In 1990, when Toyota wanted to enter the luxury-car market, company executives were unconvinced that customers would pay premium prices for a Toyota, so they created a luxury brand called Lexus. Nissan thought the same thing, so they created Infiniti. Mazda very nearly launched a luxury brand call Amati.
These thoughts have to be circulating at Hyundai, with the launch of the all-new 2009 Genesis, the company's first real luxury vehicle. Will people pay more than $40,000 for a Hyundai when it's parked on the dealer's lot next to an $11,000 Accent?
Hyundai is convinced that won't be a problem, and the rest of the industry is watching with interest. Especially because the last time a mainstream manufacturer tried to jump into the luxury business -- Volkswagen, with its short-lived Phaeton -- the result was disastrous.
The 2004 VW Phaeton started at $65,000, though, and topped out at close to $90,000, admittedly a long way from the Genesis' base price of $32,250 for the V-6 model, and $37,250 for the V-8 model we tested. But still, it's a reach for Hyundai.
To succeed, the company knows it has to overdeliver for the price, and it has. The Genesis 4.6 -- so named for the size of its V-8 engine, the first ever for the Korean manufacturer -- is a genuine surprise in almost every area.
The Genesis, Hyundai's first rear-wheel-drive car, has an overall length of 195.9 inches and width of 73.4 inches, roughly the same size as an Acura RL. The base engine is a 3.8-liter, 290 horsepower V-6, with the 4.6-liter V-8 as an option. Horsepower for the V-8 is rated at 375 on premium gas, 368 on regular. The transmission is a built-in-Germany ZF six-speed automatic, the only major component not built in Korea.
Inside, the Genesis is plush and roomy up front and slightly less roomy in the rear. Two adults fit fine, but a third will have to sit on a hard console that folds up into the seat back. Trunk space is average for a car this size.
The Genesis 4.6 is absolutely loaded with standard features, ranging from a power rear sunshade to a 14-speaker Lexicon sound system. A $4,000 optional "Technology Package" on the test car upgraded the stereo to 17 speakers, and adds a navigation system, rear backup camera, automatic leveling headlights and a cooled driver's seat. With $750 in shipping, the price was an even $42,000.
While the leather- and wood-trimmed cockpit suggests that Hyundai designers have been studying BMW, the outside looks more like an Infiniti than anything else. This is a handsome car, if not particularly distinctive.
On the road, it's another story: This is one of the quietest cars I've driven at any price.
The engine is superb -- Hyundai has often been a beat behind the competition in that area -- and the ride and handling rival the best from Europe and Japan. Coming next is a performance-oriented Genesis coupe, and I'm looking forward to that with a lot more anticipation now than I was before.
This is not an exceptionally good time to be introducing a new flagship, but by all accounts Hyundai has the patience to wait for the Genesis to find a market. They certainly have the product down pat: Considering that Hyundai only began selling cars here in 1986, it's astounding how far they've come.
Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smith can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5699.
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