When Hyundai dipped a toe in the luxury-car waters in 2009, it followed an underdog formula set by Toyota's Lexus division two decades earlier: Mimic the established brands' design, undercut them on price and overdeliver on features.
But unlike the 1990 Lexus LS400, which kicked off an invasion of Asian luxury cars that continues today, the first Hyundai Genesis offered little to brag about beyond a discount price and some bonus features.
That Genesis was mostly a skin-deep simulation of a luxury sedan, and it looked as generic as a Korean airport taxi. The Hyundai's woozy handling and jiggly, dated chassis made it the s'mores of luxury sedans, a half-baked marshmallow smooshed into a stale graham cracker.
Now the second chapter of the Genesis has begun, and while the redesigned model is not a full-on revelation, it earned serious praise over a week of testing in the New York area.
Hyundai has learned that a luxury car is about more than a laundry list of specifications and features. When even $30,000 family sedans deliver sharp handling, leather upholstery and high-tech gadgets, you've got to bring something more to a party in the $40,000-to-$50,000 neighborhood.
That something is distinctive design. And for luxury sedans, a sense that something special is afoot in terms of a silent interior, roominess or performance.
First, this redesigned Genesis looks much more distinctive, inside and out. The new Hyundai has the length and tailoring of a big European sedan, drawing inspiration from the HCD-14 Genesis concept car. It speaks the brand's evolving design language, called "Fluidic Sculpture 2.0," which makes me think of those mischievous cherubs urinating in a fountain. But you can't help but look at the handsome, flowing lines of this family sedan.
Hyundai still isn't shy about borrowing; it might as well pay royalties to Audi for the Genesis' ribbed, single-frame grille. It also nabs Land Rover-style puddle lamps that beam a visual welcome mat outside the driver and front passenger doors — in this case, an image of the winged Genesis logo (itself reminiscent of Aston Martin's).
Inside, the Genesis combines space with new-found swagger. The interior volume easily outstrips all midsize competitors, including the BMW 5 Series, Cadillac CTS, Mercedes E-Class and Audi A6. The trunk is equally enormous and smartly finished, and hides a full-size spare tire. A Smart Trunk feature pops the lid when you stand behind the locked car for roughly three seconds with the keyfob in your pocket, without requiring an under-bumper foot waggle as with Fords.
The cabin is conservative, comfortable and ergonomically impressive, including navigation, infotainment systems and apps that are easier to use than anything from the Germans.
The available premium navigation system flashes a huge 9.2-inch high-definition screen, a 64-gigabyte hard drive for multimedia storage and colorful displays, from detailed map directions to Gracenote album art. (An eight-inch touch screen is standard.) An optional Lexicon audio system amasses 17 speakers and 900 watts. The vast panoramic sunroof features a motorized two-piece shade.
There's perhaps a bit too much switch redundancy, including an inexplicable pair of hard keys for the same Map/Voice function, one on the center console and one on the dash. But it still works well.
The excellent BlueLink infotainment app offers new features including voice-based Google Local search and remote start. Google helped me call up an airport parking lot by name alone, with no need to fumble for an address.
A sharp, available head-up display puts a lot of information (or a little) in the driver's view, from the speed reading to navigation directions to blind-spot warnings.
The well-upholstered front leather seats feature heat, ventilation, a massage function and a powered thigh cushion; the steering wheel is heated. My test car featured matte-finish black timber interior trim that looks a bit like charred firewood, along with touches of real aluminum.
Hyundai claims one technology first: Because high interior carbon dioxide levels can make occupants drowsy, a carbon dioxide sensor pumps in fresh ambient air when carbon dioxide levels exceed 2,000 parts per million.
Automatic emergency braking can halt the Hyundai when it recognizes an impending collision or unsafe closing speed.
With the Genesis' interior luxury now fully legitimate, Hyundai was clearly determined to stop faking the driving experience. It's hard to overstate how much better this car drives than the previous version.
The Hyundai isn't a sport sedan in the manner of the Cadillac CTS or Audi A6, yet many drivers may perceive it as exactly that. Hyundai called on Lotus Engineering, the British Zen masters of handling, to help develop and validate the handling dynamics.
The old Genesis lacked smoothness and control over rough roads, and Hyundai focused heavily on improvements. More than half of the new chassis is high-strength steel, and Hyundai says the structure is stiffer than the BMW 5 Series. The Hyundai adopts a modern multilink suspension front and rear, with longer suspension travel helping to eliminate the crash-through on big bumps that plagued the original car.
Mounts for the transmission and subframes are up to twice as stiff as before, helping to suppress noise, vibration and harshness. The front shock towers are aluminum. Hyundai claims the wheels tilt 23 percent less during high-speed cornering, improving steering feel and control.
The thorough changes produce a far quieter, better-riding and sharper-handling sedan. The suspension doesn't have to mask the chassis' weakness with supersoft tuning that oozes over every ripple and bump. Instead, the car feels professional and confident. Even with standard 18-inch wheels — 19-inchers are available — the Genesis clung to curves at speeds few owners will attempt.
The advantages of a rear-drive car include superior weight balance, and the Genesis delivers with 52 percent of its mass up front, 48 percent in the rear.
Rear-drive luxury sedans tend to scare off Northerners, even though modern rear-drive cars, if properly equipped with winter tires, handle surprisingly well in the snow. Bowing to demand, the 2015 Genesis offers all-wheel drive for the first time.
I tested that winter-friendly 3.8L AWD version, which starts at $41,450. That's $2,500 more than the standard rear-drive Genesis; the upgrade includes a heated steering wheel, rear-seat warmers and headlamp washers.
Both versions come with a 3.8-liter V-6, now with direct injection. With 311 horsepower, this reworked engine offers more standard power than any competitor except the Infiniti M35. Spurred by either a foot to the floor or the paddle shifters, the eight-speed transmission lets the V-6 charge to its redline of 6,500 rpm before it upshifts, maximizing power. There's less reason now to spring for the optional V-8.
If you do, the 5-liter Tau V-8 delivers powerfully, with 420 horses and 383 pound-feet of torque. Offered only with rear drive, the 5.0L model starts at $52,450; it is $55,700 with the Ultimate Package, which adds an active suspension, Lexicon audio and every available option.
My six-cylinder test car reached $52,450 after being crammed with $11,000 worth of option packages (Signature, Tech and Ultimate). Some image-conscious buyers will surely still flinch at a $50,000 Hyundai, no matter how well it is executed.
Other people will see a nearly full-size sedan — roughly three inches shorter than a BMW 750i — that's priced closer to loaded compact cars from BMW, Mercedes or Audi.
Over the last decade, Hyundai has learned from the masters, beginning with the mainstream and now applying lessons gleaned from the Germans. Judging from the results, brands like Acura, Buick and Lincoln might set their pride aside and start taking lessons from Hyundai.