The Washington Times - January 9, 2009, 08:26AM

The economy is a mess, people are in a state of malaise and hardly anyone is buying anything, much less a GM or Chrysler product. That’s sad, but things will slowly gain momentum for those two car companies if we just give it a chance. I don’t believe things will gain momentum for the premium brands, however, because the status appeal of Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Jaguar, Volvo, Land Rover, Lexus and Infiniti is no longer, well, very appealing.

It’s just not “cool” to drive around an uppity car anymore, not to mention an SUV version of those brands. I believe people with a little cash are going to be turning to cheap luxury for the time being. Take the Hyundai Genesis, for instance. The Genesis is a superb machine. There’s nothing low-end about it. No shortcuts were taken, no “generic” bits from the parts bins were thrown into the car and no hand-me-downs such as engines and transmissions were utilized in the production of the new flagship.

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It’s a genuine luxury sedan, well worthy of the high praise it’s getting and a definite competitor to the likes of BMW, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, Infiniti, Mercury and Cadillac. If you think that the Koreans can’t build something to as high a standard of fit and finish as the other guys you have a surprise in store. If you think they can’t make a smooth, powerful drivetrain you have another surprise coming as well. When you get in you are immediately aware of the leather dash fascia. It’s real, thick leather that’s beautifully stitched and it makes you feel warm and comfortable, much like you’ve nestled into that leather easy chair in the library – if you happen to have a library.

The instruments and controls are high quality, as are all the other parts making up the interior. And those seats! I’ve not sat in as comfortable a seat since I sat in a Maybach! I’m not kidding here, the seats are that comfortable. So comfortable, in fact, that my passengers all commented about them with no provocation. Everywhere we went my passengers said that they didn’t want to get out of the car. That’s comfortable! Under the hood is a 4.6 liter, 368 horsepower V8 that’s coupled to a ZF 6-speed automatic transmission. Not only is the engine powerful, it’s amazingly smooth and quiet. Runs from zero to 60 mph felt as though the car were on a big elevator, being hydraulically pushed faster and faster. There was no engine fussiness, just raw power thrusting us forward in about 6 seconds, and then onward to speeds well up into the mid 100s. The car exhibited no hint of instability or wind noise or any of those idiosyncracies that lesser vehicles might have.

You get all this for less than $43,000, which brings me back to my original statement that today’s well-heeled buyers are going to enter a pattern of reverse ostentation. They will, in my opinion, forsake the trappings of the rich and surround themselves with luxury on the cheap. I think this is a practical way to handle the new world economy and I think Hyundai realized this a couple years ago.