One of the reasons the world of automobiles never really gets boring is that every now and then something special arrives on the scene, a car that seemingly comes out of nowhere and manages to upstage brands that have been entrenching themselves in a key segment for years.
We had a hint that Hyundai was readying a luxury V8 sedan during the World Soccer Cup in Germany, where the Korean automaker was official vehicle supplier. Word was that some of the sedans supplied to the Cup organizers had V8s under their hoods, but nobody was really sure.
Now, for 2009, the all-new Genesis has arrived at Hyundai dealerships and it's proved to be a rare example of a product that exceeds all expectations. I imagined that the Genesis would be a decent effort - after all, Hyundai's mainstream Sonata is surprisingly well-executed and capable for its price range and the smaller products from this automaker are very well done too. But the Genesis is something else altogether. I hesitate to say that it "matches Brand X" for refinement and quality when, in fact, it's even better than most of its competition - especially when price is considered. This is no mere "almost as good as" automobile.
Like some of its rivals, this rear-wheel drive car has an impressive hunkered-down look with a kind of visual solidity about it. There was no particular effort to create a head-turner here, nor any serious attempt to imitate rivals. It's simply a very handsome luxury car with cleverly understated lines - the sort of product buyers will like in these "economically challenged" times where displays of obvious wealth can have the worst possible effect on colleagues and employees. Interestingly, nose, grille and fenders have no names or logos of any kind. Possibly, Hyundai skipped the badges so that people who see the car front-end-on don't go away thinking that this is just another Hyundai (there are logos on the trunk lid, so it's not THAT anonymous).
When I first drove off in a Genesis, the one factor that impressed me most was its ride and general refinement. It's so quiet, so silky (even on rough roads), that it felt more like one of the upscale hybrids than anything else. How Hyundai pulled this off with its limited experience in building luxury cars is a mystery, though the company has sold its flagship Grandeur for years in Korea. I drove one some years back in that country and it wasn't bad, if not in the Genesis' class.
The V8 under the hood of the Genesis is Hyundai's first, but try one of these cars and you might well think they've been making them for years. I've only tried the V8 version - more thrifty buyers can opt for a V6 if the big engine seems a little over the top. Actually, today's V8s can be surprisingly economical if the car is driven with a little care and speed limits are heeded. It's hard to drive the Genesis gently, though, because a dab on the gas pedal produces an exciting surge of acceleration that would shame an awful lot of sports cars. The 32-valve V8 is a 4.6-liter unit that puts out 375-horsepower fed through a six-speed automatic transmission. The engine has dual continuously-variable valve timing, and this probably contributes a great deal to the car's fuss-free acceleration. It certainly lays down the power with effortless poise and you can be way over the speed limit in a few near-noiseless moments if you don't keep an eye on the elegant instrument panel. Sound insulation is outstanding - possibly the best I've experienced in a sedan this side of a Bentley or a full-size Lexus or German competitor. To get this kind of a feel from a car that's half the price of some of its close rivals is nothing short of remarkable.
While this is very much a luxury sedan and nobody is pretending it's a sports car, the Genesis handles very well indeed and certainly has impressively brisk acceleration. A driver who's had to give up on sportier cars because of family or business needs won't be very disappointed with switching to a Genesis. It's worth noting, though, that Hyundai is readying a 2-door version of this car which could well prove a serious low-cost rival to products like the BMW 6-Series.
The interior is a great place to spend trip time with its restrained and tasteful approach to design. The driver is presented with a sensibly-grouped, almost spartan set of controls and instruments - rather than the panorama of gadgetry some cars in this class feature. The fascia incorporates graceful curves and contrasting material tones and many of the functions, including the navigation system, are operated from a large easy-to-grasp knob on the central console. There are certainly fine leathers and burl-wood tones wherever the occupants glance, but it's all done without flash or flimflam. This relatively plain-jane approach doesn't mean that the Genesis is scantily equipped. It has just about every convenience you'll normally find in this class of car. Some reviewers have said that the optional Lexicon 17-speaker sound system in the Genesis is the best they've ever heard and I'd find it hard to disagree.
It may not be an easy task for Hyundai to convince potential buyers that they have a real contender in what is a busy vehicle class, but anyone shopping for a mid-sized Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Audi, Cadillac, Lexus, Infiniti, Volvo or similar rival should take a close look at the Genesis before they make a final decision.