Seoul, it seemed the whole city was Hyundai-related – I rode on a Hyundai bus, stayed at the Hyundai hotel, watched a Hyundai television. The factory where Hyundai builds cars, we were told, was the largest such factory in the world. It was next to Hyundai’s ship-building operation – also, we were told, the world’s largest.
“The Koreans are the world’s greatest copy cats copycats,” an American guide, who worked for Hyundai, told us in low, conspiratorial tones. “They buy a product from another country, study it, and build it. Whether it’s a ship or a television. Doesn’t matter.”
That’s how Hyundai, the car company, got started in building the cars we see today. Hyundai essentially bought technology from Mitsubishi, the Japanese car company, and started building the Hyundai Excel. It was not a very good car. It looked pretty good, ran well, but didn’t hold up. Resale value was dismal. Only in the past couple of years has Hyundai been able to shake off the negative buzz that surrounded the products it sold here in the mid – 1980s.
And the company did it not by copying other products, but by dedicating a lot of money to its own research-and-development program. It hired some good people, commissioned some talented stylists, and began building some quality products. Are they at Honda and Toyota levels yet? No. But Hyundai is a lot closer than they were it was just five years ago.
And it’s paying off. Hyundai finished 2001 as the fifth best-selling import in the U.S. United States, with sales up more than 40 percent over 2000. Hyundai sold 346,235 vehicles here in the United States last year, just 9,000 fewer than Volkswagen. When Hyundai passes VW this year, as it is expected to, that will put it behind only Toyota, Honda and Nissan in import sales.
All that is a roundabout introduction to the 2002 Hyundai XG350, the company flagship. When I visited Korea more than a decade ago, Hyundai was selling a big sedan there, mostly to government heads and executives.
“Why don’t you sell that car in America?” I asked.
“Because no one there would be interested in a Hyundai luxury car,” I was told.
Only a few years ago, Hyundai was still unsure. The company imported a handful of the sedans, fully prepared for them to be rejected in the marketplace. They weren’t. It wasn’t. The XG300, as it was called when it was introduced, was a big hit, and has remained so.
For 2002, Hyundai bumped the engine size from 3.0 to 3.5 liters, hence the name. The XG350 is still down a bit on power compared to with most manufacturers – the Ford Taurus is available with a 3.0-liter, 200-horse V-6, for instance, compared to with 194 for the Hyundai’s larger engine. But this is a class of car where horsepower is secondary.
Indeed, the The XG350, which has a five-speed automatic transmission, has plenty of power. Unfortunately, it is delivered from a standing stop in an abrupt, twitchy manner. Barely press the accelerator, and the XG350 – well, it kind of lurches forward.
This is called “throttle tip-in,” which is how smoothly the power builds as you begin to open the throttle. It wasn’t just me – a couple of others who drove this car also found it oddly jerky, especially since the rest of the car seems pretty sophisticated. The upshot: More calibration needs to be done between among the fuel injection, the transmission and the engine speed. I’ve noticed this on a couple of other Hyundais, but it was never this annoying.
Otherwise, the XG350 delivers on its promise of providing a solid, roomy car for not a lot of money. The Hyundai, at 191.5 inches long, is less than a half-inch shorter than the Toyota Avalon, and the Hyundai has a longer wheelbase. Outfit an Avalon with the equipment the test vehicle had – an XG350 L model, which is fairly deluxe – and the Toyota would cost at least $3,000 more than the Hyundai, which lists for $25,750, with a long list of ures.
Those features include a good stereo, a leather-trimmed interior, a sunroof, front and side airbags air bags, anti-lock brakes, and power everything. And most people who see the XG350, including me, think it is a better-looking car than the Avalon. Hyundai designers did themselves proud – more than one person thought the XG350 was an Infiniti.
It would be nice to say that the XG350 is every bit as good a car as the Toyota, but Hyundai is not quite there. Besides the seemingly unhappy marriage between the engine and transmission, the Hyundai’s ride and handling is not up to the standards of the Toyota. Build quality, though, was excellent. Hyundai has made some amazing strides in a relatively short period of time.
So, compared to with the Avalon, Toyota scores with a better powertrain and suspension, Hyundai with a lower price and better styling. Given another five years, Hyundai will be a genuine threat to the Japanese manufacturers.
Base price: $25,599
Price as tested: $25,750
EPA-rated mileage: 18 mpg city, 26 highway
Details: Front-wheel-drive sedan with 3.5-liter, 194-hp V-6 and 5-speed automatic transmission.