Can a Hyundai ever be a luxury car?
The 2015 Hyundai Genesis will either help redefine the luxury car market in Australia or become another failed attempt to charge less for more equipment in the absence of a luxury badge.
It’s hard to deny that for the four-door sedan’s predicted price of between $50,000 and $60,000, the Genesis is relative bargain. One that glaringly highlights the extent of the ‘badge tax’ we pay for rival models from German brands such as Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz. But the Genesis from Hyundai begs the question - is the formula for a successful luxury car about features or prestige? Most importantly, can you ever have one without the other?
Regardless of whether the Hyundai Genesis will be accepted as a luxury car in the Australian market, it’s the beginning of something much bigger from the South Korean brand. It’s an indication of where they’ve been and where they now seek to go.
If a brand fails to reinvent itself every once in a while, it is on a guaranteed path to a slow and painful demise. One only has to look at some of the Japanese manufactures over the last decade to notice this.
In many ways that is exactly why the Hyundai Genesis exists, to be that halo car for the brand, and show a further reinvention of the once cheap-and-cheerful marque that now finds itself amid rapid global growth and fighting for a podium finish for new car sales in Australia (against Mazda, Holden and Toyota).
That’s why so much depends on the Genesis’ success, not just in terms of sales in Australia, but also in winning the hearts and minds of car lovers the world over.
With that in mind, we came to Seoul in South Korea and started a long journey to the North to sample not just the car, but whether the Koreans can indeed manufacture what we would define as a luxury car.
From the outside the Hyundai Genesis is the first example of the company’s 'Fluidic Sculpture 2.0' design language, and it’s a looker. No longer a German luxury car-wannabe, the new Genesis has its own identity front and rear and will turn plenty of heads when it arrives in Australia.
That will happen in November, when we get our share of rear-wheel drive Hyundai Genesis models powered by a 3.8-litre V6 petrol engine. Though Hyundai Australia remains tightlipped about specifications and pricing, it will likely be available in two grades with both coming in below the luxury car tax threshold (~$60,000).
Power and torque from the V6 comes in at 232kW and 397Nm, with a 0-100km/h time of about 6.5 seconds. Unfortunately, we miss out on the 5.0-litre V8 version (304kW, 505Nm) as it’s unavailable for right-hand drive applications.
Our test cars were the all-wheel drive models, which like the V8, are not engineered for right-hand drive. Alas, Australian-delivered rear-wheel drive models are going to be slightly lighter and livelier at the back end.
Behind the wheel of our AWD models we felt a reassuring sense of control reminiscence of the car’s European rivals, which, in terms of size, include the Audi A6, BMW 5 Series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class. The Genesis lacks finesse is the steering control, which can be a tad vague when the going gets fun, but we are expecting the Australian-delivered models to be better tuned for our taste.
The V6 is coupled to an eight-speed automatic transmission that is exceptionally smooth on the highway but is more often than not second-guessing itself with gear selections at low speeds or under consistent hard acceleration. It’s not something that will turn you off, but an area worthy of improvement.
On our way to the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) (the border between South and North Korea), we tackled hundreds of challenging bends worthy of a rally.
It was near the border that the Genesis really proved it worthiness as a refined luxury car. Not because it could go around hairpin corners at double the signposted speed recommendation, but because it did it with the same grace and elegance we’ve experienced in significantly more expensive cars from Europe.
Its 52:48 front and rear weight distribution, additional use of high-strength steel and a proper multi-link front and rear suspension with coil springs and electronically controlled shock absorbers certainly help its cause.
What surprised us the most however, was its high-speed stability and quietness. On the highway at speeds past 200km/h we found the Genesis unnervingly unobtrusive, a testament to Hyundai’s high-speed and dynamic testing in Europe and at its specialized Nurburgring-based facility in Germany.
Some may call its ride a little too soft (something Hyundai Australia will address with localised tuning), but the adaptive dampers allow a quick change when comfort gives way to sport. And, after all, it is a luxury sedan, not a sports sedan.
So far as ride, handling and its dynamic ability goes, the Hyundai Genesis is arguably better than anything else that has ever come out of South Korea. It's true indication of just how quickly the Koreans learn and adapt.
The interior too, is equally surprising. The level of interior refinement is resounding, not just in terms of features – of which there are plenty – but the excellent tactile sensation, use of real wood, nappa leather-covered seats and so on.
But there's a dilemma with the Hyundai Genesis, and it's one the brand is aware of.
Inside and out, there's not a single Hyundai badge on our test cars. For a flagship model that is better than any other car it makes, this may seem a strange move. But it could also be considered a safe way to launch a new brand without having to actually launch a new brand. Much like how the Ford Mustang wears no Ford badging.
But where Ford doesn’t need brand recognition with the Mustang, Hyundai does with Genesis. That's why Australian delivered cars will get a ‘H’ logo on the boot, something that is likely to be replaced with the Aston Martin-looking Genesis badge rather quickly, we suspect.
That being the case, it brings us back to our original question. Can the Hyundai Genesis ever be considered a genuine luxury car given its origins?
Toyota’s luxury arm, Lexus, has struggled for years to convince Australians that it too can make German-rivalling luxury cars. Not because its cars are inferior, far from it, but because our generally European-centric mindset has steered us towards the big three.
Infiniti Australia’s lacklustre sales - despite its range of relatively well-specified and priced vehicles - also further emphasis the importance of a perceived luxury badge in our market. But where both Infiniti and Lexus have struggled, Hyundai is likely to succeed with Genesis.
Unlike its Japanese rivals, Hyundai doesn’t need to make much profit from the Genesis, which is why it’s jam-packed with standard features that come in as options even on a high-end Mercedes-Benz S-Class.
Nine airbags, front collision and lane departure warning systems, blind-spot detection, active cruise control with the ability to slow itself down for fixed speed cameras, a head up display that is among the best in the business, rear cross-traffic alert, surround-view bird’s eye monitor, a high resolution screen (1280x720 with 153 pixels per inch resolution), 16-way adjustable driver’s seat (12-way for passenger)... the long list goes on.
It’s easy to forget that Hyundai has been building luxury cars for some time, with the likes of the Mercedes-Benz S-Class rival (and look-a-like) Hyundai Equus and previous generation Genesis as an answer to the E-Class and BMW’s 5 Series.
In fairness, previous attempts have been good imitations of their German rivals at best, and some might even argue the same for the new Genesis.
Ultimately, the question you have to ask is what defines a luxury car for you? Is it just a badge, a metaphysical perception of prestige? Or a quantifiable sense of luxury that comes from features and high-quality craftsmanship?
No doubt the Germans offer both, which is why they continue to be so successful. But whilst Hyundai starts its long journey to build a luxury brand, we can only advise you get in early and can grab yourself the luxury car bargain of the year.