2015 Hyundai Genesis

It's not easy to drive a prototype-level version of the upcoming, second-generation Hyundai Genesis sedan.

Three hours in airports; fourteen hours in a plane; two hours riding in a car from a Iuncheon to my hotel in the now-famous Gangnam district of downtown Seoul; another two hours-plus on a bus from Seoul out to the Hyundai nerve center in Namyang. And that's just the travel.

Finally settled into a massive presentation room deep in the heart of the Namyang R&D center, freshly denuded of all of my camera gear and fortified with abundant coffee and green tea cookies, I still faced hours of product presentation; question and answer sessions with a large team of engineers, designers and executives; an official unveiling under the soaring dome of the Design Hall; a strolling lunch and more coffee. And then, finally, a shuttle ride to the proving grounds around which the whole facility hums with enterprise for an all-too-brief stint behind the wheel of a car that, by this point, I'm basically slavering to get my hands on.

Say this for the South Koreans: they know how to build suspense.
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In its first generation (referred to as "BH" internally) the rear-wheel-drive-only Genesis sedan came in for plenty of praise for its powertrain and surprisingly ballsy driving character. In V8 trim ­– both the original 4.6 liter and the later, heroic 5.0 liter ­– the sedan was smooth and fast and just a little numb, and playfully able to wag its tail when one mixed throttle application and steering lock.

The very last BH Genesis that I'd driven before winging out to the Korean peninsula was the 5.0 R-Spec, a bruiser of an executive sled whose lovely engine and eight-speed transmission combo was only let down but its overly squishy handling. As far as I was concerned while slotting myself behind the wheel of a camouflage-clad test version of the new-generation, "DH" Genesis, the engineers could have increased lateral stiffness a bit and otherwise left everything else the hell alone.

2015 Hyundai Genesis

Sadly, my visitor's badge read "Top US Media" (ego-boosting shot, that) and not "Ride and Handling Decision Maker," so the choice to do a lot more than stand pat was Hyundai's to make, not mine. And, as you'd expect, the company has in fact wrought some significant changes to the way the car goes down the road, even while keeping its powertrain more or less unaltered for the 2015 car.

The headlining change for the Genesis is the addition of an all-wheel-drive system.

The headlining change for the Genesis is the addition of an all-wheel-drive system, dubbed HTRAC in Hyundai parlance, and developed with global supplier Magna Powertrain. The AWD setup uses an electric transfer case and a multi-plate clutch, and works in concert with the Genesis' two-mode suspension damping (Sport and Normal) to distribute front/rear torque based on load and slip. As a default, the all-wheel Genesis sends 60 percent of engine torque to the rear wheels; that can be increased to 90 percent in an aggressive handling situation, or reversed to send 90 percent of torque to the front wheels in a very low traction "escape" environment. Further, Hyundai tells us that a fuel economy mode can be triggered, presumably at a steady state cruise, with 100 percent of the power going to the rear wheels.

My first driving sample was at the helm of a Genesis 5.0 AWD for a stint on Hyundai's rather tight, technical road course, and I found the results to be pretty promising. I started with the Intelligent Drive Mode Select at the Normal setting – meaning the aforementioned selective damping was less aggressive, along with settings for the transmission, throttle and stability control. In this standard setup the big sedan was pretty competent at rounding the handling circuit with pace and confidence, albeit with understeer more pronounced than I'd recalled from the last-gen rear-drive car.

It's a step forward, and movement in the direction of the class leaders in terms of driving dynamics.

In Sport mode, however, the AWD car loosened up quite nicely. Deactivating the normally aggressive ESC made the car feel far more fluid through consecutive turns, with excellent balance and nice, rear-biased reactions. Still, the added grip from the AWD system was definitely present, reducing that play in the rear section I'd remembered from the BH sedan, and cleaning up my rounding of corners at speed rather neatly.

I'd love to tell you that I finished up with the V8 AWD Genesis and then took another few laps of the track in a rear-drive car, or one equipped with the 3.8-liter V6, but that didn't happen. The sad truth is that we Top Media had about 10 minutes worth of seat time on the handling track, and in just the one flavor of car. Suffice it to say that I'll need more time to make up my mind as to just how much better the second-gen Genesis handles than the first. Still, I feel confident in reporting that it's a step forward, and movement in the direction of the class leaders in terms of driving dynamics.

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Improvements in handling and ride will be critical for Hyundai to telegraph to potential customers, since the rest of the spec sheet is likely to look very similar to that of the BH. The 2015 Genesis will be available with the very same two-engine lineup as it has today, with both powerplants connected to the current eight-speed automatic transmission. That isn't to say the gear hasn't been fussed over some; the Tau 5.0-liter V8 sees changes to its intake runners, exhaust cam profile and air intakes, and the Lambda 3.8-liter V6 also has a new, three-stage intake and "optimized" fuel injector spray patterns.

The 2015 Genesis will be available with the very same two-engine lineup as it has today.

The goal of all these modifications is increased mid-range engine torque for both mills while improving efficiency, though the expectation is that the current power and torque outputs will stay the same. That means 333 horsepower and 291 pound-feet of torque for the 3.8L, and 429 hp and 376 lb-ft for the 5.0L. Neither the V8 nor the V6 felt anything less than sprightly in terms of acceleration, during my testing in Namyang. It has built a reputation as a quick sedan, and that continues with this DH model.

In similar fashion, the anticipated fuel economy should be in lock step with the EPA ratings for today's Genesis. The DH has gained roughly 130 pounds over its predecessor, so the company will count it a success if it's able to maintain ratings of 18 miles per gallon city and 27 mpg highway for the V6, with a 15/23 split for the V8. Those numbers are only just class-competitive as of today. It's fair to say that customers considering fuel economy highly might very well have their heads turned by more parsimonious options by the time the 2015 model year cars start hitting showrooms.

It has built a reputation as a quick sedan, and that continues with this DH model.

Of course, the difference between a few miles per gallon here and a handful of horsepower there is really insignificant when compared with the vast stylistic leap the car has made in a single generation. I love the oily bits, but many real shoppers in this segment will undoubtedly look before they drive.

Styling doesn't seem to be particularly iterative here in Korea, or at least it hasn't been until now. My hosts were extremely kind in taking us through the Hyundai museum that is onsite in Namyang – a collection that is strikingly conservative given that it represents the lineage of what is now the world's eighth-largest automaker. Just 20 cars fill the showroom section of the museum, and only 10 of those are on the Hyundai side of the aisle (the other half representing Kia's separate heritage). The progression from the 1975 Hyundai Ponythat's the one wearing the Mustang emblem – through to the export-spec Accent of the mid 1990s is halting and fragmented. Certainly it will be at least decades before Hyundai could spawn its own J Mays-ian retro-futurism period, as there is simply not a deep design well on which to draw at this point.

Hyundai-Kia Museum

By its own admission Hyundai has pursued a "fast follower" strategy over its first two decades of global expansion, a period that found its terminus with the introduction of the Fluidic Sculpture design language in 2009. This Genesis marks the debut of Fluidic Sculpture 2.0, and, perhaps more importantly, seems to break the cycle of eternal design reinvention for the more confident cadence of significant evolution.

This Genesis marks the debut of Fluidic Sculpture 2.0.

Just looking at the original Genesis sedan (pre Fluidic Sculpture) and this new one (FS 2.0), tells a tale of the old versus new thought in Korean car design. The original car is stately enough, but borders on the gauche where it isn't biting fashion cues from Mercedes-Benz and Lexus. All car styling is derivative to some extent, but the effect is set in stark relief when a brand or model doesn't have a clear history to point to.

It is hard for me to describe the overall effect of the 2015 Genesis succinctly without using the word "elegant." Here Hyundai has merged the visual weight and solidity of the outgoing sedan with the interesting line work and flowing shapes that have made cars like Sonata and Azera earn such praise. An aggressively long silhouette conveys a feeling of speed and real luxury (despite Hyundai's insistence in describing the Genesis as a "premium" sedan rather than a "luxury" one). Bodysides are uncomplicated, but flowing and trim thanks to an adroit, concave curve at the bottom of the doors that flares out into the rocker panels.

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Any view of the front of the Genesis is commanded by the hexagonal grille cleverly stocked with six thin slats and surrounded with a bezel that's just on the right side of "bold" to my eyes. I'll admit that there were times and angles that made the grille surround look a bit like silver lipstick to me, but at the end of the day I believe the ornamentation works for a modern car, while still paying winsome homage to the baroque fasciae of Korean cars from the 1980s and '90s.

There were times and angles that made the grille surround look a bit like silver lipstick.

In fact, the only part of the car's face that stands out as particularly grating is the translucent panel that protects the front-facing camera system. You can't really help but see it reflecting light in all of our photos of the car, though I found it less obvious in real life. It reminds me of the static cling plastics that protect new electronics when they ship; I'd like to think that future Genesis owners could simply peel it off when they get the car home.

Step inside the new Genesis and you'll find that work has been done to bring the material quality and interior design up to the standard set by the new sheet metal. Still, there feels to be less of a quantum leap in terms of interior refinement, for a few reasons, I think. The first is that the outgoing cabin wasn't particularly down-market, so there's slightly less room to climb the ladder inside. Designers have made an effort to use authentic materials in this space – real leather, real wood, real aluminum – and the colors and design feel a full grade higher than in the outgoing Genesis. Yet, in the prototype version of the cars I sampled, the fitment and finish of some of the trim pieces wasn't quite right: gaps a bit too large, edges sometimes rough or overly sharp. Under the circumstances, I'll assume the positive and believe that those small failures will be rectified by the time the full-on production cars are ready for market.

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Hyundai is particularly proud of two advanced features: a CO2 sensor in the cabin of the car, and a smarter-then-the-rest Smart Trunk.

That market should prepare itself for a slew of creature comforts in this Genesis, too. Hyundai is particularly proud of two advanced features: a CO2 sensor in the cabin of the car, and a smarter-then-the-rest Smart Trunk.

The thinking behind the CO2 sensor ­– conceived of by an engineer with an especially taxing commute – is that the exhaled gas can cause a driver to feel drowsy over the course of a few hours. The solution is a sensor that reacts when CO2 concentration goes above 2,500 parts per million, then venting the cabin by way of the HVAC system and bringing in fresh air in the process.

Hyundai's version of the smart-opening trunk is an equally sensible improvement over the industry-standard systems. A driver with the car's proximity key in her purse or pocket needs simply stand near the perimeter of the trunk for three seconds before that sucker pops right up, like it knows you're there. (It does.) I saw the quasi-sentient trunk in operation and it worked beautifully, allowing a bin-holding Mark Vaughn (of Autoweek) unfettered access to the boot. Cool trick.

2015 Hyundai Genesis

The DH Genesis adds lane keep assist and automatic emergency braking, a heads-up display with blind spot detection baked in and an updated navigation system with all-new infotainment software to a list of other expected luxury addendums. The result looks to be an available feature set that will rival any car in the segment.

I can only imagine that this stuffed-to-the-gills premium sedan will come to market with a price tag that is astonishingly competitive.

Perhaps most compelling of all, I can only imagine that this stuffed-to-the-gills premium sedan will come to market with a price tag that is astonishingly competitive. If there's one legacy that the Korean company has cemented into the minds of US buyers, it is that of huge value for their dollars. It's likely that Hyundai will charge more for this newly sexy Genesis than it did for the last one, but a modest increase in its current base price of $38,200 (for the V6) will keep it at the top of the class.

My return trip from Seoul to Detroit was even longer than the one that brought me in, the travel being somewhat fuzzier for the lingering effects of an epic, soju-suffused dinner followed by a daylong tour of the ancient parts of the city. Seoul moves effortlessly from medieval to bleeding-edge modern in the space of a few blocks, and I was happily captivated there as a tourist in earnest, despite my Hyundai corporate-spec hangover. Even through the fog, it resonated that a country so steeped in the legacy of centuries could move forward with such singular purpose, rather than simply clinging to the past.The journey from the Hyundai Pony to the 2015 Hyundai Genesis is somewhat less majestic than the confluence of ancient temples and 21st Century skyscrapers, but it's impressive to the motor-minded. This is not the car that began Hyundai's company, but I think it will be seen as the scion to a new luxury lineage, all the same.