Genesis a big leap for Hyundai

If you can’t build a great car, build a car with a lot of great stuff in it.

That strategy has served Hyundai well. The South Korean automaker has grown from a bargain-basement brand into a global player by packing its vehicles with more features and selling them at a lower price than the competition.

That “if not better, more” philosophy is on display in the 2009 Genesis, the biggest, most powerful and best-equipped car the automaker has ever offered in the United States.

The rear-wheel-drive Genesis raises Hyundai’s game with a long list of features and a beautifully designed and carefully trimmed interior. Luxury brands such as BMW, Cadillac, Infiniti, Lexus, Lincoln and Mercedes-Benz would be proud to offer the Genesis’ lovely and spacious passenger compartment.

On all those fronts, the Genesis constitutes a major leap for Hyundai, but the big car still lands in the middle of the pack of large sedans priced from the upper $20s to low $40s.

The look and feel of the interior is the Genesis’ only clear win as it competes with models ranging from the sporty Chrysler 300C and Pontiac G8 to the practical Ford Taurus and Toyota Avalon.

The Genesis is Hyundai’s first heavyweight contender, but it fails to throw a knockout punch because of unexceptional fuel economy, derivative styling and cumbersome controls.

Genesis prices, like its upscale interior and rear-drive layout, set a new standard for Hyundai. A base 2009 Genesis 3.8 powered by a 290-horsepower, 3.8-liter V-6 costs $32,250. The top-of-the-line $37,250 Genesis 4.6 offers the first V-8 Hyundai has sold in the United States, a powerful 4.6-liter, 368-horsepower engine. Both models come with standard six-speed automatic transmissions. The V-6 gets an Aisin gearbox, while the V-8 comes with a ZF transmission.

I tested nicely equipped versions of both cars: a $35,250 3.8 and $41,250 4.6. I had more time to drive the 4.6, so this review focuses on that model. All prices exclude destination charges.

While most automakers have turned to rear-wheel-drive platforms to produce sporty performance sedans with precise handling, Hyundai harked back to the soft-riding days of Buick and Lexus for the Genesis’ handling. The suspension cushions bumps as the Genesis floats down the road in old-style comfort other brands have abandoned as they chase BMW-style performance chic. The downside is a tendency to body roll that discourages enthusiastic driving.

The interior is remarkably quiet, free of vibration, wind and road noise. The Genesis’ cab offers a level of isolation that matches the silence of a Lexus LS.

The powertrains are tuned for confident passing and highway cruising. Acceleration is less invigorating than the horsepower figures might lead you to expect, because the engines produce less torque or peak at higher rpm than the Chrysler 300 or Pontiac G8.

The EPA rated the Genesis’ fuel economy at 18 mpg city/27 mpg highway for the V-6 and 17 mpg city/25 mpg highway for the V-8. The EPA used premium fuel when it tested the V-8. Drivers who choose to run regular can probably expect some deterioration in fuel economy. That usually happens in engines that are tuned for maximum performance with premium gasoline.

For comparison, the 300, G8, Taurus and Avalon all passed EPA muster with regular gas. The front-drive Taurus and Avalon V-6 models got EPA ratings of 18 mpg city/28 highway and 19 city/28 highway, respectively.

V-8 models of the 300 and G8 achieved EPA ratings of 16 city/25 highway and 15 city/24 highway, respectively.

The net effect is that running premium fuel in a V-8 Genesis will add $131 to $213 to your annual fuel bill compared with driving a 300C or G8 GT, according to the EPA’s calculations.

The look and feel of the big Hyundai’s interior is first-class all the way.

Every surface is either padded soft-touch trim or tastefully applied wood or brightwork. A strip of warm chocolate brown leather across the center of the instrument panel — where most automakers would place a strip of wood — in the V-8 I tested was especially appealing.

Passenger room is a generous 109.4 cubic feet. The trunk checks in at 15.9 cubic feet. The passenger compartment tops the 300, Avalon, G8 and Taurus. The Genesis’ trunk size trails the G8 and Taurus, but is larger than the 300 and Avalon.

I found the Genesis’ exterior styling to be derivative. From its Mercedes-style grille and Lexus-like fenders to a BMW-type C-roofline and trunk, the car does not make a visual statement to support its aspirations to change Hyundai’s image.

The Genesis follows Hyundai’s successful pattern of offering a lot — a lot of room, and a lot of features. However, it lacks the clear-cut price advantage that’s been the other half of Hyundai’s formula for success, unless you compare it with luxury models such as the Lexus LS and GS.

I used to price a Chrysler 300C equipped similarly to the Genesis V-8 I tested. The 300C totaled $42,315 — or $1,065 more than the Hyundai. The Genesis had some features you can’t get on the 300.

By Mark Phelan
Detroit Free Press

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