x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Road Test: 2011 Hyundai Centennial

This vastly improved sedan is ready to take on the big boys, and David Booth is very impressed.

It's amazing how quickly people can forget the lessons that they themselves have wrought. The American Democrats punished then-president George Bush over his tardy and inept response to Hurricane Katrina only to have their champion, President Obama, vacillate and obfuscate in much the same manner during the initial days of the BP oil spill. Toyota overtook General Motors as the world's number one automaker by continuously exceeding consumers' expectations and then promptly threw its prized reputation away in one ruinous unintended-acceleration public relations disaster. And its luxury arm, Lexus, built an incredible following by building a car that all but mimicked the hedonism of the established ultra-luxury players for tens of thousands of dollars less, has obviously forgotten the lesson of the 1990 LS400. Price an LS460 now and you'll find a sticker tag much the same as the rivals it once derided as bloated.

This left a hole in the market large enough for an all-new player in the über-sedan segment, room for another Lexus-like upstart. And, like the news that Toyota, the Corolla company, was going to compete with the likes of BMW and Mercedes, the news that the new player in the luxury segment is Hyundai is sure to be greeted with the same scepticism and even ridicule. But the Korean automaker is a applying the exact same tactic that made the LS400 such a success two decades ago; its newly-released Centennial offers most of the same hedonistic features and at least some of the performance of its established competitors at a price that is quantifiably cheaper.

As for ambience, again think Lexus LS and you've pretty much captured the Centennial's essence and its hedonism. Both the Signature and Ultimate come absolutely loaded with such amenities as a 13-channel, 608-watt Lexicon audio system with 17 speakers, 12-way adjustable front seats (with a massaging feature for the driver), Alcantara leather trim, dual-zone climate control air conditioning, power sunshades for the rear and side windows as well as a power-operated trunk lid. In the roominess department, the Centennial bests the LS460 in virtually every significant measurement from front headroom to rear legroom.

Available in the base Signature version and a full-zoot Ultimate package, the Centennial will start in the Dh230,000 range and top out at a high of Dh270,000, about Dh90,000 less than the Lexus LS460 that it so closely emulates. Make no mistake about it; although the Centennial ostensibly competes against all the sedans in the ultra-luxury segment, Hyundai most obviously has it sights set on Lexus (in North America, its mid-luxury Genesis most often competes with Toyota's luxury arm). Inside, for instance, though the Hyundai hasn't copied even one of the 460's features, the two cabins feel remarkably similar. It's the same for the exterior though the Hyundai's more dramatic fender flares and lines add a bit more character. If anything the Hyundai has an even more stately presence and more sporting flair than the rather somnolent LS. And, if the Centennial doesn't exactly project all the gravitas of one of the European heavies, it at least presents a face of Hyundai that startles passers-by. Indeed, one of the most difficult/comical parts of my day in the Centennial was convincing the curious that yes, this is really a lineal descendent of the once ubiquitous and rust-prone Pony.

However, what really blew their mind was gazing upon the Centennial's interior, more specifically the back seat. Or more specifically, the rear seat of the Ultimate version of the Centennial, which, equipped with an airline-style fully-reclining rear seat, is meant to be the first chauffeur-driven Hyundai. Yes, you read that right, a chauffeur-driven Hyundai. Toggle one simple button while sitting in the Ultimate's right rear seat and, in a perfectly matched choreography, the front passenger seat moves forward (to provide more seat room) while the rear tilts and extends so that eventually you are stretched as regally as a sub-Saharan potentate. The seat can either, depending on your needs, heat or cool your sorry behind and, as if this isn't enough, there's a massage function that would make an S-Class Benz proud. Oh, and there's a thermoelectric fridge back there to chill your favourite beverage. I think this an opportune juncture to remind everyone that said Ultimate Centennial is likely to cost about the same as a base BMW 5 Series.

Of course, you can order the Centennial in its lesser Signature trim, essentially the same car without the diva-ish rear pew. What one is then buying is a big luxury sedan about the size of Lexus's LS (though, it must be said, it's quite a bit shorter than the L version of BMW's 7 Series). Whichever version you buy, motivation comes from the same 4.6-litre Tau V8 that powers the Genesis, though in Centennial guise it gains 10 horsepower for a total of 385. Ditto for the ZF six-speed automatic transmission. The only issue for the sophisticated double overhead camshaft V8 is that the Centennial is significantly heavier than the Genesis, weighing in at 2,018 to 2,082 kilograms depending on the equipment levels. It blunts the Tau's forward charge, especially at low speeds when the 4.6's relative paucity of low-end torque - 451Nm compared with the 530Nm of the Mercedes S550 and the whopping 610Nm of the turbocharged BMW 750Li.

The engine is otherwise quite a charmer, utterly smooth and with a very pleasant growl. Matt the throttle and, though its 6.4 second zero-to-100-kilometre acceleration time is about half a tick behind most of its competitors, it feels just as sophisticated as any. The engine revs to 6,000 rpm without fuss and the ZF's shifts are speedy yet uncannily smooth. The same bulk is the chassis' only affliction. Unlike the Genesis, which disguises its size on twisty roads, the Centennial feels like a large car. Through wide-open corners, thanks to the electronically adjustable air suspension, the sophisticated dampers keeps things in check, but on sporty twisty roads - where, admittedly, few Centennial owners are likely to venture - the Centennial's steering can be lethargic and numb.

At least from the driver's seat. Back in that sumptuous right rear perch, the Centennial remained remarkably calm as we cruised over California's sinewy La Honda Highway while my fellow autojournalist, Eric Lefrancois, tried his mightiest to create havoc. Laid back in the fully reclined position, I might as well have been ensconced in an aeroplane business class seat or even a video game; the road outside the front windshield seemed to twist to and fro with alarming rapidity but I felt precious little as a relaxed passenger. For those who like to be chauffeured with élan, the Ultimate Centennial is a very plausible alternative.