CHICAGO -- When I first saw the 2009 Hyundai Genesis, I thought it looked nice in a nondescript sort of way. There's no badge embossed on the grille, but its shoulders are wide and there's a sense of power to it.
But when I parked on the street in Chicago, it seemed everyone walked by it, smiling, nodding in approval, stopping by to tell me how nice the car was. Honestly, I wasn't expecting that kind of reaction.
Standing in the middle of Koreatown on the north side of the Windy City may have had something to do with the reactions, but they were right.
The new top dog for the South Korea-based company takes on the likes of Mercedes and Lexus with considerable aplomb.
It's a flagship with something even Lincoln lacks: a V-8. However, even Hyundai executives point out that only 20 percent of models sold will carry the beefier engine.
While Hyundai used to carry the reputation as the "less expensive" carmaker, it's been polishing its reputation with consumers, creating a new image of itself: Genesis could be just the beginning. It's as if Hyundai has performed well in prep school, won a scholarship to Harvard and graduated at the top of its class.
Here's why: At $40,000, the Genesis is an exceptional vehicle, but this one starts at $33,000.
For me, entry level luxury cars must do two things extremely well: offer a superior ride and remind me how special I really am. There's a whole genre of entry level sport luxury that pairs performance and craftsmanship, and many cars such as the Cadillac CTS and BMW 3 Series fit well in that area. Hyundai aimed at a different target. It hit a sweet spot somewhere between a boring Buick and an overcomplicated Acura.
On the highway, it's quiet and comfortable. Hyundai covers the basics extremely well: cutting wind and engine noise to extremely low levels. The interior is plush, understated and simplified. The brown leather trim across the front of the dash could come from an antique book, and the heated steering wheel could warm up leftovers. Every control is at my fingertips through the center console's single control knob -- similar to the systems offered by German luxury carmakers. Sit, spin, command.
By the time I finished the five-hour trip to Chicago, I still felt fresh and relaxed. The smooth ride stems from the five-link front and rear suspension, 115.6-inch wheelbase and the 18-inch wheels. (The V-6 model comes with 17-inchers.) I crossed all types of pavements along the way -- seamed concrete, quiet asphalt and the post-apocalyptic ruins along patches of the Dan Ryan Expressway.
The 4.6-liter V-8 performed phenomenally, especially on the highway near the Loop. Detroiters may complain about traffic, but it's nothing compared to Chicago's. There, you need a big car to wedge your way into the express lane and enough power to blast past the driver in the Mercedes on a cell phone.
The 368-horsepower V-8 manhandles the car on the open road and in Chicago's high-speed tight traffic. (It can hit 375 horsepower with premium fuel, but I'm just too cheap.) It also produces 324-pound-feet torque and moves smoothly through the ZF six-speed automatic transmission.
While it can go from 0-60 mph in 5.7 seconds, the 4,000 pound body seemed a little heavy for tight cornering on city streets, as the body would roll, and electro-hydraulic steering felt a little loose at slower speeds. After all, it's a big car -- stretching 195.9 inches -- so I wasn't expecting a sprinter. But really, it's a minor complaint. It has the muscle and the underpinnings to perform at exceedingly high levels.
Another area where I thought the Genesis performed poorly was in the snow. The electronic stability control and traction control kicked on at the millisecond of wheel spin. While this is good in most conditions, when stopped on snow, it leaves the rear wheels sputtering for traction. An all-wheel-drive model might help it in weather conditions tougher than Southern California's extreme sunshine, but there are no plans for such a model.
I'm even more curious to test the 3.8-liter V-6 model, which touts 290-horsepower and 264-pound-feet torque, with a body weight 250 pounds lighter than its V-8 brother. The heavy body may cut into the car's fuel performance: 17 miles per gallon in the city and 25 mpg on the highway for the V-8, and 18/27 for the V-6.
The Genesis really shines inside. There is more than 44 inches of legroom in the front and 38 inches of legroom in the back. Fill it up with five adults and every one has enough leg and elbow room to sit comfortably. The 15.9 cubic feet of truck space also offers ample room to hold everything from four sets of golf clubs to luggage.
The dash carries a graceful curve across the middle and then narrows out on the edges. A metallic U envelopes the 8-inch digital display screen that is neatly pushed into the canted dash to cut down on glare from the sun.
The Lexicon 14-speaker stereo can play your iPod, connect any other music device, satellite radio and anything you can cram onto an USB thumb drive.
Hyundai also uses a cool blue lighting scheme at night that works well with the black-faced instruments. It's easy on the eyes and lets you adjust to the Xenon high-intensity discharge headlamps, which feature an auto leveling feature that keeps the lights on the road, no matter how the sedan is loaded.
As for the car's profile, the back looks slightly higher than the front, giving it that sporty wedge look, though its sheer size and gracious roofline provide luxury sedan appeal.
The front wheel is pushed forward while the back allows for some overhang. The front end is powerful with its horizontal grille and black intake below the bumper.
My feeling is that as Hyundai was taking a big risk entering the rear-wheel-drive luxury sedan market already, it wasn't going to take too much of a risk with the exterior. It's conservative. Then again, so are the people who will buy it.