What’s a Mustang? We know, but it’s not an easy question to answer. A Mustang is…a Mustang. It’s so thoroughly itself that there’s no need to define it as a variant of someone else’s car. All truly great cars are like this. Competitors might meet and even beat them in this or that regard, but until they develop identities of their own they’ll never possess the same allure. The Europeans practically have such cars in their DNA. The Americans and Japanese have stumbled over the goal line from time to time. The Koreans…well, the Koreans are still new. So what’s a Genesis Coupe?
At launch, the styling of the Genesis in both coupe and sedan forms betrayed the parent company’s lack of confidence and direction. Both cars were styled much like someone else’s car, a Lexus (itself still styled a late-model Mercedes) in the case of the sedan and an Infiniti in the case of the coupe. Neither car’s face projected a clear, distinctive identity or a connection with the parent company. With its 2013 refresh, the Genesis Coupe takes a step in this direction. The new face isn’t to everyone’s liking. But, dramatically styled around an oversized hexagonal grille, it’s bold, cohesive, like those on other new Hyundais, and not like anyone else’s. The Korean company clearly feels more confident. It’s now comfortable with people identifying the Genesis Coupe as a Hyundai.
Yet it remains unclear what the Genesis Coupe wants to be when it grows up. Many reviews compare the car to a Mustang or a Camaro. But the Gen Coupe doesn’t look like a pony, sit like a pony, walk like a pony, or talk like a pony. It’s not a pony. Aside from the new face, the car most resembles a G37 Coupe. Which is…what? Well, the Infiniti is itself a reflection of someone else’s car, specifically a BMW 3-Series, with more reliable bits (the first generation’s engine might burn oil and its suspension might chew tires, but its electronics are solid!) and a lower price. With the BMW ever deeper into its own identity crisis—driver’s car, or luxury car, or technophile’s wet dream?—the entire class could well be losing its center.
When considering which aspect of the G37 / 3-Series to pursue, Hyundai clearly didn’t decide on gadgetry. There’s Bluetooth and iPod integration, and Hyundai’s new telematics system with the top trim level, but nothing approaching the pervasive technological overkill of recent BMWs or the nanny infestation of recent Infinitis. You don’t need to RTFM to figure out how to operate the car. Perhaps Hyundai focused more on the 3-Series that used to be. If so, not a bad move. More likely, though, the Koreans were pursuing a much lower price point and a BMW-class armada of microprocessors wasn’t budget compliant.
Top trim Genesis Coupes are somewhat luxurious. But even with substantial upgrades for 2013 the interior remains well short of the Infiniti G37’s, itself no match for the BMW’s (until it’s next redesigned). The Hyundai’s interior is nice…considering the price. Even at the Hyundai’s price a power driver seat recliner (standard on a mid-level VW Jetta) might be expected, but remains notable in its absence. Opt for the performance-oriented R-Spec, and the seat adjustments are entirely manual. The seat itself is neither as substantial nor as cushy as that in a G37. One must conclude that, despite the premium aspirations of the Genesis sub-brand, the Genesis Coupe isn’t about luxury.
Despite sharing a name, the coupe has little in common with the sedan. The two cars don’t look alike, they don’t drive alike, they’re not contented alike, and they’re not priced alike. Why, then, do they share a name? When two dissimilar cars share a name, at least one will lack an identity among the broader public.
By process of elimination, the Genesis Coupe must be about the driving experience, the thing that originally made BMWs desirable. In some ways the Genesis Coupe comes closer to the 3-Series than the Infiniti intermediary. This is partly good, partly bad. The Genesis Coupe feels more composed and less tricky to drive than the G37. Especially with the R-Spec’s limited-slip differential, the Hyundai’s rear end can be provoked to rotate by your right foot, but it won’t deal out nasty surprises the way the Infiniti’s will. But, partly by the same token, the Hyundai doesn’t feel as direct or as visceral as the Infiniti. Driving the G37 is more of an experience. Like a BMW, the Genesis Coupe only begins to come alive when pushed, and feels better the harder it is pushed. Hyundai’s engineers have made much progress on this front. The Genesis Coupe won’t embarrass itself at the track, but due to the heavy, uncommunicative steering, the car never stops feeling larger and heavier than it is (182.3×73.4×54.5 inches, 3,492 lbs.) and than either target. While fun to drive along a winding road, it still seems less fun than it ought to be, as if Hyundai couldn’t quite commit to a sporty direction (or didn’t fully comprehend what fun feels like).
BMWs aren’t as visceral as they used to be largely due to the company’s pursuit of day-to-day livability. Premium aspirations aside, the same conflict doesn’t seem to have bedeviled Hyundai, judging from the Genesis Coupe’s behavior when it’s not being pushed. Though body motions are well controlled, the ride that felt okay during a preview drive sometimes proved irritatingly busy in daily life (if rarely harsh). The 274-horsepower turbocharged four that seemed to best suit the car earlier has a lumpy, “surge-and-lag” delivery through its midrange at part throttle. Far more than BMW’s new, less-powerful-on-paper 2.0T, this one’s clearly boosted. The vague, somewhat clunky manual shifter further impedes smooth shifts. Add it all up, and the level of concentration required to drive the Genesis Coupe smoothly takes the casual out of casual driving. Not so much that I’d call the Hyundai a bad car, not even close. There’s just not enough payoff of the daily deficit when you are able to really drive the car. It has fallen between the proverbial stools.
But the Genesis Coupe’s price can’t be ignored. It might not be all that special in itself. But a stylish coupe that warrants comparison with a BMW 3-Series yet lists for $27,375 with all available performance hardware, that’s special. With a manual transmission, Infiniti’s “3er for less” lists for nearly $18,000 more. In stark comparison to Hyundai, Infiniti requires a Premium Package to get the Sport Package and nav as well to get the stick. You end up with over $7,000 more “stuff” (as calculated by TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool), but this still leaves the Hyundai with a feature-adjusted price advantage of over $10,000. And maybe you don’t want the stuff.
The thing is, selling on price is exactly the position Hyundai has been striving to escape, and with more than a little success in other, paradoxically less pricey segments. If they’re to do the same with the not-quite-premium Genesis Coupe, they’ve got to decide what the car is really about. If it’s about luxury, it needs more content, better materials, and more refinement. If it’s about driving, it needs sprightlier moves, more direct communication, and, again, more refinement. If it tries to be both, but at an affordable price, it’ll end up where it is.
With either direction, to really come into its own the Genesis Coupe needs to capture the special magic that elevates iconic cars above the rest. It’s not possible to specify what the car’s character should be, except that it can’t be derived from somebody else’s. It needs to be something new, yet this newness can’t be forced. It can only come from someone who thoroughly and deeply understands what he or she wants, who wants a car that no one else is providing, and who can inspire the organization to create it. We’ll know it if and when we see it.
The cars discussed were provided by their respective manufacturers with insurance and a tank of gas.
Michael Karesh operates truedelta.com, a provider of car reliability and pricing information.