There's no denying that South Korean manufacturers Kia and Hyundai have managed what most of us thought impossible. They've turned around their respective images with ranges of cars that mix exciting styling, excellent build quality and unbeatable value for money, with the result that, if you drive one, you're no longer looked upon with pity by other motorists. Toyota, Honda, Nissan and other Far East carmakers have been left behind - it's almost pitiful.
But here's an unexpected curveball from Hyundai. Just when we were getting our heads around the new vibrancy on offer from this company and its Kia stablemate, along comes a new model that shows there's still some way to go before the two can rightly claim to have re-energised every section of the marketplace. Because the Centennial is most definitely cursed with the "but it's a Hyundai" deal-breaking image problem and identity crisis.
If you're in the market, as many in this region are, for a large, powerful, luxurious saloon, a number of brands will be on your potential shopping list. BMW, Lexus, Audi, Mercedes-Benz, Jaguar, Maserati - dripping with desirability, one and all. But Hyundai? Is someone out there having a laugh? Apparently not, and the South Koreans see this model (known in other countries as the Equus) as nothing short of a status symbol.
It's a car that easily impresses, if you put to one side its rather anonymous looks and the laughable bonnet mascot that has all the cachet of a junior executive's paperweight. For instance, the Centennial is absolutely rammed with kit and, at least on the inside, it's attractively and intuitively designed. Name a toy and, chances are, it will come as standard equipment. This is the one aggressive marketing tactic that might swing savvy business customers in the direction of the big Hyundai. But if you were to stick with the established brands, are you simply paying for badge and name prestige?
No. Because, while the Centennial, which has been around for a couple of years now and has just been given a midlife facelift, pampers and cushions its occupants with opulent luxury and near-silent propulsion, it shows its weaknesses once you try to wring some performance from it.
The model I'm testing is the VS500, which means it has a 430hp, 5.0L V8 engine under its bonnet, powering the rear wheels via an eight-speed automatic gearbox with some 495Nm of torque. Those figures alone are impressive, but what's not so mind-blowing is the way it all comes together. At no point does the Centennial feel sprightly, despite its on-paper zero-to-100kph time of 5.8 seconds. It feels cumbersome, soft and wallowy, with a distinct lack of dynamism. Throw it at speed into a corner and it pitches about like an ocean liner, rear tyres screeching loudly as they struggle for purchase on the road surface. A big Merc or BMW would make mincemeat out of roads that would have Hyundai's flagship threatening to flip itself over, and this, more than anything else, is what lets it down.
Its transmission doesn't help matters, either, seeming to take an age when shifting down for overtaking manoeuvres. This, to be fair, might be a software issue as new cars take time to adapt to a driver's particular style, but it really should feel more rapid than it does.
These matters aside, the Centennial does make a good case for itself, if not as a rival for the Germans, at least as an alternative to the Lexus LS, and its cabin is actually more appealing than the Japanese contender. Granted, this is a press car so it comes with every conceivable extra fitted, but the rear quarters especially are a wonderful place in which to spend journey time. Where the Lexus has a ridiculous single television screen for rear passengers, the Hyundai has one in the rear of each front seat, along with a neatly integrated refrigerated cubby box between the two rears. Hyundai's choice of materials is excellent and the whole ambience reeks of quality and refined, subtle luxury.
If this is all you want out of a car - space and plush interior appointments - then the big Korean may tempt you away from the BMW showroom where you were heading to check out the latest 7 Series. But in this part of the world, rightly or wrongly, the badge makes a difference. Even Honda couldn't carry off the luxury thing with the actually very good Legend and, as for the Volkswagen Phaeton, the less said the better (although if you want a cut-price Bentley you could do worse). More than road manners or value for money, the prestige associated here with the right badge, especially in the luxury car segment, means we're unlikely to see many Centennials on our roads. But dismiss this car at your peril as it offers staggering value for money.
Price, base / as tested Dh257,000 / Dh270,000
Engine 5.0L V8
Gearbox eight-speed automatic
Power 430hp @ 6,400rpm
Torque 495Nm @ 5,000rpm
Fuel economy, combined 13.0L / 100km
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