First Drive: 2009 Hyundai Genesis

2009 Hyundai Genesis – Click above for high-res image gallery

Unless you've been living in a mine deep in the hills of West Virginia, Hyundai's newest addition isn't coming to you as a surprise. Around these offices, we've been anticipating the rear-wheel-drive Genesis platform and its offspring of luxury sedan and performance coupe for years. While we'll have to continue waiting for the eagerly-anticipated 2010 Genesis Coupe, we've just taken our first drive in the elegant 2009 Hyundai Genesis sedan. Follow the jump to see if the most expensive Korean sedan ever sold on these shores is enough to take on the segment leaders from America, Europe, and Japan.

All photos copyright Michael Harley / Weblogs Inc.

Hyundai would like you to consider the Genesis a competitor to an exhaustive list of cars. The targets reportedly include the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, S Class, BMW 5-Series, 7 Series, Infiniti M, Lexus GS, Chrysler 300C, Lexus ES350, Pontiac G8, and Cadillac STS. After a day behind the wheel over road and track, we whittled it down to a much shorter list. In one breath, the Genesis will simply compete head-to-head with the Infiniti M, Lexus GS, Lexus ES, Acura TL, and Acura RL. The German buyers want their badge; the American customers are true to their flag.

Taking design cues from the best of the best, the Genesis looks like the offspring of a tryst between a 7 Series, LS430, S-Class, and an Infiniti M. Engaging at first glance, yet completely unidentifiable from the badgeless front end, Hyundai designers put it all together in a very clean yet decidedly conservative package that emits a fair amount of luxury without looking... um, Korean.

Two different Genesis models will roll into showrooms this year. The standard model is the Genesis 3.8 featuring a six-cylinder powerplant and a base price of $32,250. Under its aluminum hood is a 3.8-liter V6, mated to an Aisin B600 6-speed automatic transmission. The powerplant is rated at 290 hp and 264 lb-ft of torque (EPA fuel economy ratings of 18/27). The Genesis 3.8 tips the scales at 3,748 pounds and scoots to 60 mph in a decent 6.2 seconds.

The flagship Genesis 4.6 model offers an eight-cylinder powerplant with a base price of $37,250. Displacing 4.6 liters, the engine is mated to a ZF 6-speed automatic. The V8 is rated at 375 hp and 368 lb-ft of torque (EPA 17/25). With a curb weight of 4,012 pounds, the Genesis 4.6 sprints to 60 mph in just 5.7 seconds.
Whether you choose the six- or eight-cylinder model, both Genesis sedans feature heated leather seating, fully automatic HVAC, Bluetooth hands-free phone, and iPod/USB jacks as standard equipment (to match the upgraded standard equipment on the Genesis 4.6 with a Genesis 3.8 model, simply order the Premium Package).

The Technology Package adds navigation, satellite radio, adaptive HID headlamps, and parking assist to both models. According to Hyundai, a nicely equipped Genesis 3.8 will run about $35,000. With all option boxes checked, a loaded Genesis 4.6 tops out at about $42,000.

As the doors unlock with the standard proximity key, the Genesis sedan welcomes driver and passengers into a very inviting cabin. Soft leather envelopes the seats, door panels, and dashboard, while LED interior lighting (emitting a brighter and whiter light) illuminates the cabin at night. Wood and aluminum inlays complete the package without appearing garish or out of place. The interior quality of materials didn't simply meet our expectations, they exceeded them.

Sliding our six-foot two-inch frame behind the power-operated tilt/telescoping wheel, we found a comfortable driving position within seconds. The driver's visibility outward and to the primary back-lit instrumentation is good, as is the proximity to all of the controls on the steering wheel and dash. Just behind the shifter is the now-obligatory infotainment control wheel, falling readily to hand. If we had to nitpick the cabin, we'd point at the climate controls below the radio/NAV display. In contrast to the round volume knob on the audio system, the HVAC offers a non-intuitive pad of flush silver buttons.

With a push of the start button, our Genesis 4.6 came to life. It quickly settled to idle with only the slightest hint of vibration that it was even running. An exhaust note was non-existent. With the transmission in drive, we dodged the morning commuters on our way out of Santa Barbara. Hyundai pointed us towards Buttonwillow Raceway Park, a popular club racing destination several hours away that would require us to trail through the coastal mountains before dropping down into California's Central Valley. We couldn't help but think a race track was an odd destination for this large luxury sedan.

Compared to its German rivals (both sporting MacPherson suspension designs in the front and multi-link in the rear), the Genesis matches Lexus with a multi-link set-up fore and aft. Like its Lexus competition, the ride of the new Hyundai is soft and very comfortable. Thanks to an impressively stiff chassis (more rigid than the 5 Series, E-Class, and LS 430) and lightweight aluminum suspension components, it takes bumps and potholes in stride. However, if the vehicle is faced with a set of rhythmic dips in the road, the softly sprung Genesis gently porpoises a bit more than expected. At legal speeds it was hardly noticeable. However, in excess of about 85 mph it became unsettling. While the spring rates seemed adequate, increased damping would stabilize everything in the easily attained triple digits. Of course, the engineer's compromise on shock valving gave the Genesis a buttery-smooth ride on all but the most undulated roads. Let the Germans keep their occasionally harsh rides to themselves, the Genesis is a luxury car.

The Korean automaker paid careful attention to aerodynamics and wind management. A low drag coefficient (Cd of .27) and an acoustically laminated windshield and front side windows keep the passengers extremely isolated. Independent testing says the Genesis equals the serenity of the Lexus LS 460 over rough pavement, and our ears believed it. It's what you don't hear in the Hyundai that matters.

The hushed cabin was the perfect environment to enjoy the premium 528-watt Lexicon sound system and its 11-channel digital amplifier... or so we thought. After adjusting tremble, bass, fader, equalizer and surround mode, we couldn't get the 17 speakers to vibrate in pleasant harmony. Far from decent FM reception, and without a CD in pocket, we were forced to listen to metallic-sounding satellite radio during our drive, or sing old television tunes. We chose neither.

Arriving at the Buttonwillow track, Hyundai had set up three different challenges for us. The most interesting, and sure to embarrass the luxury-oriented Genesis, was the track course. So, we took it first. With our only instruction to "safely stay on the track," we were offered freedom to flog both the six- and eight-cylinder models repeatedly. With a bit of apprehension, we grabbed a helmet and a V6 model shod with all-season tires. Knowing it was going to get ugly fast, we left the stability control engaged. To our disbelief, the Genesis did fairly well where the big boys play.

All-season tires slide on a warm track like Crisco on a hot skillet. Without much grip, and soft underpinnings, the Genesis initially rolled like a ship... and then it surprised us by settling down. The RWD chassis and respectfully balanced weight distribution (52:48 on the V6) kept the car relatively stable on the curves as the tires howled and cried in protest. The more powerful V8 didn't help lap times either. In fact, with more weight over the front wheels (54:46 split); it frustratingly pushed over the front tires (demonstrating understeer) more than its lighter sibling. On both vehicles, the ESC was relatively unobtrusive until the vehicle was in a stupid angle in relation to the intended direction of travel. The brakes, beefy four-piston units that bit hard and consistently lap after lap, were the highlight of the track exercise. As expected, it was far from enjoyable tossing either sedan back and forth through the corners of a road course, but Hyundai had made its point – the Genesis chassis was certainly up to the task.

The second comparison was a cone-laden slalom pitting each Genesis sedan against a Mercedes-Benz E350. Held in first gear with the stability control defeated, the two Koreans wagged themselves back-and-forth in quick, if not pretty, fashion without tagging a single cone. The German, refusing to stay in a throttle-controlled low gear, followed a bit slower, but just as precisely. Each was out of its element, but it was fun watching chunks of rubber fly off the tires.

The final comparison took place on an unused straight-a-way. It was essentially a "drag race" between the Genesis 4.6 and a BMW 750i. As expected, the lighter and more powerful Genesis won each time.
Leaving the track-terrorized sedans at Buttonwillow, we grabbed a fresh set of keys and drove back to Santa Barbara in a Genesis 3.8 model. Although it was down 85 horses to the V8, the 3.8 model effortlessly passed heavy trucks on the mountain passes. The car was quiet and comfortable for the 150-plus mile ride back to the hotel. While our enthusiast blood naturally migrates towards larger cylinder counts, we couldn't help but feel the V6 is more than enough engine for this vehicle's luxury mission. Hyundai, expecting 80% of buyers to choose the Genesis 3.8 model, agrees with us.

Two decades ago, few would have bet that a Japanese economy-car manufacturer would ever dominate the North American luxury-car market. Toyota proved everyone wrong with its picture-perfect introduction of the Lexus brand the following year. While this Korean automaker is as determined – and as financially capable – as its Japanese counterparts, the question isn't about product. This time, it is about perception and timing. With its first world-class luxury sedan rolling into showrooms later this month, Hyundai's bold venture is about to be placed in the hands of the consumer.

All photos copyright Michael Harley / Weblogs Inc.

Our lodging for this media event was provided by the manufacturer.

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