Posted: May 17, 2012

Executive wheels: A luxury ride from an unexpected source

Mercedes, BMW, Lexus -- Hyundai?

Jeff Rundles

I have been in the car review business for nearly 30 years, and I have seen a ton of changes over the years. Back in the 1980s, for instance, the only true luxury cars were Mercedes and BMW, seeing that both Lincoln and Cadillac had hit the skids. Then along came Lexus, Toyota's luxury division, and Infiniti, Nissan's luxury line, and the whole luxury marketplace change dramatically. It was wonderful to watch, and in the ensuing years the envelope has been pushed very wide indeed.

Who knew back then that an upstart little car maker with a funny name would join the fray in a few years and have a car worthy of being spoken about in the same breath as those Germans and Japanese? After an inauspicious start, Hyundai (and its sister Korean company, Kia) has taken the car business by storm, and it's now storming the parapets of the luxury castle, as well.

I got the opportunityto do a sort of side-by-side comparison of Hyundai luxury, at least side-by-side with Mercedes, and here’s my verdict on both.

2012 MERCEDES C350 COUPE

I am a decided Mercedes man. People ask me all the time what car I would buy, and my answer is invariably Mercedes. I like BMW and Lexus, don’t get me wrong, but when it comes to a great blend of luxury and performance, and the feeling one gets driving the machine, for me the Mercedes is king. My dream car is the Mercedes E Class sedan, and I very much like the GLK 350, a smaller SUV, but the C Class is also a worthy competitor. I’m not much of a coupe man – I like four doors – but other than the back seat being limited, the coupe and the sedan are pretty much the same.

And this new one didn’t disappoint. The last time I drove a C, it was the 300 with a 3-liter V6 with some 228 hp, and I loved it. The Germans just know how to make the hp feel like more than is there. The line also has a 250, with a 1.8-liter engine putting out some 201 hp, but the addition this year of the 350 – a venerable Mercedes engine – to the C line is a nod to the fact that many drivers want more power. The new C350 features a 3.5-liter V6 with a whopping 302 hp (rated at 19 mpg city/29 highway), and it is indeed powerful. (There’s also a C63 AMG model with a 6.3-liter V8 and 451 hp for those who crave even more).

Every year when I get a Mercedes they have tweaked it a little more, and not always to the good. They have made it more busy in the electronics, a la BMW, a competitive move I guess since BMW is selling so well (not that Mercedes isn’t), but I for one liked that the Mercedes was more intuitive than BMW and don’t like the movement. Also, Mercedes is getting ever more sleek as the years go on, and from a styling point of view I’m not sure that is the right course of action either. While it may be more aerodynamic and the sleek styling is a nod to greater gas mileage, I much preferred the mid-2000’s models in both the C and E Classes that were more boxy. They were more elegant, I believe.

Ah, but this 2012 C is a very beautiful car anyway, in particular in the inside, where a Mercedes is simply my personal definition of luxury. You just feel like a million bucks behind the wheel of a Mercedes C. The ride is magnificent, the interior is very quiet, and it is so comfortable is makes you want to take a road trip.

This car corners like a dream, takes every bump as if it weren’t there and feels as solid as a car can be. The 350 Mercedes engine is superb in every way, having been on the market for several years, and with the 7-speed automatic transmission it is very smooth. They even have a semblance of the old vent windows (they don’t open) but that adds to the visibility to each side.

The base price on the C 350 Coupe is $42,370 (the sedan carries a base of $40,575), and it includes a lot of the luxury stuff standard. However, here they added on a bunch of options – the rear-view camera (handy) for $460, blind spot assist (wonderful) and lane-keeping assistant for $850, and a vastly improved sound system that includes navigation and the high-resolution color display for $1,290, to name a few. This car also had the new mbrace system, for $660, that is like GM’s Onstar for finding all kinds of information (like where you parked) and it can be operated from an app on a smart phone. The bottom line comes in at $49,735 which, given the competition, is aggressive but feels right when you’re in the car.

RATING 3 ¾ WHEELS (OUT OF FOUR).

2012 HYUNDAI GENESIS

Who knew that little Hyundai, with its awful entry into the American car market back in the early 1990s, would eventually make a car that rivals any luxury brand on the market? But they did, and that car is the Genesis.

If this car wasn’t badged with Hyundai, you would swear up and down, from the exterior to the interior, that this is a Lexus. It looks just like the Lexus ES 350, which I am sure is no accident, and it is just as impressive. Really.

I was wowed by the interior. I thought the ride was wonderful, and the handling as good as anything in the class. What really impressed me, however, was this car’s cat-like quickness.

The 3.8-liter V6 with 333 hp that feels like twice that much, and this car has get up and go from the very start. The Genesis verily screams. I had to hold it down most of the time in city driving, and I was afraid out on the highway that I would just let it rip and see if the Colorado State Patrol could catch me. In the line there’s also a 4.6-liter V8 with 378 hp, and a 5.0-liter V8 with 429 hp, and based on the 3.8, I am quite sure the CSP wouldn’t be able to even see those models much less catch them.

Just to give you some idea about the competition, the closest Lexus, as I mentioned, is the ES 350, which carries a slightly higher base price (the Lexus base is $36,725), and it features a 3.5-liter V6 with a respectable 268 hp. But respectable doesn’t even come close. Oddly, the Hyundai also featured better gas mileage – a rating of 19 mpg city/29 mpg highway versus 19/28 in the Lexus. More guts. More glory. Better mileage and a lower price. Mmmmmm….am I missing something?

Okay, it’s not a Lexus and Hyundai doesn’t have the reputation of Lexus/Toyota for quality and longevity, but the Genesis has a 5-year/60,000 mile full warranty, a 10-year/100,000 mile warranty on the drive train, a 7-year unlimited anti-perforation warranty, and 5 years of unlimited roadside assistance. That’s really good protection and – really – for what you get here enough solace to more than overcome the identity problem.

The Genesis is loaded with a ton of standards for its $34,200 base price and I can safely say that if you got the base model you wouldn’t be unhappy at all. On mine they added in a vastly improved technology package for $4,000, including all the nav, Bluetooth, lane departure alarms, ultra-premium leather seat (very nice; there’s leather standard, but it must not be ultra). They also tacked on another $4,800 for the Premium package with a wonderful and huge power sunroof, sunshades, rain-sensing wipers, 18” alloy wheels, XM traffic to go with the XM radio channel, a rearview camera and a few other things.

When you add it all up, the bottom line is $43,035. Hyundai is coming up in the world quickly and the price differentials that it has been forced to follow in the wake of a bad start 20 year ago are quickly disappearing. So, I’m telling you – if you can get over the badge issue – it says Hyundai, not Lexus or Mercedes – then jump on this car while the jumping is good. Getting this level of performance and luxury for this price is unmatched in the field, anywhere.

RATING: 4 WHEELS AND THE SPARE (OUT OF FOUR). 
 

Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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