Hyundai began selling cars in the U.S. in 1986 when it introduced the subcompact Excel here. The less than $5,000 price tag was a hit and prompted Forbes magazine to name it one of the top 10 products of the year.
Then things fell apart when reports about poor quality and reliability began to circulate. Predictably, sales tanked and it wasn’t until many years later, in 1998, that the results of new quality-oriented management began to draw attention.
To erase lingering doubts about quality, Hyundai introduced a 10-year powertrain warranty. With a new focus on quality and reliability, sales improved and have done so every year since 1998 with a 20 percent compound growth rate.
Even Toyota vice chairman Fujio acknowledged the company is growing in Toyota’s rearview mirror. “Hyundai has quality and prices that have caught customers’ attention, not to mention ours,” he said in August 2005.
In 2008, Hyundai Santa Fe and Hyundai Elantra were awarded the 2008 Consumer Reports “top pick” and Elantra earned Consumer Reports’ “excellent” rating in predicted reliability. Elantra is Consumer Reports top-ranked 2008 vehicle, beating out such high-quality stalwarts as the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Toyota Prius.
Considering that in 1998, Hyundai ranked among the worst for initial defects, the turnaround has been extraordinary. Confidence about their capability has prompted Hyundai to challenge the “big dogs” of the luxury segments.
During the design and development of the Genesis, Hyundai benchmarked the luxury brands with the specific goal of being equal or better. This process isn’t particularly new since most automakers constantly benchmark their competition. What is new is that a Korean producer of small, low priced cars has the confidence and capability to build a competitive upscale car.
The 2009 Genesis is an all-new, rear-wheel drive sedan with two trim levels identified by the powertrain configuration - 3.2-liter V-6 or 4.6-liter V-8. The styling is neither controversial nor trendy, but has an athletic, well-proportioned look of elegance. The lack of the “H” badge on the grille is intentional. Seeing a Genesis in your rearview mirror for the first time is sure to entice upscale shoppers to take a second look.
The Hyundai marketing folks like to compare the Genesis 3.8 to the Lexus ES, Chrysler 300, Pontiac G8 and Cadillac CTS. Likewise, Genesis 4.6 is compared with the Lexus GS, Infiniti M, BMW 5 Series, and Mercedes E-Class.
The 3.8-liter V-6 is rated at a respectable 290 horsepower and 264 lb.-ft. of torque. That’s better than any of its competitors. Fuel efficiency of 18/27 city/highway beats all but the Pontiac G8.
The 4.6-liter engine is Hyundai’s first production V-8. It’s a state-of-the-art powerplant that produces 375 horsepower and 333 lb.-ft. of torque using premium gasoline and drops to 368 hp. and 324 lb.-ft. with regular grade.
This new V-8 is impressively powerful, smooth and refined, just like the Lexus V-8. Fuel efficiency of 17/25 beats all V-8 competitors.
The V-6 and V-8 are coupled to six-speed automatics with manual shift mode are supplied by ZF and Asian, respectively. They were selected for their smooth upshifts and well-controlled downshifts.
The 52/48 front/rear weight distribution is nearly ideal for rear-wheel drive handling. The five-link front and rear independent suspension hardware is mostly lightweight aluminum to minimize weight. Only the Lexus GS offers the superior five-link suspension front and rear.
Knowing that most of their buyers are more interested in comfort than all-out performance, the suspension and steering are calibrated for comfort and ease of handling.
The anti-lock brake system is integrated with the electronic stability control, traction control, electronic brake-force distribution and brake assist systems.
Inside, the fit and finish materials of the cabin are first class and easily match any of Genesis’s competitors. The feel of real wood, smell of real leather and look of hand stitching contribute to a sense of luxury and quality.
With a base price of $33,000, the Genesis 3.8 with the premium package is $8,000 less than a comparably equipped Infiniti M and $22,000 less than a BMW 535i. With a starting price of $38,000 a Genesis 4.6 is $17,000 less than a comparably equipped Lexus GS 460 and $26,000 less than a Mercedes E 550.
Given just a little time, Hyundai could very well dominate the luxury scene, and if you think that’s impossible, consider this: It took the Japanese 25 years to dominate the luxury car segment with Lexus. The Koreans are planning to do it in half the time starting with Genesis.