At the New York International Automobile Show three years ago, Hyundai shattered almost everyone's preconceived definition of the South Korean brand. In the Big Apple in April 2008, the company introduced the Genesis Concept, a thinly disguised version of what would be its 2009 production model.
At the time, I turned to a colleague who worked for Harman International (which would supply the premium audio system for the Genesis), and said, "Steve, remember where you were today, as it will mark a crucial step in Hyundai history. It's probably going to be as important as the day in 1989 when Toyota launched Lexus."
My reasoning was simple. It was obvious that Hyundai was taking a page from the Lexus playbook: Give customers much more car than they have any reasonable right to expect.
Hyundai's vice president for product development at the time, John Krafcik, boldly proclaimed, "Genesis offers the performance of a BMW 5-Series [and] the interior packaging of a 7-Series at the price of a 3-Series."
The plan certainly sounded familiar. When Toyota introduced the Lexus LS400 13 years earlier, the company delivered a luxury sedan with the attributes and size of a 7-Series or Mercedes-Benz S-Class yet priced below a 5-Series or E-Class. The LS400 has since been an unqualified success, sending BMW and Mercedes-Benz scrambling back to their respective drawing boards to find the recipe to compete.
Now, on the eve of the 2011 New York International Automobile Show, the question is whether Hyundai has delivered on Krafcik's bold promise. The answer is a qualified yes.
In terms of the car itself, the Genesis has delivered in spades. It now represents the new benchmark for value in a true luxury sedan priced under $40,000. Try as they might, no competitor has surpassed the bar set by Hyundai--although the 2011 Chrysler 300C comes very, very close. (In a recent comparison test, Motor Trend placed the 300C first). As much as I love the 2011 Chrysler 300C and the way it has been improved over its predecessor, if it was my $45,000, I would opt for the Genesis.
Domestic front-wheel-drive competitors priced under $45,000, such as the Buick Lacrosse and the Ford Taurus, simply don't match up. Neither offers the combination of V8 power and the driving dynamics provided by rear-wheel drive. Comparably equipped V8 front- and rear-wheel-drive imports (Audi and BMW/Mercedes-Benz, respectively) start well over the $45,000 threshold.
Speaking of V8s, the one found under the hood of the Genesis, is exceptional, a paragon of power combined with refinement. (A 3.6-liter V6, the standard engine on the Genesis, is likely to be the choice of an increasing number of buyers in an era of $4.00/gallon gasoline.)
The V8 residing under the hood of the Genesis, dubbed the Tau, displaces 4.6 liters. Its output has been upgraded since its introduction for the 2009 model year. From mid-2010 on, the Tau V8 now produces 385 horsepower (up 10 horsepower) at 6,500 r.p.m., with torque rated at 333 lb.-ft. at 3,500 r.p.m. using premium fuel. The V8 can also run on regular unleaded, reducing output by eight horsepower. In V8 form, this will hustle the 4,120-pound Genesis sedan from a standing-start 60 miles per hour in less than six seconds.
All Genesis models are backed up by six-speed automatic transmissions. In the case of the V6 model, the supplier is Aisin. The V8-equipped version is mated to a ZF-supplied six-speed automatic, the same unit found in the BMW 5-Series--an example of how Hyundai selected proven components from cars clearly in a price class above the Genesis.
When the 2012 model Genesis reaches showrooms, not only will the engine get a displacement bump to an expected five liters and 390 horsepower, it will also get a new eight-speed automatic transmission. (Remember when automatic transmissions were equipped with only three speeds?)
When installed in the Genesis sedan, the results are beyond impressive. This is, by any measurement, a world-class drivetrain. Power delivery is what you would expect--not in a Hyundai, however, but in the German and Japanese luxury sedans against which the Hyundai has so audaciously compared itself. If you stripped off all the Hyundai badges and sat focus-group participants behind the wheel, they would be hard pressed not to think the Genesis was produced by its better-established competitors.
And that's the problem Hyundai faces: the car's lack of the prerequisite brand cachet, a weakness reflected in sales figures for the almost two years the Genesis has been on the market. Before introduction, Hyundai had hoped to move about 40,000 to 50,000 Genesis sedans annually but sold just 21,899 units for the 2009 model year. Still, the car's momentum continues to build, with 2011 sales up about 25 percent over comparable 2010 numbers.
I would not characterize this as a failure though--far from it. The car's introduction occurred at the height of the worst economic downturn any of us can remember. While wealthier buyers may have been interested in the car's obvious value proposition, most tended to stay with the tried-and-true luxury brands they had grown accustomed to over the past two decades, the same brands Hyundai had so clearly targeted.
In the two years the Genesis has graced Hyundai showrooms, however, sales and market share have grown, despite the worst auto recession of the post-War era. If anything, the Genesis was the ultimate halo vehicle, its aura reflecting on the rest of Hyundai's lineup.
The value of this can't be underestimated. Potential buyers felt reassured that if Hyundai could build a luxury sedan as good as the Genesis--a vehicle that won dozens of awards, including the 2009 North American Car of the Year honor--the company could build a class-leading car at more affordable price points. Namely, the Sonata mid-size and the brand-new Elantra compact.
Getting behind the wheel, it's evident Hyundai has captured that elusive quality--a premium feel--and distilled it into a compelling package. You start wondering how Hyundai can give you this much car for this little price.
Once you push the start button and get the car on the road, the first thing that grabs your attention is how quiet the cabin is. How "Lexus-like" it is, in fact, as the LS is now the benchmark for all luxury-car manufacturers.
If the drive experience in the Genesis falls short anywhere, it's with the suspension setup. Although stiffer than the South Korean market-spec Genesis, it is calibrated too soft for drivers expecting the stiffness found in a BMW 535.
Hyundai could easily address this shortcoming by offering a performance suspension option. This is especially feasible given that the company claims the underlying structure of the Genesis is 12 percent greater than that in a Lexus LS (and probably in the same class as a BMW 5-Series or the Mercedes-Benz E-Class).
Where the Genesis sedan clearly excels is in its highly crafted interior. With high-end materials such as butter-soft leather and exceptional fit and finish, the car is clearly an overachiever. The craftsmanship is easily the equal of cars costing $10,000 more. This is where comparing it to cars like the Buick LaCrosse and Ford Taurus clearly puts it in a class above, in spite of similar sticker prices (especially for six-cylinder-equipped models).
Once you get beyond looking for a button marked ENTER when initiating the touch-screen audio/navigation screen, the system is exceptionally intuitive to operate. (Hit ENTER by tapping the center-console-mounted rotary controller.) In one of my personal-test benchmarks, the car's integrated Bluetooth hands-free system interfaced readily with my Nexus One Android smartphone. A 250-mile round trip down to San Diego confirmed what I suspected, that the Genesis sedan was supremely comfortable, providing a true luxury-car driving experience.
It was on a back-roads detour that I had my most pleasant surprise. While the 4,100-pound Genesis sedan was probably sprung softer than I prefer, it proved to be very competent on the twisty secondary roads northeast of San Diego. Even more surprising was when it came time to top off the tank, the 2011 Genesis returned a surprising 21.5 miles per gallon, well above the EPA combined rating of 19.
I got my seat time in the Genesis at the tail end of the third year of the car's lifecycle, so the competition (most specifically, the Chrysler 300) has time to close the gap. Yet when the points are tallied, the Genesis sedan still strikes me as the more compelling value proposition.
With a substantially upgraded refresh on the horizon for 2012--a more powerful and efficient five-liter V8, an eight-speed automatic transmission, and all-wheel drive--I fully expect Hyundai to up the ante and continue to stay at or near the top of its class. The high-priced German competition, in particular, should stay in the Asian automaker's rear-view mirrors.
As the introductions of the 2012 models near, expect Hyundai dealers to be in a mood to wheel and deal--keeping in mind that, compared to other luxury sedans in the under-$50,000 category, few hold their value as well as the Genesis.
In one fell swoop, the Asian automaker changed forever its perception in the marketplace with its Hyundai 2011 Genesis sedan.
Sharing its rear-wheel-drive platform with the Genesis luxury sedan is the sporty Genesis coupe. Oddly enough, having spent time in the Genesis sedan, I can say the coupe doesn't look or feel anything like its sedan counterpart.
First, it's smaller on the outside. A full 13.6 inches shorter than the sedan, the coupe shares no exterior sheet metal, not even the sedan's elegant Mercedes-Benz-like front clip.
Inside, the luxurious appointments, especially the upscale design of the instrument panel, were replaced by a design much more in keeping with a base-model price of just $23,100. This is not necessarily a bad thing, simply a statement of what one sees from the driver's seat of the Genesis coupe.
That said, let's look at the coupe's obvious direct competitors--the V6 versions of the Chevy Camaro, the Dodge Challenger, and the Ford Mustang--with the previously driven sedan as a benchmark. Can South Korea build a viable competitor to America's current trio of pony cars?
Certainly, the Genesis coupe is a clear upgrade over the car it replaced in Hyundai's constantly upgraded U.S. lineup. That car was the smaller, less powerful Tiburon sports coupe, which left the lineup in 2009.
Hyundai thoughtfully provided Automotive Traveler with the enthusiast-focused version of the Genesis coupe. The R-Spec edition is powered by the new-for-2011 3.8 V6, producing 306 horsepower and mated to a six-speed manual transmission. No automatic option is available on either R-Spec model. (A 306-horsepower turbocharged four powers the second R-Spec model.)
To keep the base price at a reasonable $26,750, the R-Spec doesn't include automatic headlights, Xenon HID headlights, or the 6.5-inch navigation system. XM Radio with a 90-day subscription is standard--to be expected these days when customers want to keep on top of the news.
In addition to the discreet R-Spec badges, other standard equipment includes such performance upgrades as the track-tuned suspension, Brembo brakes, Torsen limited-slip differential, and front camber adjustment bolts.
An appealing package overall, the 2011 Genesis coupe does suffer from something of an identity crisis. In addition to competing with its domestic counterparts, the Genesis coupe (especially in its R-Spec guise) competes against cars in what could be considered a class above: the Infiniti G37 coupe and even the BMW 335. In this regard, the coupe doesn't bridge the perception gap as well as its sedan counterpart does.
Also an issue is the Genesis coupe's zero-to-60 sprint. Although less than six seconds marks it as fast, subjectively it does not feel as quick.
When it comes to stopping power, however, the R-Spec is at the top of its class. I can attest to this from personal experience: A driver on I-215 who was probably too busy texting to pay attention to his vehicle strayed into my lane, requiring a panic stop to avoid either a rear-ender or an impromptu meeting with the center divider. Thanks, Hyundai.
Although the company does not publicly break out sales figures separately, it's no industry secret that sales of the Genesis coupe have fallen short of expectations. Considering that Hyundai addressed some early criticisms of the 2010 model with running changes for 2011, expect the company to continue to fine tune the package. This is one automaker that truly listens to both the hypercritical press and its loyal customers.
Rumors continue to swirl that all-wheel-drive versions of both the sedan and the coupe are coming for 2012. With an all-wheel-drive option, sales are sure to pick up in cold-weather markets where dealing with snow is an important concern.
With a comfortable, well-appointed interior, a strong feature set for the price, and Hyundai's renowned warranty coverage, I expect the Genesis coupe will end up on the shopping lists of an ever-greater number of buyers.
I should mention that I spent the first 20 years of my career in the aftermarket mobile electronics retail arena, first as a car stereo store owner and then as the editor of the Autotronics section in Motor Trend circa 1995. So, I have something of an affinity for great sound in a mobile environment.
When the Genesis Concept sedan was introduced at the 2008 New York International Automobile Show, standing next to me was Steven Ernst of Harman International. It was Steven who served as the sales liaison between the engineering teams at Hyundai and Harman, and who told me, "Wait until you hear the Logic7 premium sound system in the Genesis. It's a 17-speaker Lexicon system."
My experience with the Logic7 platform went back to 1999 when, at the invitation of Harman's Matt Munn, I visited the Harman Skunkwerks in Karls-bad, Germany after attending the Frankfurt International Automobile Show. In a Saab test vehicle, I had the chance to experience fully the immersive capabilities of Harman's state-of-the-art automotive audio platform, in prototype at the time.
Fast forward 11 years to my time behind the wheel of the latest digital itineration of the Logic7 platform, in my 2011 Genesis sedan. As promised by Steven Ernst, the sonic presentation of the 528-watt system. While 528 watts might not seem like much, when it is designed as part of a car with optimum speaker locations, it's more than enough.
Volume without definition is meaningless. In this regard, the Logic7 system, as installed in the Genesis sedan, flirts with perfection. I won't bore you with the technical spec babble because, when you come down to it, it's how the system sounds when listening to program material you're intimately familiar with. And with virtually every one of my test tracks, some of which I've been using for more than a decade, the Lexicon Logic 7 system in the Genesis sedan excelled. The sonic presentation was wide and spacious, whether sitting in the front or rear seats, something few OEM automotive sound systems can accomplish.
Best of all, especially when evaluating an automotive sound system, especially at very high volume levels at the point just below your ears pick up audible distortion, it's possible to listen to the system, literally for hours on end, without any sense of fatigue. This is a true measure of an automotive sound system. Combined with the Genesis sedan's exceptionally quiet cabin, I would rate this sound system at 9.8 on a 10-point scale. If you're buying a Genesis sedan, you owe it to yourself to check off this box when selecting the equipment. It's simply that outstanding.
Wheelbase: 115.6 inches
Length: 195.9 inches
Width: 74.4 inches
Height: 58.1 inches
Curb weight: 4,120 pounds
Engine: V8, 4.6-liter DOHC, normally aspirated, gasoline
Horsepower: 385 @ 6,500 r.p.m.
Torque: 333 lb.-ft. @ 3,500 r.p.m.
EPA estimated m.p.g. city/highway: 17/25
Base price: $43,000, with $800 destination
As-tested price: $43,035 with $800 destination
Also consider: BMW 535, Buick LaCrosse, Chrysler 300C, Mercedes-Benz E350