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DAN NEIL

Out of South Korea, cut-rate luxury

November 14, 2008|DAN NEIL

The chocolate-brown leather is softer than a Hershey bar in a cop's back pocket. The topstitched upholstery across the dash and doors seems sewn with a needle borrowed from Miuccia Prada. The interior wood accents are carved from the most majestic lumber in the old-growth faux forest.

If you didn't know better -- and really, Hyundai would prefer you didn't know better -- you'd think the South Korean company had been at this luxury-car business a long time. In fact, the Genesis is the company's first full-size, rear-drive luxury car, an audacious shot whistling across the sport-sedan bows of BMW, Mercedes, Audi and Lexus. And the Genesis -- $33,000 with the base 290-horsepower V-6; $38,000 with the optional 375-hp V-8 -- undercuts whatever relevant competitor you care to name by a good $10,000.

Cut-rate luxury is a complicated notion. It is true that when you buy a BMW or Mercedes-Benz, some incalculable percentage of the cost resides in the badge. But there is value in those names, and not just as a matter of getting good spots in valet parking.

Premium-brand cars keep more of their residual value and offer owners the satisfactions of heritage -- Mercedes at Monza, BMW at Le Mans -- and the sense of belonging to a great automaking tradition.

Hyundai -- storied maker of cracker boxes such as the Excel and Accent -- has no such poetry to fall back on. But it does have an extraordinarily lean and efficient manufacturing process, cheap labor and great relationships with its suppliers. So it's possible for the company to offer this near-peer to Euro sport sedans at about a 20% discount. In these leaner times, many customers will forgive the Hyundai its relative lack of brand cachet.

To make that compromise easier to swallow, Hyundai has taken the extraordinary step of de-badging its own car: There is no flying H on the big grille of the Genesis. This is a first, in my experience, and it's a move that subverts the grammar of luxury in ways I can scarcely wrap my head around. It's like taking a Rolex knockoff -- a Romex, say -- and scratching off the name. A real counterfeit, a fake genuine article? I'm dizzy.

Doubling down on its own perverse anonymity, the Genesis' styling is hyper-generic -- a ransom-note collage of cues from BMW (tail lights), Mercedes (grille) and Lexus. Check out that Hofmeister kink in the C-pillar. Been to Munich lately, have we?

Still, there's no denying that, like Hyundai's Sonata and Azera, the Genesis is a staggering amount of car for the money. Our test vehicle was the 4.6-liter, V-8-powered model with the $4,000 technology package (528-watt, 17-speaker sound system with XM radio; navigation system; adaptive front headlamps; heated and cooled driver's seat; and more).

In some ways, the Genesis delivers a deep-pile luxury that betters the badge-bearing competitors. The cabin ambience is exceptionally quiet. The windshield and side windows are glazed with double-laminated acoustic glass; the unibody and body panels are crammed with sound-deadening panels and adhesives that all but mute the outside hurly-burly.

The creamiest and most luscious part of the car, though, is Hyundai's new 4.6-liter, all-alloy V-8, a lovely watch-work of reciprocation that hits all the right notes. Near-silent and under-taxed around town, the engine is capable of big torque and acceleration -- zero to 60 mph is well below six seconds -- and a bit of a feral growl. Let there be no doubt, this thing has a motor in it.

At 80 miles per hour, I slipped the six-speed ZF automatic transmission into third and kicked the slats. The car pulled like a rabid malamute up to its 6,850-rpm redline. Another shift, another redline, and without much ado I was exceeding the posted speed limit of most Autobahnen and traffic was reversing past me at an alarming clip.

Interestingly, the overhead-cam V-8 -- with dual-intake runners and variable timing on its 32 valves -- will happily digest both regular and premium fuel, Hyundai says.

The company even offers horsepower figures for both fuels: 368 hp on regular and the nominal 375 hp on premium. Fuel economy is 17 miles per gallon city, 25 mpg highway, though I lead-footed my way to an 18-mpg average.

The Genesis has respectable undergirding: five-link suspension front and rear, with all the bits in cast alloy. The suspension tuning on the 4.6-liter model (by Sachs) is firm but compliant, though it lacks the silk-wrapped dreaminess of a comparable Lexus.

On a fairly vigorous flog up the secret canyon test road, the Genesis acquitted itself well enough, with good body control and well-damped transient behavior.

The steering has a nice heft to it but isn't particularly communicative. The car will hustle, but given the all-season radials' relative lack of bite and the car's significant weight, it doesn't seem to enjoy it.

Generally speaking, this car is much happier defying expectations in a straight line than confirming them in aggressive cornering.

I'm far too much of a romantic to buy this car. I like a brand with provenance and I'm willing to pay for it. For more hard-nosed, practical types, the Genesis 4.6 will present an all-but-irresistible case of value per dollar. And they won't be wrong.

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dan.neil@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

2009 Hyundai

Genesis 4.6

Base price: $38,000

Price, as tested: $42,000

Powertrain: 4.6-liter DOHC, 32-valve V-8, with dual intake runners and variable valve timing; six-speed automatic transmission; rear-wheel drive

Horsepower: 375 at 6,500 rpm

Torque: 333 foot-pounds at 3,500 rpm

Curb weight: 4,012 pounds

0-60 mph: 5.6 seconds

Wheelbase: 115.6 inches

Overall length: 195.9 inches

EPA fuel economy: 17 mpg city, 25 mpg highway

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Final thoughts: A Mercedes with Seoul

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