Hyundai, Yes Hyundai — and It’s Nice, Too

Jan. 14 (Bloomberg) — Will somebody please tell the CEO that his driver and Hyundai are waiting outside.

Hyundai? Yes, Hyundai.

Just in time for vanishing bonuses and downsized expense accounts comes a discount car for executives, courtesy not of Germany or Japan but South Korea.

{courtesy of Hyundai USA}

The base price of the 2009 Genesis is a mere $32,250 for the V-6 and $37,250 for the V-8, commensurate with sports sedans like the Audi A4 and BMW 3 Series. Yet its 16-plus feet and ample back seat puts the Genesis in league with the Lexus LS 460 and BMW 7 Series.

Hyundai’s luxury ambitions may seem unrealistic, yet the sedan is a success in many ways and even took the North American Car of the Year award at the Detroit Auto Show last Sunday.

The rear-wheel drive comes in two forms, a robust 4.6-liter V-8 with 368 horsepower and a lesser 3.8-liter V-6 with 290. Interestingly, my test car had the smaller engine and no optional features, which is novel as most carmakers outfit press cars with every imaginable convenience.

The first thing you may notice is what is missing: There’s no badging on the front grill whatsoever, nor does it say “Hyundai” on the body, though you’ll find the leaning “H” on the wheels and trunk. No sense in prejudicing bystanders, apparently.

I stop on a side street in New York City’s Chinatown to ask some professional drivers lounging by their Lincoln Town Cars what they think. Only one identifies it as a Hyundai, and while reviews on the exterior are mixed, another says his customers would like the back seat.

Hybrid of Styles

Like the mythological griffin, the Genesis is a hybrid of styles from the big brands. There’s the famous BMW Hofmeister kink in the C-pillar behind the rear doors, a dash of Mercedes S- Class in the headlights and hints of Lexus all over. The best bit is the scalloped chrome grill, elegant if undersized.

Still, the end result is very bland, and even the Genesis’s length, several inches shorter than the LS 460, feels underplayed.

Yet if the Genesis is an executive hauler rather than a sports sedan (which it simply is not), ostentation is not necessarily the order of the day. Rather, it’s the interior that counts.

The tan perforated leather seats and overall cabin are handsome, the right blend of subtlety and spiffiness. The fit and finish is mostly good, and standard luxuries include heated front seats and a leather-wrapped steering wheel, which also has controls for the stereo and the like. Overt hints at luxury are kept to a minimum — no heavy carpets, curtains or too-deep woods. It would be impossible to pull off a Maybach interior at this price point.

Standard Electronics

The standard stereo includes an antiquated separate unit for CDs, though it also has an auxiliary jack for MP3 players. Buyers can upgrade to a Lexicon HD radio with 17 speakers and 500 watts. Bluetooth is standard, yet the navigation system is optional for both trim levels.

The back seat is a winning place to be. While rear passengers won’t get tray tables or massagers, the front passenger seat electronically slides almost all the way forward, lending lots of room to stretch out.

It’s impressively quiet in the cabin, and the number of safety systems that are standard is astonishing. You’ll get ABS brakes and brake assist, electronic stability and traction control, and both side and curtain air bags.

Plenty of Power

The Genesis drives like a big car, and you have to consider the size of spaces on side streets or while negotiating through traffic. Yet even the smaller engine gives a nice takeoff and there’s plenty of punch. I easily beat a Town Car off the line as we jockeyed for position onto the highway.

The steering is firm yet transmits zero road feel. Similarly, while the brakes are decent, the pedal feels far too light. Overall, it’s like the engineers haven’t completely worked out the interplay between systems. It may take another generation before the drive is as seamless as a Lexus — and you can forget about the joy of driving a BMW 7 Series.

Gas mileage is pretty good at 18 in the city and 27 highway.

The biggest issue is a serious one: The suspension is simply not as good as its competitors. There’s too much up-and-down sway while absorbing bumps. A rear-seat passenger pronounces the ride “comfortable but bouncy.”

Your CEO may not dig that bounce.

Hyundai, in an effort to bolster sales, has recently begin an “Assurance” program that allows a customer to “walk away” from a lease or loan if he loses his job or a substantial piece of his income.

That’s an element that may speak to many a current CEO.

The 2009 Hyundai Genesis 3.8 at a Glance

Engine: 3.8-liter V-6 with 290 horsepower and 264 pound-feet of torque.

Transmission: Six-speed automatic.

Speed: 0 to 60 mph in 6.4 seconds.

Gas mileage per gallon: 18 city; 27 highway.

Price as tested: $32,250.

Best features: Impressive array of safety features and interior comfort for front and rear passengers.

Worst features: Yawn-inducing styling; bouncy suspension.

Target buyer: The executive who still expects a lot while cutting the budget.

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Jason H. Harper at Jason@JasonHharper.com.