- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2003

Right off the bat, the 2004 Hyundai XG350 has quite a few things going for it.

The front view, mainly the grille, looks like the ultraluxury Maybach, which starts at about $350,000. From the back, some say, it resembles a $200,000 Bentley. It even has a bit of a bustle on the trunk that is faintly reminiscent of the 7-Series BMW, which starts around $70,000.

Yet the XG350, equipped like some near-luxury cars, has a suggested sticker price of $24,589. The test car, with one minor option, came in at $24,678. And discounts have been available.

So why isn’t everybody in the world beating down the doors at the Hyundai stores? Well, for one thing, it’s a Hyundai from South Korea, a brand that is in the process of building a new image after earlier quality problems.

To get over the hump, Hyundai offers one of the better warranties in the business: Five years and 60,000 miles overall, and 10 years and 100,000 miles on the engine and transaxle. That’s a comfort, but it’s still a pain to chase back to the dealer for fixes, even if they don’t cost anything.

It’s the sort of dilemma each prospective customer must work out for himself or herself. Go for a low price with a lot of stuff and a question mark, or pay more money for a car with a better record for quality and reliability.

There’s no question that, on paper, and even when you first get acquainted with it, the XG350 comes across as a lot of bang for the buck. It’s a midsize, front-drive sedan with a 3.5-liter, 194-horsepower V-6 engine and a five-speed automatic transmission with manual shift mode.

It competes in a class with some of the toughest competitors on the road, including the best-selling Toyota Camry and Honda Accord, the Ford Taurus, Nissan Altima, Chevrolet Malibu, Volkswagen Passat, Mitsubishi Galant, Mazda 6 and Chrysler Sebring. Comparably equipped, the XG350 is thousands of dollars less than the Camry and Accord.

It’s fitted out like a near-luxury car. Standard equipment includes antilock brakes and traction control, an audio system with CD and cassette players, automatic climate control, remote locking, leather upholstery, power front seats and outside mirrors, automatic headlights, garage-door opener, aluminum alloy wheels, full-size spare wheel and tire, and an inside auto-dimming mirror.

Slide into the driver’s seat and you are surrounded by wood-grain trim on the dash, doors and console — perhaps a bit too much of it. It’s made of plastic but doesn’t look tacky, though it comes close. The ergonomics are thoughtful, with instruments easy to read and controls where you expect them to be. The front bucket seats are comfortable and supportive, and the outboard passengers in back fare almost as well on the comfort scale, with decent knee and head room. Back seaters also are treated to reading lights. However, as is usual in most cars, the center position in back is mainly for people who enjoy penance — though it’s not as grim as some other cars.

Out back, there’s a roomy, upholstered trunk that houses the full-size spare wheel under the floor. Yet despite its overall luxurious ambience, the XG350 lacks a few things that are available on competitive makes, including a sunroof, side air bags and side curtain air bags, and an optional navigation system. The only options available are an eight-disc CD changer, floor mats and rear mud guards.

With 194 horsepower and decent low-speed torque, the XG350 comports itself well in the stoplight sprints, though it’s outclassed on horsepower by other cars in its category.

However, it’s no sports sedan. With a suspension system biased more toward ride than handling, it gets mushy in the twisties if you push it hard. The brakes have a solid feel in everyday driving. On the highway, the XG350 is a quiet cruiser. Though it’s not overly heavy, it has the heavy feel of a larger car. The steering is relaxed and requires few corrections, so long-distance driving does not become fatiguing.

Overall, the XG350 is the sort of car that looks and feels good on its own terms. It’s only when you compare it side-by-side with the leaders in this class that its shortcomings become apparent. It’s no V-6 Camry or Accord, but then it doesn’t cost as much as they do, either.

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