Heaven, Hell or Hyundai

May 3, 2010

I wrote here a few months ago about my wife’s decision to replace her 1998 Olds Intrigue. I detailed my grand plan to give her the 2006 Toyota Avalon while I procured myself a slightly used Mercedes S550 as a new daily driver.

The interesting thing about the Mercedes S550 is that, without expensive and rarely-equipped options, it offers fewer bells and whistles than a minivan of half the price. Consequently, it was near impossible to find one with adaptive laser-guided cruise control and a back-up camera, at least one with a reasonable number of miles that wasn’t being sold by a dealer at a typical narcotics kingpin’s profit margin. I did finally find a low-mileds 2008 S600 (the model with all the bells and whistles as standard, powered by the fire-breathing bi-turbo V12 and usually purchased new by professional athletes and CEOs) offered at a sell-it-today price of $72,000, but getting it to my door and licensing it would have put it at $80,000. Still, at nine in the morning on one beautiful day I had the deal ready to go.

It’s funny how spouses have the ability to bring us back to ground-level. My wife reminded me that no matter how far under-value I could buy the S600, I was making a poor financial decision. She also pointed to the other cars in the garage and asked if I really needed another expensive car for myself. This was the point when I again got to swallow hard and use my signature line “you’re right, I’m wrong, I’m sorry, I’ll change!”

It had taken me months to get to nearly buying the S600, but thanks to my wife’s decisive nature, by 5pm that night she was at Titus-Will Hyundai signing for a brand new 2010 Genesis 4.6 Sedan–for her! A Hyundai? On my property? What the hell?

In all fairness, my wife knew I had talked about the Genesis ever since seeing a pre-production version years ago at Pebble Beach, and also was aware that I gave a stripped version just a passing test-drive before pursuing the Mercedes. For her it was a strictly rational decision to revisit a possibly overlooked option and jump on it when it met all the right criteria. I’m here to tell you, though, that as far as rational large sedan purchases go, the Hyundai Genesis is a surprisingly emotional hunk of metal.

It’s easy to have missed hearing about the Genesis Sedan, because Hyundai has opted to spend the bulk of its marketing dollars on the Mustang-fighting Genesis Coupe and its recently redone Accord-killer Sonata. The Genesis name was actually originally designed to be placed on a new luxury brand a la Toyota’s Lexus, Honda’s Acura and Nissan’s Infinity, but after realizing that a stand-alone brand added over $5,000 to the cost of each car, Hyundai elected to make the Genesis a new upscale rear-wheel-drive product line under its primary brand and dealerships.

At 196 inches, the Genesis sedan is a large vehicle sized to match the BMW 750i, Lexus LS and Audi A8. It is slightly smaller than the long-wheelbase versions of the aforementioned, as well as the Mercedes S550 and Toyota Avalon. Genesis Sedans are available with a 3.8-liter V6 or the 4.6-liter “Tau” V8 — and given the options on the 3.8 that come standard with a 4.6, a fully loaded V8 is only about $2000 more. With a real-world out-the-door price with tax and licensing of under $45,000 for this top-of-the-line Korean, it is a steal…and one that has already picked-off sales from prestige luxury brands.

At first glance, the Genesis is visually indistinguishable from the current crop of luxo-rides, and if you park one next to a same-colored Lexus ES350, you’ll find yourself looking for badges or the slightly longer car. With most of the lines stolen from Mercedes, BMW and Audi, it’s even more surprising how the overall design blends nicely into an outcome that is very muscular and handsome, especially in Black Noir Pearl paint.

The interior is very visually pleasing with contrasting leather (in this case, Cashmere,) and offers supple surfaces with nice stitching, Lexus-like panel gaps, and an uncluttered layout for buttons. Cost cutting is only noticeable to guys like me who recognize the plastic HVAC buttons as being from the same supplier as cheaper Toyotas.

Delivering niceties like a backup camera, parking sensors, adaptive cruise control, rear sunshade, iPod and USB connectivity, Bluetooth, and navigation system with a usable input device for forty-some-grand means cost cutting somewhere else. It didn’t take me long to find these areas. While the driver’s seat offers a basic level of cushion angle adjustment, lumbar support, heat and ventilation, the passenger seat is a fore-aft only deal with heat, but no ventilation, cushion height adjustment or lumbar support. Luckily, both seats are well bolstered and as comfortable as the base seats on the S550. As for rear seat room, it’s limo-like comfortable and offers almost as much space as the German long-wheelbase luxury players.

Push the starter button and the Tau 4.6 V8 comes to life. Like any modern overhead cam V8, it is as unobtrusive around town as Loggins & Messina over a department store Muzak system. Punch it, though, and it announces its presence with authority…and rear wheel spin. Gearing from the ZF six-speed automatic transmission plays well with the Tau’s 375 hp and 333 ft-lb of torque to deliver 0-60mph in 5.7 seconds. For a 4000+ pound sedan, this is quicker than a New Jersey mugging.

With minimal seat time, I still questioned if the Genesis V8 could blend all of its strengths under pressure, so I decided to take it with me to my friend’s house for our annual fantasy baseball draft. The trip has always proven a great test of cars, providing 70-plus miles of highway, a few miles of city traffic, and a final leg of a mile-long hillclimb of limited-access tight switchback road that looks like a special rally stage.

As I entered I5 North, I set the adaptive cruise control. Almost immediately I noticed the speedometer needle reading 2mph higher than the digital readout for the cruise control setting. Odd, indeed, and most certainly an unnoticed bug (or as product marketing guys say: “a feature”). With adaptive cruise control a new addition for the 2010 model and a part of the optional Technology Package, only a small percentage of Genesis owners have witnessed the different speed readouts competing for their attention. Luckily my trusty iPhone speedometer application determined that it was the cruise control display, not the speedo needle, that was correct.

On I5 the Genesis delivered a par-for-the-course 22 mpg on premium gas. A 20-and-change gallon gas tank meant the needle didn’t dip too far. During the trip the car’s easy to identify corners and lack of bad blind spots meant tightly contested lane changes were a breeze.

After the highway portion, my normally sore back was still in great shape. My ears, though, felt like I had been making the trip in my Corvette. Road noise was horrible, but can mostly be attributed to the deafening hum from Dunlop tires.

Through the stoplights and traffic the Genesis displays the smoothness of a $5 bottle of tequila. The ZF transmission tended to hunt for gear and delivered binary throttle tip-in from a stop: either waiting too long for a gear to engage or dislocating head from neck as the car rocketed away like it was being timed for acceleration. Sadly, this behavior seems to be de rigueur now as manufacturers use increasingly complicated shift logic to maximize EPA fuel mileage ratings at the expense of driver comfort.

I made the turn-off onto the final mountain climb and punch the throttle. The Genesis built speed rapidly. With the shifter in manual mode, I prodded on the brakes, which instantly scrubbed enough speed to allow a downshift as I enter the first decreasing radius turn.

The Genesis followed steering inputs perfectly. The Tau V8’s torque enabled a little tail-steer to leave the corner, as well as to deliver a quick burst of speed before needing to slow for a hairpin.

Steering in the Genesis is heavy, but direct. There’s plenty of feedback, but with springs stiffer than moonshine and strong-sidewall Dunlop tires, the ride feels more 1984 Corvette than 2010 BMW. Brakes bite too quickly, but it feels like throwing the Nimitz’s anchor out to stop a kayak.

On the gas strongly, gravel on the road gave the traction and stability control a workout. Unlike in Toyota and Lexus cars, not only were the electronic nannies less intrusive, they could be turned off if desired. Given my lack of experience with this new, large, heavy sedan, however, it was probably a smart idea to keep them on.

After a few more turns, the heavy steering began to weigh on my arms. Still, as I reached the top of the mountain, I realized that I had bested times I had achieved in my 1986 Ferrari 328 GTS and matched those of my 2002 Corvette –a pretty impressive feat.

At the end of the day, there’s no doubt that Hyundai executives tasked its engineers to create a car that could beat the handling and braking figures for BMW and Audi. On that, the Genesis is a home run. Given the cost-cutting necessary to build to a target price, however, there are some trade-offs in noise, comfort and refinement.

Think of the Genesis as to the world of executive performance sedans as the Corvette is to sports cars: the snobs might snicker at its badge and joke about the noise, vibration and harshness in comparison to German rivals, but it can wipe the smirk off their faces with its performance and still leave its owner with at least an extra thirty-large in the bank.

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Bail Out the Big Three? History Suggests “Don’t Do It”!

November 11, 2008

It would be catchy to lead with something like “I’ll give you fifty-billion reasons why the US government shouldn’t bail out the Big Three automakers.” Instead, I’ll just write: don’t do it.

I need to make something crystal clear here. My views are not ideologically-based. If you’d like some Republican versus Democrat, free market capitalism over big government socialism, Apple against Microsoft rants, you’re not going to find it here.

What you will find is a simple statement: history and common sense intersect at a point with a big marker titled “STOP”.

The Meat Of the Deal

Congress has already given General Motors, Ford and Chrysler around $25 billion so they can retool for production of more fuel-efficient cars. Last week the three CEOs returned to The Hill to ask for as much as $50 billion more to keep their companies floating while they hemorrhage cash in the down economy.

It is true that consumers are not buying new cars right now. That’s a huge problem for all automakers, not just the Big Three. When they start buying cars again, fuel-efficient vehicles like hybrids and compacts will be in demand. Actually, if we’re being truthful here, these vehicles are in demand right now. Just go try to find a Prius on a dealer lot.

So the Big Three CEOs have the audacity to go to Congress and say “give us money so we can ride out the bad economy and have what the consumers will want when they are ready to buy.” Audacity? Why did I choose that word?

Simple, because unless you’ve been living in cave for the last decade, you’ll know that even when GM, Ford and Chrysler were selling SUVs and trucks faster than a Ramones drum beat, they were largely losing money. Keep in mind that SUVs and trucks had a hell of a lot higher profit margin than compact and hybrid cars could ever hope to attain.

Imagine if the CEOs told Congress: “we need money, because we couldn’t make profits when we were selling high-profit vehicles. Since we pocketed that money in salaries, union deals, benefits, and executive bonuses, and got drunk on cheap gas (although in our hearts we knew it wouldn’t stay that way, but we hoped we’d be retired by the time it hit $4 per gallon), we never spent enough on R+D, so we didn’t have vehicle products ready to go for this current marketplace.” Unfortunately, that’s the truth.

Here is a scary reality
If Congress gave $50B directly to American consumers with the condition that we went out and bought new cars, here’s what would happen: $50B would buy 1,666,666 cars, based on the current average price of around $30,000 each. Given the current market share, GM at 22.4 percent would sell 373,333 vehicles, Ford (14.8%) would move 246,666 units, and Chrysler (11%) would sell 183,333 units. In other words, with fifty billion dollars going directly into the hands of consumers to buy a new car, the best any of the Big Three could do would be to sell a group of additional vehicles equating to less than one year’s worth of Honda Accord sales in America. (392,231 Accords were sold in the US in 2007.) Think that’s enough to keep them (or dealers) from failing? Nope!!!

Inevitably, there are those out there who will say the Big Three are “too big to fail”. Television news channels are already reporting huge job loss potentials if the companies go out of business—from a few hundred thousand to somewhere around 1.5 million. For every one job at GM, Ford and Chrysler, there are seven positions at vendors providing parts and services for domestic auto production. In other words: if they fail, we’re in a depression with millions of unemployed workers.

The logical conclusion, claim these folks, is to keep the government money flowing– no matter how long it takes, otherwise the companies will implode, everyone in the industry will be out a job, and a depression is unavoidable. To these people I have just two words:

BRITISH LEYLAND

Allow me to follow up those two words with a description of why this is critical history for every Member of Congress to know. England used to be tied with America as the automotive powerhouses in the world. We had Ford and Chevy, while they had Austin and Morris. Just like the contraction of companies in America that formed Ford-Lincoln-Mercury and General Motors, Austin joined Morris in BMC. Standard joined with Triumph, which was joined with Jaguar. Finally, by 1968 most British-owned brands were rolled into British Leyland.

Thanks to equal parts ineptitude, greed and lack of ethics, BL drove the British car industry into the ground. BL executives blamed the economy (including an oil crisis) and labor. Everyone else pointed the finger at products that were inferior to foreign competition, as well as short-sighted contracts and profiteering.

Despite selling forty percent of the vehicles in Great Britain, by 1975 British Leyland was broke. The British Government sank millions into the group and became the majority shareholder. The corporation was reorganized, and millions more went to cure production and labor problems.

The company was again reorganized into saleable units. Jaguar-Daimler was sold-off in 1984 (two years later it went to Ford). The Leyland truck and bus unit was merged with Dutch DAF in 1987, which later sold bus operations to Volvo. Just a year later the Rover Group (including most of the remaining car business) was sold to British Aerospace, which turned around and immediately sold this remaining part of Great Britain’s auto industry to German BMW.

Which puts us back to GM, Ford and Chrysler

If Congress simply let nature take its course, there is a strong chance that all would fail. But we need to DEFINE “FAIL”. In this case, do we honestly think that if any of the Big Three “fail” everything the company owns would simply be auctioned off to the high bidder in front of the local courthouse? Of course not.

All three companies own valuable plant assets. All still have cash. All own products and technology that are profit centers. There is certainly a big financial value to Chevy’s Volt product, as well as Chrysler’s ultra-modern flexible plant locations, Ford’s Mustang brand, Corvette production, F150 fleet sales, the “Hemi” trademark…

Considering that Porsche just tried unsuccessfully to buy VW, it puts them back in the market for an entity that will enable them to meet 35-mpg CAFE standards. By the way, Porsche has also been one of the most profitable automakers of the last decade. (Turns out that selling overpriced sports-SUVs is a cash cow.) So even after the botched buyout, they have money to burn.

Hyundai is also a strong competitor without a good hybrid play, as is Mitsubishi. Both have money. Mitsubishi’s dedication to cars might be questionable, but Hyundai’s certainly is not. Honda could use a more diverse product range, especially upmarket. Even Toyota could make a case to buy one of the Big Three — Chrysler for flexible production facilities or GM for Volt plug-in technology (since it could take a big bite out of Hybrid Synergy Drive sales).

Then there’s BMW – the same company that at one time or another has purchased Rover, MG, Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Austin/Morris/Mini, and still retains the rights for Triumph. They have cash and good credit…not to mention a pretty good history of acquiring, absorbing, improving operations, and remarketing companies. (We’ll give them a pass on Rover, which was a debacle, only because nothing short of a neutron bomb could have solved that company’s issues.) Finally, BMW has banked way too much on hydrogen over plug-in hybrids, so they could benefit from buying the technology, rather than developing it in house.

Don’t count on Mercedes to get involved. The company is still sore from its marriage to Chrysler. It turns out Mercedes was ill prepared to deal with the complexities of a merger with such a dysfunctional corporation at a time when it was challenged with its own operational and technical issues. Consequently, Mercedes lost more money than a drunk billionaire trying to impress the hotties at the high roller baccarat tables.

Hyundai, BMW, Porsche…Any of these companies could benefit by buying GM, Ford, or even Chrysler.

All have experience designing, building, marketing, selling, and servicing in America already, and do so with high profit margins.

No doubt each and any foreign buyer would bust the unions and negotiate dumping retirement benefits on the US government. Then the companies would kill poor performing legacy products, as well as the people who continued to push losing strategies. Good niche brands and solid future technologies would be exploited, while albatrosses like Hummer would likely be closed down or sold to a greater fool.

In the end, America would have to let go the concept of the American Big Three. One could get caught up in buzzwords like “failure”, but the goal is to save money and jobs.

No matter how we look at it, American jobs will be lost. The difference is that if the US Congress pushes the Big Three to sell, more people will actually be able to keep jobs. Granted some will do so at reduced wages and most at decreased long-term benefits. Wouldn’t it be better, however, for these people to work for a competitive company again – one that isn’t in jeopardy of needing to make more layoffs or beg for more government money next year?

Congress might still decide to throw good money after bad at GM, Ford and Chrysler, just like the British did for BL, but the best course of action is to allow these dinosaurs implode under their own weight sooner rather than later, and work to convince German, Japanese and Korean automakers to bring them back to life as more efficient, better targeted and longer-reaching versions of their old selves using the American workers and suppliers who are willing to adapt to a new world with a view far beyond the self-interests of Michigan and D.C..

Editor’s Note: We here at the Four Wheel Drift realize that this whole bailout issue is far more complicated than can be summarized in one article. We expect that if Alan Mulally or Rick Wagoner read the above article, they’d accuse us of missing important details. (We’d expect that Bob Lutz would say we’ve got our heads up our asses if we thought it was that simple.) The fact is that it isn’t simple. It took nearly a century for GM, Ford and Chrysler to create the mess they’re in, and there are no easy answers. We simply are taking a stand unpopular with car folks, especially those emotionally tied to the long history of American auto producers, and suggesting that the only way to stay competitive is to admit that there is no way to stay competitive by just taking government money and tightening belts.


Buick’s “glimpse” of its 2010 LaCrosse reflects business as usual

August 25, 2008
GM's Official 2010 Buick LaCrosse "Glimpse"

You’re looking at the first official “glimpse” of Buick’s 2010 LaCrosse. This picture was intended to excite journalists — the thinking was that it shows that the LaCrosse looks like the Invicta show car.

Sorry guys. All it indicates to me is that the Buick boys are still asleep at the wheel. What I see is more vanilla than desert at a retirement home dining hall.

As a guy who was brought home from the hospital in a Buick Special Convertible and had a Buick LeSabre as his first car, I say this to Buick: I’ve been in the Hyundai Genesis and it simply is a better Buick than anything Buick has on showrooms or in the pipeline.

If this is all you Buick product managers have to excite us, you might as well save on the PR and marketing costs and just throw the LaCrosse at the dealers and hope enough old folks buy them to justify the brand not going the way of Oldsmobile.


Spotted: 2010 Hyundai Genesis Coupe At Pebble Beach!

August 13, 2008

Hyundai Genesis Coupe Prototype

When covering all the happenings here at Pebble Beach, you’re on the lookout for new cars and prototypes.  Today I noticed a Hyundai Genesis Coupe prototype sitting with a production Genesis Sedan parked off to the side of the Blackhawk Exposition.

hyundai genesis coupe rear

hyundai genesis coupe rear

One thing is for certain: this is by far the prettiest car Hyundai has ever produced.  Hell, I’ll go on record saying it will be one of the most beautiful cars offered period when it is offered in showrooms.  Everyone who walked by (and we’re talking about people who can afford to drop six and seven figures on things with four wheels) thought it was downright perfect in proportions.  Everyone was stunned to see the “H” badge!

Hopefully the great design will be backed by performance (courtesy of a six cylinder engine, rear-wheel-drive

 and independent suspension) and build/engineering quality of equal caliber.


Hyundai’s Genesis marks the beginning of Korean styling excellence…and end of American pony car reign

April 15, 2008

Hyundai Genesis Coupe (courtesy of Hyundai)

While journalists have been throwing praise at Chevy for the 2009 Camaro, Cadillac for the upcoming CTS Coupe, and Dodge for the now-arriving Challenger, the sweetest looking two-door to hit the “coming soon” pages is actually from Hyundai. The Genesis coupe is simply a work of art.

GM, Ford and Chrysler: beware! The 2010 Genesis (due out in 2009) is not destined to be another rice rocket in the mold of the Acura Integra. Hyundai has instead designed it to be an American-like pony car to do battle against the Mustang. Don’t laugh – when it hits dealerships, the rear-wheel-drive Genesis will be available with either a turbo 2.0-liter 212hp four or a high-output 306-hp six-cylinder engine. And no doubt that the V8 Hyundai has in development will be there sooner than you think!

Hyundai has delivered nicely styled cars in the past. Indeed the current Hyundai Tiburon coupe obviously stole lines from the Ferrari 550 Maranello. Unfortunately, the front-wheel-drive Tiburon (as well as other cars from the Korean automaker) has always been a let down in the driving department. The new Genesis, however, has earned praise from the few journalists who have had the chance to do preview drives. Rumors are that power, handling, braking, and refinement are all top-notch for the general price and segment.

What seems most important is that from a style perspective, the Genesis doesn’t seem to steal from any other car. It is fresh and devoid of all the foolish, tacky add-ons all too familiar on American so-called performance cars. There are no non-functional fake air intakes, nor are there creases or edges that are there just to maintain a corporate look or theme. In fact, the Genesis shows no evidence that the designers were out to make a unique-appearing Hyundai, rather one that would point to the future, not the past.

So as GM goes to 1969 for the design of its 2009 Camaro, Dodge’s Challenger steals entirely from its 1970 version, and Ford’s Mustang soldiers on with a pastiche of 1965, 1967 and 1969 Fastback ‘Stang cues, the Hyundai Genesis proves that being new can be done without looking old. Furthermore, the Genesis will remain fresh for years to come.

With better pricing and all the power of American pony cars, it’s possible that the Genesis’ show and go will translate to stealing sales not only from Mustang, Challenger and Camaro, but also from Infiniti G, Acura TL, Pontiac G8, Subaru WRX, Mitsubishi Evo, and Cadillac CTS. Who knows, maybe even a few Bimmer or Audi drivers will wonder why they’ve spent $10K-$20K more than they had to?