After just a few miles behind the wheel of the Hyundai Genesis sedan, it was easy to understand why this vehicle was named the 2009 North American Car of the Year - the first such honor for any product from this South Korean automaker.
It was also easy to forget I was driving a Hyundai, because it felt more like I was behind the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz. I kid you not.
The company that made the mistake of introducing itself to the U.S. market in 1985 by introducing the miserable little Excel hatchback has graduated into a full-line automaker with a stable of vehicles designed to fit almost anyone's tastes.
But there is more Hyundai magic on the way. While the Genesis has a base price range of $32,250-$37,250 (plus $800 freight), the automaker plans to bring an even more-expensive luxury car to the United States late next year - its Equus sedan, which it displayed at the recent Pebble Beach, Calif., luxury-car show.
The Equus is already on sale in South Korea, competed head-to-head against such vehicles as the BMW 7-series and Mercedes S-class. No U.S. prices have been announced yet for the Equus, and it might even get a different name for this market, but it probably will push into the $50,000 range when it arrives.
For now, though, people who want BMW, Lexus or Mercedes-style luxury - but without the prestigious name, mind you - can be happy with the Genesis sedan.
This car is not to be confused with the Genesis Coupe, which arrived this year as a 2010 model. The coupe, which I also tested recently, starts at $22,000 and is much-less luxurious than the larger and roomier sedan by the same name.
Hyundai's U.S. sales have held remarkably strong during this year of historically depressed overall industry totals, a credit not only to cars such as the Genesis sedan and coupe, but the strength and value of the entire Hyundai lineup - which begins with the under-$10,000 Accent subcompact.
The company's success this year, while other automakers have been struggling to survive, has been helped by its value-pricing strategy, and, perhaps most of all, its "Hyundai Assurance" plan. Under that program, the automaker pledges to buy back any new Hyundai during the first year of ownership if the buyer becomes unemployed or can't work because of health problems.
The new luxury sedan, which was introduced to Super Bowl TV viewers in January, also was honored by the Web site About.com as the "Best New Car of 2009," and named a "Top 5 Luxury Car for 2009" by NADAguides.com, the consumer Web site operated by the National Automobile Dealers Association.
Genesis also earned five-star safety ratings for both front and side impacts in crash tests conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Michael Deitz, Hyundai Motor America's product planning manager, contends that the Genesis "has the technology and features comparable to the world's leading premium sports sedans at a value Mercedes and BMW can't beat."
The car has the look and feel of a large, premium European sedan such as the BMW 5-series or Mercedes E-class, but at a much-lower cost. The styling is quite Mercedes-like - not flashy, just classy.
The $32,250 starting price is for the base 3.8 model, which comes with a 290-horsepower, 3.8-liter V-6 engine.
On the top end, there is the 4.6-liter V-8 model, with an impressive 375 horsepower, beginning at $37,250.
Our tester was the model that most consumers are choosing - the 3.8 V-6. With extras such as a Premium Plus package ($3,000) and Technology package ($4,000), our tester rang up at $40,050 with freight.
With the Premium Plus package came 18-inch alloy wheels, leather-wrapped door and dash, power sunroof, power tilt-and-telescopic steering column, rain-sensing wipers, and more.
The Technology package added a 528-watt Lexicon audio system, integrated with a navigation system, with HD radio, XM satellite radio, and XM NavTraffic; a rear backup camera; adaptive headlights; front and rear parking assist; and cooled front seats.
Hyundai said it expected the Genesis to compete for customers with cars such as the Lexus ES, Chrysler 300 and Cadillac CTS, but added that it has performance capabilities and luxury features "comparable to sedans costing tens of thousands of dollars more."
The Genesis rides on a new rear-wheel-drive vehicle platform that Hyundai developed specifically for a luxury car, and it has an advanced five-link suspension at all four corners to give it both the ride and handling that consumers expect in a premium sedan.
Both engines come with six-speed automatic transmissions, although the gearboxes are different for each model.
With premium fuel, the V-8 has the 375 horsepower, but it's also designed to run on regular gas. The horsepower drops just slightly, to 368, with regular, but Hyundai says the car still outperforms all competitors in the amount of horsepower produced per liter of engine displacement.
While I haven't tested the V-8 model, I can tell you that the V-6 offered more power than I would ever need either in town or on the highway. The accelerator pedal takes a little getting used to, as just a small push gives the car a quick forward jolt - bringing groans from my passengers, who said they though I was trying to snap their necks.
But once I got the hang of it, I heard no more complaints. It reminded me of the way my flight instructor taught me to handle the control wheel in the airplane - "You don't turn the wheel," he said. "You just add pressure."
The ride was smooth and quiet, even at top freeway speeds, yet during spirited driving on twisty roads, the Genesis performed quite well, with no squishiness at all. Steering was more precise than I expected, as well, although not quite as crisp as that of a comparably sized BMW.
The Genesis has impressive EPA fuel economy numbers for a car with this much power -- 17 mpg city/25 highway for the V-8 and 18/27 for the V-6. Hyundai notes that this is better than many V-6 engines in smaller midsize cars.
Standard on the V-6 model are electronic stability control with traction control, antilock brakes, 17-inch alloy wheels, front and rear seat-mounted side air bags, roof-mounted side-curtain air bags, the electronic front head restraints, fog lights, automatic headlights, dual power/heated outside mirrors with turn signal indicators, heated leather seats with power adjustment up front, cruise control, white and blue interior lighting, keyless entry with pushbutton start, leather-wrapped tilt steering wheel with audio controls, dual front fully automatic climate control, auto-dimming rearview mirror with universal garage opener and compass, AM/FM/CD/MP3/XM audio system with iPod/USB and auxiliary input jacks, Bluetooth and floor mats.
The V-8 models come with most of the features of the V-6, plus 18-inch silver alloy wheels, chrome lower body side moldings, upgraded leather seats, leather-wrapped dash and door trim inserts, power glass sunroof with tilt and slide, power tilt-and-telescopic steering column, integrated memory system, Lexicon 15-speaker surround -sound audio system, six-disc CD changer, illuminated scuff plates, wood-trimmed leather steering wheel, power rear sunshade and rain-sensing wipers with auto-defogger windshield.
The car seats five, and as a full-size sedan, it's quite roomy for both front and rear passengers, with lots of rear legroom even when the front bucket seats are pushed all the way back on their tracks.
But my 11-year-old twin grandkids were much more comfortable in the back seat by themselves. With no one sitting in the middle, the center armrest can be pulled down, and it provides two decent cup holders.
The car comes with Hyundai's great warranty, which includes five-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper protection, along with 10-year/100,000-mile limited powertrain coverage, seven-year/unlimited mileage anti-perforation protection, and 24-hour roadside assistance for five years with no mileage limit.
Towing, lockout service and trip-interruption expenses are included.
The automotive columns of G. Chambers Williams III have appeared regularly in the Star-Telegram since 1994. Contact him at 210-250-3236; firstname.lastname@example.org.
2009 Hyundai Genesis Sedan
The package: Full-size, four-door, five-passenger, rear-wheel-drive, V-6 or V-8 powered luxury sedan.
Highlights: All new for 2009, this is the first luxury sedan from South Korea's Hyundai. It's designed to compete in the same price class as the entry-level Lexus, BMW and Mercedes models, but is larger and more powerful, putting it in the same class as those brands' midlevel sedans.
Negatives: No manual transmission offered for sportier driving; audio system is hard to operate while driving, as its controls are on the center console next to the driver's thigh, integrated with the navigation system controls (on models equipped with this option).
Engines: 3.8-liter V-6; 4.6-liter V-8, both naturally aspirated.
Transmissions: Six-speed automatic.
Power/torque: 290 HP/264 foot-pounds (V-6); 375 HP./333 foot-pounds (V-8).
Length: 195.9 inches.
Curb weight: 3,748-4,006 pounds
Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock.
Electronic stability control: Standard.
Side air bags: Front seat-mounted; side curtain for both rows.
Trunk volume: 15.9 cubic feet.
EPA fuel economy: 18 mpg city/27 highway (V-6); 17/25 (V-8).
Fuel capacity/type: 17.2 gallons/unleaded regular.
Major competitors: Lexus ES 350, Toyota Avalon, Nissan Maxima, Infiniti G37, Volvo S60, Chrysler 300.
Base price range: $32,250-$38,250 plus $800 freight.
Price as tested: $40,050 including freight and options (3.8 model).
On the Road rating: 8.7 (of a possible 10).