On a dreary, drizzly evening in Seoul, South Korea, I found myself at a dinner with a small group of very senior Hyundai Motor leaders. The mood amongst them was at first celebratory, then nostalgic and quite emotional.
Over Korean barbeque washed down with beers and wine, and followed by nightcaps of Johnny Walker Black, they talked of how important it is for the Hyundai and Kia brands to rank with the auto industry’s quality leaders – Lexus, Porsche and most important of all, Toyota. They spoke proudly of many recent design awards, too.
After decades of toil, Hyundai and Kia’s future, they said with slightly watery eyes, is solid and filled with high-tech and handsome automobiles. Electrification, autonomous drive, hydrogen fuel cells…technologically, Hyundai Motor is a fearsome and accomplished car company. Wickedly ambitious, too.
It wasn’t always so. Decades ago, the fledgling Korean auto industry was pathetic. The designs were horrible, the quality worse. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, however, what the company lacked in technological expertise and design flair was made up for in grit. The motto around Hyundai: BEAT TOYOTA.
To learn how to do that, one very senior boss told me, they we went to Japan. In great numbers. The Japanese car companies, at the time selling the Koreans second-hand engines and transmissions from third-Japanese makers, were willing to let foreigners visit their manufacturing facilities and development centres to see how great cars are made. And gloat.
“But we couldn’t take notes or pictures,” said my dinner companion.
The Japanese, he said, were amused by the hordes of engineers the Koreans would send. Flattered, even. We could not record we saw and heard, my dinner companions said, so the Japanese thought their secrets were safe.
They weren’t. Every Korean engineer was charged with memorizing the most minute details of development and production. At night, the Koreans would return to their cheap fleabag hotels and over noodles and beer they would piece it all together on charts and in notebooks. The Toyota Way was laid bare for them and they studied it as if their lives depended on it.
“They (the Japanese) were amazed at the size of our groups,” he told me, laughing. What the Japanese didn’t understand, he said, grinning, is that we were spying on them in plain sight.
I thought about that night as I took to the wheel of a shiny, new Genesis G80, Genesis being Hyundai’s stealth upscale brand that is slowly and steadily seeping into the consciousness of the luxury market, not with dealerships but with one-on-one customer service and delivery. The car has the looks of German and drives like one. Beat Toyota? How about beat Mercedes and BMW?
There are four models in the current Genesis lineup – G70, G80, G80 Sport and G90 – and all, I am told, are built on stand-alone underpinnings, completely separate and unique to Genesis. There is Hyundai in Genesis, but not in the hardware. Rather, it’s in the spirit that drove young engineers to soak up everything they could from their unwitting and swaggering Japanese
teachers, decades ago.
The G80 3.3 Sport ($62,000 base) I just tested is as fine a luxury sedan as you can buy. Sure, it is a Top Safety Pick+ by the IIHS (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety) and the build quality is superb. Feature-for-feature and in the execution, the car is outstanding.
The engine is a twin-turbo V-6 (365 hp, 376 lb-ft) and all-wheel-drive is standard. The aluminum alloy wheels and quad exhaust outlets speak to a sporty sort of luxury defined more broadly by the car’s clean lines and balanced proportions. There is nothing noxious or excessive in the styling. It’s as elegant as the best German cars and far ahead of the design jumble of premium models coming out of Japan.
I thoroughly enjoyed the G80. It’s fast, but easy to control. Yes, it has a fancy sport-tuned suspension with electronically controlled adaptations to the road. And it’s precise and responsive, without being harsh. The cabin is delightful, from the carbon fibre trim to the large touchscreen navigation system with its high-def display. Very easy to use. The sound system is staggering: a 900-watt Lexicon surround arrangement with 17 speakers.
I would buy this luxury sedan in a heartbeat and I could see myself living with it for a decade. It’s that good. Perhaps some of the Japanese marques should now go on fact-finding missions to South Korea. Maybe even team up with some Germans?
2018 Genesis 3.3T Sport
Base price: $83,000. Delivery: $2,480. BMW Canada also throws in something called a $595 Retail Administration Fee which sounds. What?
Power: 3.3-litre turbocharged V-6 (365 hp, 376 lb-ft).
Transmission: eight-speed automatic.
Fuel economy (litre/100 km): 13.8 city/9.7 highway using premium fuel.
Comparables: Audi A6, Jaguar XF, Mercedes-AMG E-Class, Lexus GS, Acura RS, BMW 5-Series, Cadillac CTS.