I remember the first time I rode in a Hyundai. It was in Sydney, circa 1997, and I was being given a lift by a friend of a friend in a white, two-door Hyundai Excel. The car became a ubiquitous sight on Sydney's roads. The Excel was cheap (around Dh24,000 brand new to "drive away, no more to pay" so the infernal radio ads said), economical, easy to park and, as well as white, it came in a range of bubble gum colours that sucked in young female buyers. It was a pretty basic car, but it filled a niche and played a big part in establishing Hyundai as a bargain brand.
But now, Hyundai is aiming higher, while trying to keep the prices credit crunch friendly - hence, the Genesis. The car, the Korean automaker's first attempt at a luxury car, was launched for the UAE market at a suitably plush dinner in a Dubai hotel. The Korean ambassador informed us he drives a Hyundai. We were entertained by two sopranos in enormous Bridal Barbie dresses, a comedy piano guy and a small, enthusiastic orchestra. The car appeared unto us in the usual cloud of dry ice one expects at car launches. Male models posed by the cars like Ken Dolls, perhaps to match the singing Bridal Barbies.
After dinner, we were allowed to sit in the car and discovered that it was suitably leathery, although the leather was not quite the same outrageously soft Poltrona Frau leather you see in, say, a Maserati. It's not the kind of leather that suggests the cow spent its life preparing to become a car seat with daily massages of baby oil, but it's perfectly pleasant. Along with the comfortable leather seats and strips of hide on the dash, the Genesis ticks plenty of the luxury car boxes with its standard features - reversing camera, airbags galore, electronic stability control, a screen that tells you all manner of facts about the car, a giant dial to control said screen, wood everywhere, Bluetooth compatibility, rain sensing wipers, push-button start and, to keep madam in the back seat shielded from the glare of the public, an electric rear window shade.
I drove a 3.8-litre V6 and found it to be quiet with enough pick-up to hold its own on the open road. The automatic gearbox has six speeds and the shifting is precise, although there is a sequential manual mode for control freaks. It's rear-wheel drive which slightly ups the fun factor on sharp corners with a hint of frisky-in-a-good-way oversteer - although if we're going to be brutally honest, the driver for whom fun is a priority is more likely to be seen in a Golf GTI than a Hyundai Genesis.
But what was most intriguing about the Genesis was the almost total absence of Hyundai branding. Up front, there are slanted headlamps and a slightly pointed grille but no reference to Hyundai. If you were unsure, it could be a Lexus, an Infiniti or maybe a Chrysler with pre-recession delusions of grandeur. At the back, a slanted "H" sits in the middle of the boot lid but the word "Hyundai" isn't actually spelt out. The badge just says "Genesis" and informs passers-by of a 3.8-litre engine.
Meanwhile, on the interior, the word "Hyundai" is almost nowhere to be seen. Lift the bonnet and the engine boasts of being a "V6 Genesis" but again no H-word. Rather than go down the path of Toyota and Nissan with Lexus and Infiniti being their luxury badges respectively, Hyundai has, it seems, just dropped the maker's name wherever possible. With "Genesis" having connotations of being a new beginning, perhaps this is what Hyundai is setting out to do as well. Times are tough in the car industry and, while Hyundai has not gone to the Korean government with a begging bowl, like the "Big Three" in the United States, the automaker is no doubt aware that 2009 is not going to be an easy year for anyone trying to convince people to buy cars.
While there will always be a market for small, cheap cars, such as the slightly baffling Hyundai Atos Prime, car makers do need to spot gaps in the market to help with the bottom line during tough economic times. So, perhaps a car that's well- appointed but not outrageously priced will appeal to those who cannot necessarily afford a Merc or an Audi. The back seat is rather spacious so it may also find a niche for people who prefer to be driven rather than drive - the car would look somewhat anonymous but not out of place as it glides into the car park for a business meeting.
I can also see the Genesis having appeal with fleet buyers, especially hotels. When the hotel taxis sidle up to late night patrons as they emerge from five-star establishments around town, the lure of a plush hotel taxi can be hard to resist. If hotels are also cutting costs but in need of new cars, they may look towards the likes of the Genesis to fill the gap. It will still look like a comfortable, "who cares how much the fare is, it's after midnight darling," alternative to a taxi that may not even have seatbelts.
But my amateur marketing speculation aside, Hyundai has achieved an affordable, comfortable car with sufficient bells and whistles to help with the massive image change Korean cars are in the process of undertaking. The Genesis is a far cry from the Excel I crawled into 12 years ago, and this is definitely good for the brand, even if the Hyundai name is hard to spot on the car itself. firstname.lastname@example.org