Has any car company ever improved its products at the rate Hyundai has over the past decade? Ten years ago their idea of a flagship was the fusty, faux-wood-and-chrome-encrusted XG350 fitted with a then-new 3.5-liter V6 good for 194 horsepower and EPA ratings of 16 city / 24 highway. The 2006 Azera was a much more credible competitor…for the Toyota Avalon. Even with a new 263-horsepower V6, Hyundai still didn’t pretend to have a luxury sedan fit for driving enthusiasts. For 2012, they do, with the new Genesis 5.0 R-Spec. But, as far as they’ve come, are they there yet?
The Hyundai Genesis has been available with a 4.6-liter V8 since it was introduced as a 2009 model. Reviewers found faults with the car, but I don’t recall the engine’s mere 385 horsepower being among them. Nevertheless, for 2012 Hyundai has a new 429-horsepower (at 6,400 rpm), 376 pound-feet of torque (at 5,000) 5.0-liter V8. In addition to its larger displacement, the 5.0 benefits from direct injection, which permits a bump in the compression ratio from 10.4 to 11.5:1. These specs are impressive. The Hyundai mill outputs more horses than the Porsche Panamera’s 4.8-liter V8, the 5.0-liter V8s in the Lexus IS-F and Mustang GT (unless you pony up for the BOSS), the 5.5-liter V8 being retired from various Mercedes, and the M56’s 5.6-liter V8. The 6.2-liter V8 in the Corvette kicks out a single additional horsepower.
Of course, specs are one thing, subjective impressions another. The Corvette’s LS3 powerplant lacks the refinement needed for luxury sedan duty. The Hyundai engine, in contrast, purrs with the world’s best. Though the idle’s a touch rough when first started, that’s the full extent of the eight’s lapses. Whether loafing about town or revving past 6,000 rpm, this is a very smooth engine. It’s not quiet when exercised, but the tune played by the mechanical bits and exhaust are music to any enthusiast’s ears, yet shouldn’t disturb those who simply want to relax. (In a rare attempt to hear more from the engine I drove the car with the engine cover off, but this made little difference.) When cruising, the engine is virtually silent, even at highway speeds.
For 2012, all three Genesis engines are paired with an eight-speed automatic developed by Hyundai, the first offered by a non-premium brand. The transmission performs well in that it rarely calls attention to itself. I occasionally noticed a less-than-slick downshift when slowing to a stop, a characteristic shared with the ZF eight-speed automatic. Through TrueDelta’s car reliability survey I’ve received a few complaints about such bumps in BMWs, but most drivers will neither notice nor mind. More bothersome: manually downshifting to second for a turn requires a tedious number of taps when you start out in eighth. These manual shifts could also be quicker, but given how the car likes to be driven they aren’t of much use regardless.
It wasn’t long ago that many doubted the benefits of having more than four speeds in an automatic transmission. So what’s the point of going from six to eight? First gear isn’t significantly shorter in the new transmission, but second is much more closely spaced. A shift at the 6,400 rpm power peak (the transmission isn’t always willing to go all the way to the 6,750 rpm redline) that would have dropped the engine to 3,600 rpm with the old six-speed now lands at 4,200. So full-throttle acceleration improves. Seventh is about the same as the old sixth, and the new transmission’s eighth gear is nine percent taller, for better fuel efficiency on the highway. At 80, the engine is only turning 2,000 rpm. Around town it’s often half that, with no sensation of lugging.
The EPA ratings: 16 city, 25 highway—a bit better than the far less capable XG350 of a decade ago. The trip computer reported low twenties in suburban driving and high twenties on the highway. But is it trustworthy? There’s an “eco” mode, but I noticed no difference in efficiency or powertrain behavior with it on.
Of course, luxury sedans aren’t often driven near their full potential. In more typical driving, the Genesis R-Spec impresses with the effortless ease at which it attains any speed. Such effortlessness used to justify the extra tens of thousands of dollars for a V12 over a V8.
The not-so-good not-so-news? The rest of the car. The exterior of the Genesis is easy on the eyes, and people remarked on the quality of the paint. But unlike that of other recent Hyundais, it isn’t in any way distinctive or remotely avant-garde. At NAIAS a couple of years ago I wondered why they had an Infiniti G37 among the NACOTY finalists, only to belatedly realize that the greenhouse (the lower body wasn’t visible) belonged to the Hyundai. Does the overall look draw most from Mercedes, BMW, or Lexus? Hard to say, they’re all in there. The interior is similarly conventional to a fault, and a little dated. The silver-painted buttons of the center stack are easy to understand and operate, but don’t suggest bleeding-edge tech the way the Germans’ much more complex, more highly stylized controls do. The infotainment system’s display washes out easily and often. But the 528-watt 17-speaker Lexicon audio system is the best I’ve experienced aside from the hyper-expensive B&O in the larger Audis. Most puzzling: the R-Spec’s high-mounted seats are unchanged from those in the regular Genesis. So they’re comfortable, but offer little in the way of lateral support. An older mystery: three years on Hyundai still hasn’t figured out how to fit cooling bits to the front passenger seat.
The Genesis 5.0 R-Spec’s chassis seems to have shipped at the rough draft stage. The steering is firmer than in the regular Genesis—even surprisingly tight at highway speeds—but provides more kickback than helpfully nuanced feedback. Body roll is modest, but the R-Spec doesn’t feel tied down and precise the way the best competitors do. In aggressive turns the nose wants to head for the curb, but the 245/45YR19 Bridgestone Potenza Pole Position S-04 tires [Update: a $1,400 option over the standard 235/45VR19 all-seasons] just won’t let it. Oversteer can’t be dialed in nearly as progressively or intuitively as in a BMW or GM vehicle with right-wheel-drive. Perhaps for this reason Hyundai (like Infiniti with the similarly-afflicted G37) opted for a crude fix: prod the V8 to kick out the tail and the stability control cuts in early and hard. Sticky treads notwithstanding, the Genesis 5.0 R-Spec is most in its element when traveling through broad sweepers or, better yet, in a straight line.
Which is, of course, how most buyers of such cars drive them. What these owners will fault much more than the handling: the ride. The 5.0 R-Spec wafts along some roads, especially blacktop Interstate, with impressive smoothness, silence, and solidity, feeling every bit a premium sedan. But on other roads it tosses about and even quivers to an annoying degree, refusing to settle down and relax. The Acura TL-S I drove the previous week had a considerably more composed chassis, while the cheaper-by-half Ford Focus SE handled bad roads better than either of them.
Of course, you won’t pay nearly as much for the Genesis as you will for one of the name brand luxury sport sedans. At $47,350, the 5.0 R-Spec is only $2,000 more than the 4.6. The factory mods might not work together seamlessly, but Hyundai is charging surprisingly little extra for them. Even an Infiniti M56, which substantially undercuts the Europeans, costs over $20,000 more when similarly equipped.
[Update: The summer tires add another $1,400, but I'd skip them. Not only do they not suit the character of the car, but you can currently pick up a set of four online for $996 plus shipping and installation. So about $300 and a set of all-season tires less than what Hyundai is charging. A further note: the Hyundai media site lists a Genesis 5.0 without the R-Spec chassis, so one is likely coming.]
The Hyundai Genesis 5.0 R-Spec’s 429-horspower engine alone is a tremendous achievement for a company that a decade ago struggled to wring 200 horsepower from a big DOHC V6. Unfortunately, the rest of the car lacks finesse. One must wonder: was the R-Spec a last-minute, low-budget project? Perhaps Hyundai developed the new engine primarily for the Equus, and only realized at the eleventh hour that it might provide the basis for a high-performance Genesis? This would explain the absence of suitable sport buckets and of a well-sorted chassis. Either way, Hyundai has been coming along so quickly that a thoroughly satisfying luxury-performance sedan can’t be far off. For now, we’ve got an outstanding engine in a pretty good car at a price that might well compensate for the current shortcomings. Just test drive extensively before you buy, as your experience will vary depending on the road surface.
Hyundai provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta.com, an online provider of car reliability and pricing information..