2009 Hyundai GenesisS

It was at dinner on the second night of my Korean adventure to drive the 2009 Hyundai Genesis on behalf of Popular Mechanics when I finally decided to try kimchi. If you've never tried the stuff, you'd better have a stomach built like a steel-clad clay pot. I don't. But after spending a few hours running the first luxury sedan from the Korean automaker through its paces at their proving grounds outside of Seoul I figured it was the right time to finally introduce the uniquely Korean delicacy — a pungent, brine-fermented mixture of cabbage, garlic and chili pepper — to my delicate corn-fed Midwestern stomach. The moment the smell hit my nose I had flashbacks to laying on the floor of a wrestling mat in 6th grade with my coach cracking open smelling salts to rouse me. For a brief moment I thought that maybe this was a bad idea. But it was the moment it actually hit my mouth that I knew it was a bad idea. My eyes began to water, my mouth filled with fire and as I forced it down my throat I could already feel it burrowing its way toward my colon like a Northern soldier tunneling to Seoul. Later on that stomach-twisting night — spent alternately clutching the side of the hotel toilet bowl or my bed's sweat-soaked sheets — I had a lot of time to think about the day. Maybe it was some sort of as-yet-unknown hallucinogenic properties of the kimchi, or more likely it was the lack of sleep, but for whatever reason, I started to wonder what this fiery side dish as old as Korea could teach me about the 2009 Hyundai Genesis sedan.

The exterior of the Genesis is certainly handsome from afar, chrome bits and pieces glinting in the Korean summer sun against the deep red pepper-paste colored spaceship-like exterior of one of the two sedans we test-drove. The interior's quite plush, filled with NASA-level doodads like a hard disk-drive-based navigation system complete with voice recognition, gadgets like Bluetooth connectivity and doohickeys like a USB/iPod connector and the well-bred Lexicon Logic 7 audio system.

It's not just the exterior and interior that're packed to the chromed-out gills. At a rocket-like 375 horses, the optional 4.6-liter Tau V8 packs the rails under the hood with the right figures for our taste, while the 290 HP standard 3.8-liter V6 ain't too shabby-sounding either. That's enough power to take the V6-powered Genesis up to a top speed of 130 MPH and the V8-powered sedan up to an Autobahn-like 155 MPH — and a 5.7 second 0-to-60 time. Gear shifts come by way of a more-than-capable ZF 6-speed automatic transmission mated to either engine selection. And did we mention the size? The Genesis is big — a wheelbase measuring 115.6 inches, a length measuring 195.9 inches and a width of 74.4 inches. Despite being bigger, longer and more uncut than many in this class, the Genesis still manages an astonishing 17.95 foot turning radius. And even with the beefy proportions, Hyundai expects the Genesis to eek out a commendable-for-the-class 18/27 MPG fuel economy rating with the 3.8-liter V6 and 17/25 MPG fuel economy rating with the 4.6-liter V8.

So on paper, the Genesis is certainly an attractive looking package, packed with all the goods you'd expect from other entry-level mid-size cars with alpha-numeric names like 550i, E550, CTS, GS 460 and TSX. But a true entry-level luxury sports sedan isn't built merely by ticking boxes on a list of options, there's more that's different between the Genesis and the rest of the segment than just naming convention.

For starters, buyers in the KDM (Korean Domestic Market, for the uninitiated) look for a more comfy ride than their U.S. market brethren. Hyundai's HATCI (Hyundai KIA America Technical Center, Inc) team deserves some credit for trying to rework the suspension on the Genesis with a set of stiffer springs, damping and shocks to match that differing set of preferences.

But the tuning shouldn't confuse buyers into believing the Genesis is a sports sedan. The buyer-in-the-know will realize that particular truth the first time you take a hard turn. Despite an admirable performance on Hyundai's Namyang R&D Center's ride-and-handling course, the now-stiffened Genesis still felt like it was floating through a bucket of marshmallow fluff. Combine the ride feel with an inability to steer with your right foot, a traction control system that (like many in the segment) can't ever be turned all the way off, limited steering feedback and thick levels of engine-sound-dampening and you have a feel that's more Posh than Sporty on the Spice scale.

But many buyers in the segment are finicky enough to be focusing as much on the looks as they are on the ride. At first glance, the interior certainly looks plush enough to deliver, and in some areas exhibited quality levels higher than others in the segment — fit and finish on the center console and over the transmission tunnel were top-notch. But I also found material choices inappropriate for the the segment. Despite the limited mileage, the perforated leather seats already showed significant wear and tear and the rear-seat plastics were below those of the segment's standard-bearers. Step outside the sedan and the exterior of the Genesis that looked so good from afar, on closer inspection showed larger-than-expected panel gaps and doors that shut with a strong shudder from the body.

Pop the trunk and again it looks right from first glance. There's a set of very nicely plastic-coated trunk hinges, the pull-handle's in the right place and they've even installed the battery there to increase rear-weight bias. But a closer inspection shows off a finish level approaching that found in a malaise-era Oldsmobile, with the backs of the rear-seat shelf speakers sitting exposed and naked and a carpet loosely covering the foam-coated floor. Although it may seem like we're nit-picking here, it's what buyers in the segment are prone to do.

And here's what kimchi has to do with it. You see, I'd become interested in the spicy stuff after reading a recent story in the International Herald Tribune about the Korean government spending millions of dollars on a multi-year program to take the pungent slimy stuff and create a more space-friendly version for the first Korean astronaut to take aboard the International Space Station. That's right, space age kimchi.

What I should have learned from that story — other than not to touch kimchi with a ten-foot-long set of chopsticks — is that I shouldn't have doubted the ability of Korean engineers to defy conventions and create something for the space age. The Genesis is so light-years beyond anything Hyundai's ever brought to market, it's hard not to be astonished. Seriously, who knew Hyundai could build a sexy-looking, rear-wheel-drive four-door with an attractively luxurious interior on their first try? The Genesis won't be right for the average entry-level luxury buyer. But those brand-snobs won't be buying this car anyway. No, the real market for this sedan will be one step below — that $30,000-level of the market littered with domestics like the 300C, the G8 GT and the Taurus — those buyers looking for the accoutrements and power one expects from a big rear-wheel drive sedan (or AWD, in the case of the Taurus), but who could care less about the pretenses. And they'd be getting a steal by choosing Korean — and less heartburn and need for Kaopectate.