Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Hyundai adds near-luxury Genesis sedan to line up

With fewer than three months remaining in 2008, it's been a quite a year: The last games were played at Shea and Yankee stadiums, Merrill Lynch almost went broke and Hyundai - Hyundai! - introduced a $38,000 car that can become a $40,000 car with options.

Why? For the same reason Willie Sutton said he robbed banks instead of five-and- dimes: That's where the money is. There's more profit to be made on higher-priced models than in the inexpensive small cars for which Hyundai is best known.

And so we have the big 2009 Genesis sedan, available with a V-8 at $38,000 to start, or a V-6 starting at $33,000. It's a strong entry in what carmakers call the "near luxury" arena - $30,000 to $40,000. Hyundai nibbled at the low end of that range with the Azera, a front-drive large sedan that can run into the low $30,000s with options.

But the Genesis presses the attack further and only time will tell whether it's a bridge too far. Hyundai dealers have no experience selling and servicing luxury cars and Hyundai's name still says "economy," - not "cache." True, they said the same thing about Toyota, but when it entered this part of the market in 1990 it created the Lexus brand and a separate dealer group (as did Honda with Acura and Nissan with Infiniti). Hyundai says it's not ready for that yet.

The Genesis' timing might be unfortunate. It arrived at dealerships this summer amid darkening recession clouds that have made consumers skittish about major purchases.

Quality, though, shouldn't be a concern. Hyundai's early problems in that area seem to be history; Consumer Reports recommends several of its models for which it has reader feedback about reliability. Hyundai has scored above average in J.D. Power and Associates' two most recent buyer surveys, measuring dependability and customer satisfaction.

And Hyundai backs the Genesis with an impressive warranty. It's good for five years or 60,000 miles - 10 years and 100,000 miles on the powertrain.

On paper, then, the Genesis looks like it's worth considering. Its styling is unremarkable - classically simple, if you prefer. Its dashboard is as ugly as it is ergonomically friendly; the protrusion from its lower center of a pod with audio and climate controls makes the dash look like it's sticking out its tongue at the car's passengers. But the interior is richly finished, in leather.

On the road, the Genesis rides firmly but comfortably, handles confidently and is delightfully quiet over just about any surface. Rear seat legroom is generous. Some might find the steering a bit heavy during parking.

Most drivers will deem the 290-hp. V-6 more than adequate. The EPA estimates fuel economy at 18 mpg city and 27 highway, and I averaged in the low 20s in mostly highway driving. The government numbers for the V-8 are 17 and 25. Hyundai specifies regular gas for the V-6 but says the V-8 will need premium to deliver the 375 hp., of which it is capable.

Hyundai says the V-8 gets the Genesis to 60 mph a half-second faster than the six, or in 5.7 seconds.

The Genesis has the government's topmost, five-star, safety rating for its front, side and rollover protection.

The Genesis has a lot going for it but, as Hyundai's spearhead into new territory, it carries risk for buyers if it fails: poor resale value. This might be a car better leased than purchased.

Vehicle Tested: 2009 Hyundai Genesis 3.8

Engine: 3.8-liter V-6, 290 hp.

Fuel: Regular

Transmission: Six-speed automatic, rear-wheel drive

Safety: Dual front and curtain-type air bags; seat-mounted front and rear side-impact air bags; four-wheel disc brakes w/anti-lock, stability control and brake assist; heated side mirrors with turn signals; fog lamps

Place of Assembly: Ulsan, South Korea

Trunk: 15.9 cubic feet

EPA Fuel Economy

Estimates: 18 mpg city, 27 highway

Price as Driven: $36,000

Tom Incantalupo | ROAD TEST

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