Los Angeles Times's view

In the beginning, there was Hyundai, and it was without form, and darkness was upon the face of the brand.

And it’s still pretty dark.

Yes, we’re all very impressed with Hyundai’s robust sales numbers, the company’s monster 10-year warranty and the new Hyundai Genesis sedan, which was voted 2009 North American Car of the Year by a group of powerful and influential automotive journalists who were found sleeping under a bridge.

But what does the brand mean? If anything, the cursive H stands only for a kind of predatory cheapness that undercuts Honda/Acura and Toyota/Lexus. As cars like the Azera and Sonata demonstrate, in a coldly calculated dollar-for-value comparison, you just can’t beat a Hyundai.

So what. No one ever wrote a misty-eyed heavy metal ballad to the glory of the bargain equation. No one ever serenaded with a mariachi band beneath the window of extended warranties. Hyundai is a brand utterly devoid of romance, poetry or inspiration. The very word affects me like a jeroboam of ether.

That’s why, above and beyond the particulars of cornering grip and acceleration, the new Hyundai Genesis coupe is a good idea. This company can spread all the high-tech marmalade it likes over its cars, but until it starts fashioning an emotional back story, a cool image, a creation myth of its own, the brand will never embody anything more than likable appliances.

The formula for generating passion in a car brand is eternally performance, and preferably motor sports — big, smoky, loud and stupid motor sports. Enter famed performance driver Rhys Millen, who will race a Genesis Coupe this year in various “drifting” competitions.

Drifting is kind of like figure skating with cars, with the drivers pitching the cars sideways and spinning the tires so that they slide around the course trailing clouds of choking tire smoke (much to the dismay of local birds).

As a thinking man’s sport, drifting has an I.Q. of about 40; but it does handily illustrate the salient feature of the Genesis coupe: its rear-wheel drive, which is something of a rarity in this price category. The Genesis coupe finds itself in the rowdy, budget-minded ranks of the Ford Mustang, Chevy Camaro, Nissan 370Z and Dodge Challenger.

It remains to be seen how the young males/early hominids in the drifting demographic will respond to the Genesis coupe, but the car certainly has some asphalt chops.

The car comes with four trim levels (base, Premium, Grand Touring and Track) and two engine options: a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder (210 hp) and a highly evolved 3.8-liter V-6 putting out a sweet 306 hp.

Transmission options include a five-speed automatic and six-speed manual for the four-cylinder and a six-speed automatic with the six-cylinder car.

Our test car was a 3.8-liter Track package car, as red as a baboon’s butt, impressively equipped with 19-inch performance wheels and tires, monobloc Brembo brakes, cinched-down sport suspension, trunk spoiler and a limited-slip differential. For a car costing $30,250, that’s a lot of kit.

I know where the cost-savings came from: the interior, which is rendered in varying textures of “ick” and “oh-my-God,” a smorgasbord of paint-coated plastic and injection-molded tackiness that represents a huge backward step for the usually tactilely obsessed Hyundai.

This is the placeholder interior, right? Guys? The other letdown is that the top-o’-line car isn’t available with navigation. On the positive side, this is a big car, with large, comfortable seats, excellent outward visibility and reasonably usable rear seats that fold down to create an enormous cargo hold. If usability ranks high with you, the Genesis coupe will easily outpoint the Camaro and 370Z in your cross shopping.

Push the start button and you’ll hear — well, a distinctly flatulent engine note, the sound of a zillion Asian import V-6s distilled into a liquor of lameness. But listen closer and you can hear the distant notes of menace. Squeeze the throttle and the V-6 wakes up with a nice, hardened anger. That’s a pleasant surprise.

Out on the road, the car’s ride feels a bit trembly and over-stirred — that’s the Track package suspension for you — but it’s certainly comfortable to drive. And it’s got a big, whopping kick to it. Romp the throttle and the engine valves align just so, as does the variable-geometry intake, and suddenly all 266 pound-feet come online.

Zero to 60 mph is about 6 seconds, which is not blindingly fast in this segment, but respectable. The coupe feels ornery and aggressive and impatient when its humming along in the revs. That’s good.

Steering feel is good and response to inputs quite precise; however, even the Track package car has a bit more body roll in a corner than I might have expected. On the summer tires the coupe has loads of lateral grip and excellent overall balance, yielding only to nose-plowing understeer right at the end of the tether. The Brembo brakes are tremendous.

As for its looks, well, it’s a bit of a Halloween fright. With the headlights pulled back weirdly over the fenders and the grille aperture pulled at the corners like a mouth that can’t close, the Genesis coupe appears to have suffered the world’s worst face-lift. Meanwhile, there are these strange diagonal force lines across the fuselage, as well as the oddly contoured rear glass. This car has obviously passed through the entrails of corporate group think a few times and it shows every sign of being fussed over.

Of course, styling is a matter of taste. If you have any, you won’t care for this.

Is it a match for my favorite car in this segment, the Ford Mustang GT? Oh no. No, no, no. Heavens no. But the Genesis coupe is low-slung, fast, a bit cantankerous and a wee bit racy, and so it’s exactly the car Hyundai needs. Let there be light.

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