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Cautious design means 2015 Hyundai Genesis is all head, no heart

This story was first published on May 8, 2014.

The 2015 Hyundai Genesis is an ode to perseverance, a rhyme of refinement, a sonnet from Seoul that – shamefully – won't get a sniff of interest from most of the buyers Hyundai wants to entertain.

Hyundai must take responsibility for all of it. Where the new, second-generation Genesis (Genesis 2.0) should have been a bold design statement with emotional resonance, it is instead a careful collection of design elements, some an homage to Aston Martin and Ford, which itself has adapted more than a few design cues from the iconic British brand.

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The Genesis could have signalled the next phase of Hyundai's Fluidic Sculpture design language, and done so in a way as dramatic and groundbreaking as the previous-generation Sonata. But that's not the case. Look at the grille, the front end; straight out of Aston's playbook. Look at the new Genesis badge; another Aston interpretation.

From the side, the new Genesis is a take on the Ford Fusion, which has itself been both praised and criticized by fans and detractors alike. Park a Genesis and a Fusion side by side, if you doubt me. Similar, correct?

The point is that Hyundai will never take the next step without taking a risk on styling. Design is the differentiator in today's car business. Design offers an emotional connection with people who have money, who look for the next new thing and who project their self-image into the cars they drive. No one wants to be perceived as a copycat in a world that values originality and innovation.

The 2015 Genesis, then, is a good car, but not a great one, and it will advance Hyundai's cause only by baby steps. The car has the makings of something great, but it also represents fearful, cautious corporate thinking – a reluctance to bust out with a bold design statement. Risk-taking comes from companies bubbling with self-confidence and bravado – or desperation.

Hyundai is profitable and growing; rule out desperation. But through the lens of Genesis 2.0, Hyundai has the look of a mature car company. In this business, that's not enough, perhaps not good, either. Youth sells in this game – always has and always will. Not to be lost here is how good this car is. In the most recent J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study, the Genesis won its segment, besting the Mercedes-Benz E-Class and Jaguar's XF, which tied for second.

So the quality piece is in place. And the Genesis has been a segment leader for resale value in past studies by Canadian Black Book, though not the 2014 one. Put a check mark next to rational reasons for buying a Genesis.

On top of that, the pricing story is attractive. Line up Hyundai's premium car with target models and the numbers jump off the page. The Genesis trumps them all, from Cadillac's CTS to Audi's A6, from Mercedes-Benz's E-Class to the BMW 5-Series and the Lexus GS.

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A base V-6 Genesis (311 horsepower/293 lb-ft of torque) starts at $43,000, and a loaded V-8 (420 hp/383 lb-ft torque) tops out at $62,000. How brilliant is that pricing? Comparably equip a Genesis against key rivals, and the Hyundai has nearly a $20,000 advantage over both the BMW and the Mercedes.

The Hyundai is also nearly $14,000 less than the Caddy and about $15,000 less than the Audi. No one would argue that the mechanical bits of any of the German cars, as well as the Caddy, are $20,000 better.

The questions now: 1) How has Hyundai managed to bring a car to showrooms loaded with cutting-edge features and technologies for such a price? 2) And will this be enough to win over buyers accustomed to associating Hyundai with the Accent, Elantra, Sonata and Santa Fe?

These shoppers might want to know that the base offerings from Audi, Cadillac and BMW all come not with a V-6 engine, but turbocharged four-bangers. The Genesis has an eight-speed automatic gearbox, as does the A6 and the BMW 528. But the Mercedes has a seven-speed (with a V-6) and the Cadillac has a six-speed. What's missing from the Genesis versus starter versions of the others? Most notably, memory seats.

The rest of the standard fare in even the least expensive Genesis includes what you'd expect: rain-sensing wipers, leather upholstery, automatic climate control, navigation system, wood trim, sport-shift transmission and a leather-covered steering wheel. Hyundai is not selling a stripper Genesis and it's no technology laggard, either – from a new, Magna-supplied all-wheel-drive system to an improved multilink suspension at all four corners, to automatic dampers (available), to a rack-mounted power steering system, to adaptive cruise control.

Goodies matter, but the more important piece is the drive. The V-6 car is notably lighter than the V-8, which means it feels more lively and nimble. Neither lacks power and all Genesis models boast a strong body structure, which allows the suspension tuners to focus on ride and handling, rather than tuning out swishy body motions.

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All versions have nice, comfy cabins. E-Class or 5-Series owners might be flabbergasted to see what they get in a Hyundai luxury sedan that sells for $20,000 less. The Genesis has the strong and substantial feel of a German premium car, too. So what's not to like?

Design. It's not that the design is unattractive; it's pleasant enough. Yet it's obvious that Hyundai avoided risk-taking. If you want a car that looks like groundbreaking art, one that sets your heart aflutter, your palms sweating, one that makes you swoon, you will not be smitten by the Genesis.

Still, if your emotional connection starts at the price, you might fall in love.

The writer was a guest of the auto maker

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