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Hyundai no longer the Dangerfield of cars

For years, Hyundai has been an inferior brand, suffering from a reputation of mediocrity. Can a slick sports car turn the reputation around? The car company is betting on it.
Image: 2010 Hyundai Genesis Coup
In the past, Hyundai suffered from a reputation of mediocrity, but the carmaker has recently demonstrated a dedication to product quality. Will that be enough to turn the brand around? Hyundai

After two decades of offering shoddy, disappointing, and short-lived cars in the U.S., Hyundai is finding it an uphill battle to convince consumers that its products really are good now.

Quality scores have soared and hands-on tests of Hyundai models introduced in the last five years have been worlds apart from earlier tests, but consumers remain skeptical — and it is hard to blame them.

What the company needs is a new product that embodies improved quality, but also one that appeals to a customer for whom product features are more important than brand image or historical reliability. What it needs is a product targeting a group so determined that it would make excuses about the unreliability of Italian sports cars or rationalize the inability of British sports cars to keep the rain off their heads.

What Hyundai needs is a sports car. Performance enthusiasts would drive hot-rod Yugos if they were truly fast, as demonstrated by the buzz Chrysler created in the late ’80s with its turbocharged economy car junkboxes, such as the Dodge Omni Shelby GLHS. That car went like stink. And looked like it, too.

This game plan has worked before. Four decades ago, a lightly regarded Asian car maker broke into the big leagues in the U.S. by introducing a sport coupe that directly challenged the established order by offering fresh styling and exhilarating performance at a bargain price.

The Datsun 240Z’s value proposition so crushed the snooty Jaguar E-Type that the English company fled the sports car segment entirely (until it returns next year) for the safer confines of the cushy grand-touring market.

It would be an exaggeration to call Hyundai an upstart, but decades of maladroit product quality has left the company with a dreadful brand image among consumers. To offer a genuinely desirable and exciting model is a huge advance for Hyundai, one that could catalyze perceptions of Hyundai the way the Z-car shifted the conventional wisdom of Datsun 40 years ago.

Hyundai’s Genesis Coupe employs much of the rear-wheel-drive hardware that underpins the larger Genesis sedan, giving it the powertrain layout needed for more dynamic driving characteristics enthusiasts prefer. 

Although the sedan is a nice product, Hyundai’s attempt to position it against prestigious European competitors is doomed to fail because prestige sedan buyers demand, well, prestige. 

Hyundai has recently demonstrated an impressive dedication to product quality, both in terms of durability of construction and product usability, and the company has seen its quality ratings climb correspondingly. But earlier in this decade, it was Hyundai’s strategy to engage in spec-sheet competition, listing all the check-off boxes it could for each product. This is the approach employed by bored 14-year-old Internet flame warriors arguing the automotive version of whether Batman could beat Superman in a fight.

While the specs provide ammunition to geeks who send scathing e-mails arguing with those who actually drive the cars and have some basis in fact for rating them, they prove to be largely irrelevant in the real world.

What good was having a Hyundai V6 engine if Honda’s four-cylinder was smoother, quieter and more powerful at the time? So when Hyundai announced the Genesis Coupe, with powerful engines, modest curb weight and rear drive, the specifications had to be viewed with a hopeful skepticism. Fortunately the company’s new dedication to quality has produced exactly the kind of sport coupe enthusiasts would hope for.

The big wheels, fat tires, Brembo brakes, limited slip differential and other goodies deliver on their promise with a car that is as fun to drive as it is to look at. Hydraulic power steering is falling out of favor with carmakers because electric power steering is simpler and more efficient, but Hyundai made the extra effort to keep the Coupe’s steering booster hydraulic. Better steering feel is the benefit to drivers who will find it easier to bend the car into curves and maintain their intended course than with typical electric systems.

The Coupe’s cockpit is a handsome, fairly conventional sport coupe cabin, with the requisite round binnacles surrounding analog instruments. There are a few cheap-looking plastics here or there, but then it is still a pretty inexpensive car, considering its performance and equipment.

Unlike pure sports cars, the Coupe has a back seat, a feature that has powered the popularity of the Ford Mustang since 1964. The Coupe’s back seat is tolerable for kids and tight for adults, which suits most buyers in this segment. They want to be able to go on a double date, but if the couple in the back wants more space, well, get a room.

The company offers two engines, which lets it position the car against two entirely different sets of competitors. 

The 306-horsepower V6 pit’s the Coupe against cars like the Infiniti G37, BMW 335i, and six-cylinder versions of American pony cars like the Chevrolet Camaro, Dodge Challenger and Ford Mustang. The Nissan 370Z is another competitor, but because it is a two-seater, it isn’t really a direct competitor to cars that have back seats, marginal as they are.

The car’s base engine is a 210-hp turbocharged four-cylinder, but for the Coupe, the two engines are less a matter of hierarchy and more a matter of carving out two different market positions for a single model, pitting the Hyundai against sport compact cars such as the Honda Civic, but with the performance bonus of rear drive. The four-cylinder turbo motor is lighter than the V6, contributing to better handling and fuel efficiency. And because it has a turbo, it is more easily tuned for power by today’s tech-savvy hot-rodders.

Either engine can be matched to either a six-speed manual transmission or a five-speed automatic, and the V6 with the manual transmission is a nice combination, with smooth, linear clutch engagement and a shifter that slips easily into the intended gear. But Hyundai’s uncertain confidence is evidenced by the touchy throttle calibrations of the V6/automatic transmission combination. 

Carmakers that worry that their cars aren’t quick enough cheat on their throttle programming, snapping the throttle plate wide open at the first hint of pressure on the gas pedal. This abrupt launch creates the impression of brisk acceleration, when it is really just a matter of the car deciding to step on the gas harder than the driver intended.

Hyundai has historically done this to make its cars feel zippier, but the result is that they just make the driver regret that stop at Starbucks because the car is so jumpy. It could be a sign that Hyundai itself believes in its transformation from a purveyor of cheap economy cars to a respected full-line, mainstream car manufacturer when it doesn’t feel the need to apply this slight-of-foot trick to the gas pedal.

Car enthusiasts considering the Coupe will appreciate the change, because while they might have tolerated the headaches of traditional Italian and English engineering, they won’t put up with being made to look like driver’s ed students lurching away from green traffic lights.