- The Washington Times - Friday, September 19, 2008

In the automobile business, success comes in a variety of ways: deliver a new and exciting product, offer value for the money, or catch the public fancy with a different concept.

You also can benefit from surprise. If you manage to combine low expectations with the other elements, you almost certainly will wind up with a winner.

That is where Hyundai, the South Korean vehicle manufacturer, finds itself with the introduction of the all-new 2009 Genesis sedan, its first foray into the upscale full-size, V8 powered, rear-drive realm currently ruled by a select few manufacturers.

Hyundai has come a long way in a little more than two decades in the United States. It started in the mid-1980s with the Excel, a subcompact hatchback with a low price and good fuel economy.

Unfortunately, the little car suffered from chronic bouts of self-destruction and Hyundai did not establish itself as a desirable brand. The record over the years has been spotty until recently, when the company expanded its lineup and markedly improved its quality.

Although it still offers economy cars, it also challenged the best of the family sedans — the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry — and succeeded with the latest iteration of the Sonata, which now is fully competitive with the two Japanese icons, as well as with the new Chevrolet Malibu, Nissan Altima and Ford Fusion.

Hyundai even crafted a near-luxury sedan, the Azera, which was designed to compete against the likes of the Toyota Avalon, Nissan Maxima and Buick Lacrosse.

But from an advertising standpoint, the company draped a tarp over the Azera, so sales have been mediocre.

That’s not likely with the new flagship Genesis. This large luxury sedan is so unexpectedly refined that it should create a buzz regardless of whether Hyundai does much to publicize it.

The main question is whether its size and powerful V8 will turn off customers sensitive to high gas prices.

Nevertheless, the company knows it has a good thing and is looking to sell 50,000 copies a year.

Executives also figure that once they get the word out, the Genesis could kick-start sales of the Azera as customers wander through showrooms.

Based on interior volume, the Azera and the Genesis qualify as large cars under the government’s definition.

But the front-drive Azera, which offers only V6 power, likely will be perceived as a mid-size near-luxury car, while the Genesis, with V6 or V8 engines, will not be viewed as anything but a full-size luxury cruiser.

How otherwise to classify the Genesis?

It performs as well, and is as luxurious and loaded with safety and high-tech features as quite a few imported luxury cars that cost many thousands of dollars more.

There’s an audiophile’s Lexicon audio system, big-screen navigation with a backup camera, Bluetooth connectivity, XM satellite radio and heated and cooled front seats, among others.

The styling is classy conservative, with a stylized grille that would not look out of place on a Mercedes-Benz, and in fact likely will be mistakenly identified as one. In the simple and elegant interior, there’s an abundance of carefully-crafted, high-quality materials, including leather-covered door panels, seats and dash.

Because it has rear drive, the Genesis suffers somewhat in interior accommodations. The front seats are comfortable and supportive, and the outboard rear seats will elicit few complaints.

But the center-rear position offers only a hard cushion and a big floor hump.

The Hyundai hawkers unabashedly compare the Genesis, on features and performance, with an array of models from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Infiniti and Lexus, while undercutting them on price. Among U.S. models, it compares favorably with the Cadillac STS, Buick Lucerne, Chrysler 300 and the new Lincoln MKS, although the Lincoln comes with front-drive or all-wheel drive and does not offer a V8.

The Genesis certainly has the bones, but it does not have the cachet of some of its big-bucks competitors. So another question is whether buyers will associate the Hyundai name with high-performance luxury.

There are two Genesis models: the 3.8 with a 290-horsepower V6 engine, which has a base price of $33,000, and the 4.6, with a V8 and an opening price of $38,000.

There are two V8 horsepower ratings.

You get 268 running with regular gasoline and 275 with premium fuel. The transmission is a six-speed automatic with a manual-shift mode.

Standard equipment is extensive and options are limited to a few packages.

The tested Genesis 4.6 had the $4,000 technology package, which brought its as-delivered price up to $42,000. The fully-optioned 3.8 model has a $40,000 sticker.

Hyundai expects about eight of ten buyers will order the 3.8, which has an EPA city/highway fuel economy rating of 18/27 miles per gallon compared to the 4.6, rated at 17/26.

The surprising thing about either Genesis is how well they handle and perform.

It’s no great trick in modern automobile design to produce a cushy straight-line freeway luxury barge.

But Hyundai has put together a package that is so well balanced it can be flogged merrily around a race track.

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