Hyundai Genesis: A Korean Cinderella story

Greenville, South Carolina, would never be confused with the Cote d’Azure. Perhaps Hyundai saw a kindred spirit in the emerging southeast US city.

In the Korean automaker’s first two decades as a major exporter, its products were largely overlooked and underestimated. That has changed. Its cars trouble the incumbents in virtually every major vehicle segment. An upmarket turn is a natural progression, and as a group of BMW employees eyeing our fleet of Hyundais in Greenville demonstrated – outwardly wondering if they were beholding a new Lexus – it may be a sensible one, too.

How Much Luxury?

<img src="" alt="Hyundai Genesis">

Plush as the Genesis is, there is always room for more opulence – and mainstream consumers are beginning to demand it, with customisation programmes such as Lincoln’s Black Label coming online.  But Hyundai is not about to offer distinct paints, fabrics and leathers just yet, according to Hyundai Motor America chief executive Dave Zuchowski.

“We’ve given it some thought, and from a system standpoint, we aren’t there yet,” he said.

The Genesis and larger Equus sedans are built at Hyundai’s Korean plants, so any bespoke programme would make those models less cost-competitive. “It would be easier for our US-produced products [to get such touches],” he said.

Hyundai and Greenville have arrived. The Trek bicycle company hosts riding tours for its customers in destinations such as Chianti, Provence, Santa Cruz – and Greenville. American Tour de France stalwart George Hincapie moved there years ago.

Hyundai, too, has been winning converts, a trend its redesigned Genesis luxury sedan should accelerate. Beneath the car’s newly assertive sheetmetal lies much improved running gear, starting with a chassis that is roughly 20% stiffer than that of the outgoing edition.

The more stable platform allowed Hyundai engineers to more accurately tune the suspension for improved ride and handling, and while the original Genesis appeared on paper to have the requisite credentials to compete with the world’s top sport-luxury sedans, poor execution left the Genesis soggy and unsatisfying. (It is worth noting that the Kia K900 luxury sedan, on sale in Korea since 2012 but just arriving in the US market, is built on the chassis of the old Genesis, not this new one.)

Improvements don’t happen by accident. For the better part of a decade, Hyundai has examined the shortcomings of its existing models with unblinking honesty and plunged headlong into marrow-deep improvements, a process the Genesis was not spared.

One factor steering the development of the old Genesis was the nature of Hyundai’s Korean home market, where a car of such size would be commonly relegated to the chauffeur fleet. Industrial captains care little if their car’s steering is lifeless and its suspension prone to wallowing in turns.

The outgoing Genesis's front passenger seat also lacked eight-way power seat adjustment, further demonstrating how Hyundai prioritised the rear-seat experience. For 2015, both front-row occupants are on equal footing.

Thinking about the driver and front passenger didn’t stop at the seats, according to Genesis product planner Ricky Lao. In addition to the requisite field trip to Germany’s Nürburgring to verify and fine-tune dynamics, Genesis engineers called in the experts from Lotus Engineering to assess  the car, ultimately following last-minute recommendations from by the Hethel, England-based sports car savants.

Hyundai’s ascent has also been marked by a seeming insecurity with regard to powertrain tuning, its engineers striving to achieve class-competitive power ratings at the expense of low-end oomph that drivers appreciate. Overly sensitive throttle calibration meant the previous Genesis would be sent into flank-speed apoplexy at the slightest pressure on the gas.

No more. The new Genesis may carry over the familiar 3.8-litre V6 and 5-litre V8 gasoline power plants, but the engines carry lower power ratings – a virtual heresy in an industry that thrives on one-upmanship. But the lower outputs demonstrate Hyundai engineers’ new confidence, where power numbers are not half as important as power accessibility.

And accessible the power is, with both the V8 and V6 providing abundant real-world grunt with accurate throttle response that correctly reflects the driver’s intention. The eight-speed automatic transmission eases imperceptibly among its gears, a paragon of invisibility.

The steering in both cars feels firm and provides welcome feedback about the state of the road surface and the car’s activities thereupon. Predictably, the lighter V6-powered car is the stronger handler, with livelier feel on turn-in. The all-wheel-drive V6, however, cannot avoid a bit of understeer, as front tires are tasked with steering and delivering power to the road.

Sweat-the-details thinking abounds in the Genesis’s clean, refreshingly straightforward cabin. Cars destined for non-US markets are fitted with a joystick-style shifter like those seen on Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Lexus cars, but Lao said he insisted on a conventional sliding PRNDL shifter for the US market, where he believed drivers would appreciate the virtues of this more familiar hardware.

They certainly should. The shifter works as intended, sliding crisply from one gate to the next, providing tactile information to the driver about the gear selected that eludes electronic joysticks.

Hyundai, if you hadn’t heard, is confident, and that extends to the pricing of the Genesis. With a base of $38,950 for the six-cylinder car and $51,500 for the V8, the sedan benchmarks formidable mid-size machines like the Mercedes-Benz E-Class, Audi A6, Cadillac CTS and BMW 5 Series. In that company, the Genesis represents a superb car at a value price.

However, it will be more interesting to watch how the Genesis performs against outliers in this segment such as the Infiniti Q50. These cars are on performance, luxury and pricing pars, though the Infiniti wields the advantage of a luxury nameplate, as well as an available hybrid powertrain. No car that transacts at $50,000 can be described as inexpensive, and consumers at this price point are sensitive to the image projected by their purchase. Those two factors will make Hyundai’s job difficult, but at least their car is up to the task.

Vital Stats

2015 Hyundai Genesis 3.8 & 5.0

  • Base price: $38,950, inclusive of $950 delivery (3.8)
  • As tested: $52,450 (5.0)
  • EPA fuel economy: 18mpg city, 29mpg highway (3.8); 15mpg city, 23mpg highway (5.0)
  • Powertrain: 311hp, 293lb-ft 3.8-litre V6 engine or 420hp, 383lb-ft 5-litre V8 engine; eight-speed automatic transmission, rear-wheel drive
  • Standard equipment: automatic climate control, Hyundai BlueLink, keyless pushbutton start, SiriusXM satellite/HD radio, heated front seats
  • Major options: high-intensity discharge headlights, LED puddle lighting, leather seats, panoramic sunroof, adaptive cruise control

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