8s and insists it's okay to use unleaded regular: 375 horsepower burning premium, 368 on regular.
Fuel economy is also a strong suit, with the EPA projecting 17 mpg city, 25 on the highway. Our test average was 19 mpg.
We also give high marks to the ZF six-speed automatic for smooth operation, although there are a couple of demerits. It lacks the paddle shifters that are de rigueur for sports sedans today, and it will upshift on its own in sport mode. A bigger problem with the transmission in our test car was premature upshifting, well below the car's 6750-rpm redline, regardless of driver input. This held the Genesis back in acceleration runs, where it took six seconds to reach 60 mph and clocked the quarter-mile in 14.5 seconds at 101 mph. Our August preview test, conducted at Hyundai's proving grounds in Korea, yielded 0 to 60 in 5.6 seconds and the quarter in 14.1 at 103 mph.
Hyundai techs tried reflashing the transmission's computer but to no avail, so we put this down as a preproduction anomaly and expect showroom-ready cars to perform very much like our preview-test car.
Though we have reservations about this new car's membership in the premium-sports-sedan club, Hyundai has otherwise done everything right, including impressive fit and finish. Given the company's short history — the Korean industrial conglomerate didn't even have an automotive division until 1967 — it's an amazing achievement.
Hyundai has obviously come a very long way in a remarkably short time. The question is whether the Genesis, like the VW Phaeton, will be a case of coming too far too soon. The company chose to avoid the massive investment required for a second marketing channel, à la Lexus, and regardless of its achievements in terms of engineering and quality, we think it's safe to say — call us crazy — that Hyundai doesn't have quite the same brand cachet as BMW. Value, the cornerstone of Hyundai's phenomenal growth, is important to all buyers, but how big a factor will it be in a prestige market? Big enough? You can bet that many Hyundai execs are asking these same questions.