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Monday, August 18, 2008

Hyundai beats a Lexus- yep

It's almost hard to write: Lexus vs. Hyundai. That's the New York Yankees taking on the Albuquerque Isotopes — same game, different leagues. It's pitting an exalted brand name to which millions aspire, up against the bargain brand millions settle for. And yet despite that, putting the 2008 Lexus GS 350 up against Hyundai's audacious new 2009 Genesis 4.6 in a luxury sedan throw-down has resulted in one of the closest finishes ever in an Inside Line heads-up comparison test.

Yes, the Hyundai Genesis holds its own quite well against the Lexus GS 350 — without all that pesky prestige.

Directly Incomparable
Hyundai isn't shy about its targets for the Genesis. "While Genesis will compete for customers with cars like Lexus ES, Chrysler 300 and Cadillac CTS," the company stated in a press release about the car's pricing, "Genesis' performance capabilities and luxury features are comparable to sedans costing tens of thousands of dollars more." In other words, Hyundai's strategy for hitting the luxury market target is to hit the competition where it ain't.

So the Genesis is a large, rear-drive luxury sedan that's priced like a smaller front-drive one — at 195.6 inches long it's just 2.4 inches shorter overall than Lexus' flagship LS 460, but the $33,000 base price for the V6-powered Genesis is more than a grand cheaper than the base price of the entry-level ES 350. There isn't really anything directly comparable to the Genesis at Lexus or, for that matter, at any other manufacturer.

So the GS 350 winds up in this test for being the closest thing Lexus has to the Genesis in price, mission, character and specification. Still, the rear-drive V6-powered GS 350 is somewhat smaller than the V8-powered Genesis 4.6 and it costs more. Way more. The Genesis 4.6 carries a base price of $37,000, while the Lexus starts just under $44,000. And if we had opted for a V8-powered GS 460 as Lexus' contender, the price chasm would have grown to more than $12,000.

As tested, the GS 350 came fully equipped at $49,670. The Genesis showed up with a $4,000 Technology package and a $42,000 sticker. That's a thick $7,670 price difference, in case you haven't already made the calculation yourself. Yet the Genesis essentially matched the Lexus luxury for luxury, gizmo for gizmo.

Quality Issues
Approach the Genesis and you're immediately impressed with how substantial it seems. The body panels are perfectly formed, the paint has a lustrously deep sheen and all the parts that are supposed to be shiny, shine blindingly. The styling is strictly conservative — it sort of looks like a previous-generation Mercedes S-Class — but the oversized lemon zester grille, large tires and sizable chrome dual exhaust pipes successfully give it presence.

Still, the lack of any brand identification anywhere on the car except its tail will leave some buyers thinking it looks a bit, well, generic. You know, like those cars in gasoline commercials where all the logos have been removed.

In contrast to the upright Genesis, the Lexus GS's shape is lean and athletic, with sheet metal that seems drawn taut over its chassis and a fastback roof line. The Lexus is also a tighter package inside and out, with 5.6 inches less length, 2.7 inches less width, 2.2 inches less height and 3.4 inches less wheelbase.

Beautiful? Not quite, but it does look sportier, and by design. The GS, along with the smaller IS, are the sporty fare at Toyota's luxury division, while the ES and the LS sedans are for those who would hire a driver if they could.

One thing's for sure; the GS 350 is built exactly as everyone expects a Lexus to be built. This car is a study in high quality.

Luxuriously Sporty
Inside, too. In the Lexus, every surface is supple to the touch, every control operates with switchblade precision and the whole atmosphere is transcendentally soothing — no mantra or altered states of consciousness required. And frankly, seats don't come any better-shaped than the front thrones in the GS 350.

In contrast, the Genesis' interior is where Hyundai's audacity is most obvious. With a dashboard covered in rich brown leather much the same way a Jaguar would feature burled walnut, the Genesis' interior is uniquely modern-looking without the stark asceticism of the German brands or the digitized, somewhat synthetic feel of the Lexus.

It isn't perfect, some of the plastic pieces that are left exposed are a bit cheap-feeling, the switchgear can't match the Lexus for tactile satisfaction and the wood portion of the leather-and-wood steering wheel is too slippery for its own good, but otherwise this is an interior as interesting as it is comfortable.

And it is comfortable. Although we prefer the seats in the GS, the front seats in the Genesis are very well-shaped, padded and upholstered. And they come with fractionally better legroom.

Hyundai has also done a fine job of getting the details right. The Genesis' shifter, for instance, has just the right heft and shape. It feels like it belongs in a car that wears an established luxury badge. So do its visors, cupholders and other seat controls.

Space and Luxury
Large rear door openings and more generous proportions, thanks to its longer wheelbase, make the Genesis' rear seat the better of the two. Not that it's very hard to get in and out of the Lexus' rear seat; it's just not quite as ample as the Hyundai.

The Genesis has a huge trunk with 15.9 cubic feet of space, 3 cubic feet more than the trunk in the Lexus.

When it comes to luxuries, both cars have virtually everything a modern automobile can have shoved into it, short of night vision and a personal masseur. Of course air-conditioning and all the stuff that should be power-operated is standard on both cars, but both also have optional navigation systems, although the system in the Lexus is slightly simpler to operate (Hyundai has come perilously close to cloning iDrive with its knob-centric central controller), and both feature optional rearview cameras that display what's behind the car on the nav screen. Both also have lots and lots of very smart airbags and standard stability control.

Strangely, while the Lexus has heated and cooled seats for both the driver and front passenger, Hyundai puts heat on both those chairs in the Genesis, but restricts the cooling system to the driver side only.

On the other hand, only the Genesis offers iPod integration. Frankly, it's a slow, clumsy integration that seems to spend more time hunting for tracks than actually playing them, but it's more useful than the cassette deck in the Lexus.

Engineered Like Other Cars in the World
Both the GS and Genesis are built around hefty steel unibody structures. Both have sophisticated multilink all-independent suspension systems both front and rear. And both cars showed up wearing 18-inch wheels and very similar tires. The Lexus wears optional 245mm-wide Dunlop SP Sport 5000 DSST run-flat, all-season performance tires, while the Hyundai's standard Dunlop SP Sport 5000s are not run-flats and only measure 235mm across.

However, there are major differences in their engine bays. The GS 350 is powered by Toyota's ubiquitous 3.5-liter, 24-valve V6 which, thanks to variable valve timing, is rated at a healthy 303 horsepower in this application. In contrast the Genesis has a big, honkin' V8 under its hood — packing 4.6 liters and 32 variably controlled valves — making a claimed 375 hp (when running on premium fuel). Both are backed by six-speed automatic transmissions that can be shifted manually.

According to our scales, the GS 350 weighs in 320 pounds less than the Genesis and that helped it score a 5.7-second 0-60-mph time and run through the quarter-mile in 14.0 seconds at 99.5 mph. The Genesis, despite its larger, more powerful V8, was slower, completing those same feats in 5.9 seconds and 14.1 seconds at 101 mph.

Pity the Fuel
Frankly, better times were expected from the Genesis considering its engine size and claimed output. But the Hyundai V8 lacks eagerness; it just sort of slowly builds speed instead of racing ahead — like the world's smoothest and quietest truck engine. In part-throttle driving, that's responsive enough. But it's an underachieving performance and the Genesis powered by a V6 isn't that much slower, hitting 60 mph in 6.3 seconds while operating nearly as silently and returning slightly better fuel economy.

In contrast, the Lexus' V6 is an overachiever. It may only be rated at 303 hp, but each of those ponies has been eating right, working out regularly and living a wholesome, clean-cut existence.

Getting the V6 in the GS may sound like a compromise compared to the 4.6-liter V8 that comes in the GS 460, but in reality GS 350 drivers will never feel as if they're sitting behind anything except a perfectly wonderful, quiet, silken and wholly adequate power plant.

A Matter of Degrees
But ultimate speed isn't what these sedans are all about. These aren't sport sedans like the BMW 5 Series or Infiniti M that engage the road and then go about the business of filleting it. They're luxury machines first, with just enough feedback through their controls to keep the driver from nodding off.

And they drive like the isolation chambers they're meant to be. These cars are quiet and smooth. Almost equally so. They both waft over road divots that would bounce other cars up and over two lanes, and their engines whirr along so smoothly that actually seem to smooth out any vibration in the earth's rotation.

In short, Hyundai obviously had Lexus in mind when it went about creating the Genesis. And the Genesis drives pretty much like a Lexus (outliers like the current IS F notwithstanding).

The Same, Only Different
Still, there are differences. Remarkably slight differences. On the road, the Lexus' body rolls more through corners, but its steering is more precise than the Hyundai's and provides better feedback. Blitzing in the Genesis, however, is helped by an easygoing ability to maintain super-legal speeds without ever losing composure, and a tremendous highway ride that's slightly better controlled than the GS 350's.

Luxury might come before sport with both these cars, but both are exceptionally stable on the road and capable of higher cornering limits than their comfort levels may suggest. And on our test track, it was all but a tie. The Hyundai stuck a bit better on the skid pad (0.83 vs. 0.81g), while the Lexus was a bit quicker through the slalom (65.2 vs. 62.6 mph).

Their brakes perform about the same, too. The Genesis stopped from 60 mph a foot shorter than the GS 350 (114 vs. 113 feet), but the Lexus' brakes were more resistant to fade.

In fact, the one significant performance difference came in observed fuel consumption. The Lexus drank premium at the rate of 22.9 mpg, while the Hyundai slurped it up at a 17.6 mpg rate.

Degrees That Matter
Helped greatly by its huge price advantage, the Hyundai Genesis edges out the Lexus GS 350 by a cumulative score of 68.5 to 66.3. It just doesn't get closer than that.

But remember, Inside Line's algorithms and criteria don't control for the intangible of prestige. And it could well be that in this status-conscious market segment, paying extra money for that Lexus badge may be worth it to a lot of buyers. After all, they didn't work hard all their lives to retire, take out a reverse mortgage and drive a Hyundai.

Though some of them may be shocked to know that now Hyundai can be mentioned in the same breath as Lexus without convulsive laughter soon following