They say timing is everything, but in the automotive world these days, the timing for everything seems bad. Except when it seems terrible.
For one thing, above the screaming cyclone sound of an American car market crashing from a mighty height, it's hard for many extraordinary achievements to get heard and to receive their due. Into this category, I would put the new Hyundai Genesis. On account of current events in our world and our industry such as have caused the automotive press corps, me included, to sit around gasping and spluttering with our collective mouth agape, the Genesis seems to have passed too quickly into the "cars we've driven" category, even though it's a job very well done.
You know the Genesis; you just may not realize it. The styling of the rear-wheel-drive luxo-cruiser - launched in mid-2008 - is that anonymous and stealthy. Hardly hideous, it's reminiscent of a Mercedes-Benz S-class (with a hint of Infiniti M35), though usefully less pompous. Supposedly meant to compete with the Germans and upscale Japanese at a bargain price, its most likely market initially is among the vigilantly pennywise. But there's one truly surprising and noteworthy thing about the Genesis, which I discovered only when I finally got around to driving one: it's quite good.
With excellent refinement, a capable chassis, and truly superior interior finish and materials, it revisits the formula - premium car for less than premium bucks - that put Lexus in business twenty years ago. But a lot more people seemed to be paying attention then. The lack of fireworks for the Genesis launch, some reviewers have ventured, is Hyundai's own fault, a result of a supposedly crucial failure to launch its own premium brand with its own upscale dealerships, such as Toyota did with Lexus, Honda with Acura, and Nissan with Infiniti. I disagree.
Have these critics forgotten that all the cheesy, amorphous-sounding names for made-up luxury brands are already taken? Even assuming they weren't, why would you?
Granted, the salesmen in cheap sport jackets and the "Come on down! Personal bankruptcy? We've all been there!" vibe at many Hyundai showrooms may diminish the luxury experience. But had Hyundai actually taken the plunge and set out to make its own Korean version of Lexus, with separate stores, additional real estate, and free kimchi-flavored fermented fish snacks, everyone would be yammering about their presumptuousness for losing all the money they'd undoubtedly lose and for having chosen the wrong time, what with a worldwide depression going on and all, to come to market.
Frankly, if not having to establish and support a new upscale dealer network saved money that has been put into keeping the cushiest-ever Hyundai's price low - V-6 models like the one I tested start at $33,000 - it was money well spent.
Aside from the sweet price, what are the secrets of the Genesis's appeal? It's hard to put a finger on, but its virtues - chiefly substance, smoothness, and across-the-board competence - crept up on me. It's quick but businesslike, not a rip-snorting road-stormer that just makes you feel like driving. Rather, if you have to drive, it's an extremely comfortable place to be. Save for a little more ride harshness on the highway than we'd like, it does just about everything a rear-wheel-drive sedan is supposed to do. Turn-in is not electric (although the power steering, technically speaking, is), but when pressed, the independently suspended chassis has all the moves down. Unexpectedly in step with the times, fuel economy was good, even great, I thought, when I saw a little over 27 mpg on a 350-mile round trip I made to Long Island's east end over Thanksgiving. With the classic holiday traffic patterns dragging down fuel economy - the legendarily slow Long Island Expressway and always overtaxed State Route 27 were knee deep in Range Rovers this holiday season - the figure was respectable for a big car.
The Genesis is quiet and composed but not absurdly sybaritic. It does not recall luxury on the cheap in the way of 1980s Chryslers, with their tufted seats and opera windows. No plastic chandeliers or fake gold trim, like some dealer-smothered Lexii of revolting memory. Instead, rear-seat legroom of 38.6 inches - a full four inches more generous than a BMW 3-series - sounds like luxury to us. But just in case, the Genesis comes full-boat well-equipped with heated leather power front seats (eight-way driver and four-way passenger), cruise control, dual-zone climate control, and a seven-speaker audio system with a CD player, satellite radio, and iPod and auxiliary input jacks.
No one doesn't like its standard power tilt/telescoping wheel, but first and foremost Hyundai did right by not scrimping on interior materials. This is where the rubber meets the pavement in the luxury and near-luxury game, and Hyundai wisely specified rubber - and plastics and hides - that are about as nice as they get in the mass market this side of a Bentley. I don't know why I find this surprising - it's not rocket science. It's a global economy, in which all the companies share interior suppliers and information, and it's all there for the taking. But I remain surprised. This is the manufacturers' big gamble in the luxury game: how much cost can we avoid or extract, while not fouling out of the category? And the temptation to foul out inside the car seems so great. Most get it wrong. But Hyundai hasn't come close.
A good example of cost-control gone overboard would be the late Jaguar S-type. A potentially very likable machine, it misguidedly sported, to give but one example, plastic ashtrays in the rear so crappy they stuck out in the cheap Ford they came from. In the S-type they diminished perceived quality badly. How much would something substantial, like the beautiful chromed metal ashtrays of yore, have set Jaguar back? Fifty dollars a car? A hundred? Whatever the savings were, they weren't worth it. If it contributed to people not buying the car, the savings were theoretical, the extra earnings nil. In fact, it was money lost.
Once again, we find the cash a carmaker gives back in the form of rebates and subventions to shift the metal is often the money that should have been spent making the car desirable in the first place. With the Genesis - a car that's worth the money and then some - Hyundai has clearly figured out this critical truth. In my book, that means it has fully and finally joined the upper ranks of automobile manufacturers, which is big news. I just don't know about the timing.