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2009 Hyundai Sonata: Refreshed from the Inside Out

Among our recent drives was an afternoon in the Chelsea-Ann Arbor, Michigan, area in a newly revised Hyundai Sonata. Reaching dealers as I write this, the 2009 Sonata doesn’t change dramatically on the outside, but offers a more comfortable interior, revised suspension, and both more power and better fuel efficiency. All the right buttons are checked, but were they successful? Our first spin around the neighborhood leads us to say yes, though there are niggles to be found, too.

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The new Sonata gets a deeper grille and taller rectangular headlights, more chrome trim all around, and a very slightly revised lower rear fascia. The changes bring a VW Passat to mind, but these subtle changes make for a more grown up and refined Sonata. The taller, more vertical grille and headlights help the hood creases look less clumsy and make for a more imposing face. Changes to the rear are so subtle as to be irrelevant; there are new taillights, but the shape is the same.
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New York Auto Show 2008 – 2010 Hyundai Genesis Coupe

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A New Coupe, A Year Away
Hyundai spent their New York auto show time introducing their new rear-drive sporty coupe, the Genesis Coupe. Related to the Genesis sedan on sale this summer, the coupe arrives in spring 2009.

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Genesis sits on Hyundai’s first in-house rear-drive car platform. The stylish coupe tames down its looks from the concept introduced in Los Angeles in November 2007, but mostly in losing hood scoops and refining lights, front grille, and spoiler shapes. What Hyundai held back for introduction was that the powertrain lineup includes a turbocharged and intercooled 212HP 2.0L I4 as the base engine. The 3.8L V6 arrives as expected, but most figured the second powertrain would be the sedan’s V8.
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Hyundai Genesis: Conservative Sedan Holds Promise for Interesting Future Product

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Hyundai’s First Luxury Sedan is Packed with Impressive Specs
Hyundai unveiled the production Genesis luxury sedan that was previewed last year in concept form at the New York Auto Show. The production version has hardly changed except for the front and rear fascias; it’s a pleasant looking big sedan that definitely pays homage to some of the more aspirational luxury cars out there, albeit in a most conservative manner.

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No doubt, this is one impressive Hyundai. It’s the first rear drive Hyundai in North America (if you don’t count the Canada-only Stellar from the early 80s). It’s got a tremendously sophisticated five-link independent rear suspension, one of the stiffest chassis on the market, fantastic interior accommodations and build quality, and even – lo and behold – an available 4.6L V8 that cranks out 368HP, on regular fuel! This writer, having driven several prototypes throughout its development, can confirm that the drive experience is nothing short of truly impressive.


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Hyundai Genesis – Detroit Auto Show New Vehicle Intro

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The Hyundai Genesis is the new flagship for Hyundai Motor America. Slated for launch in Spring 2008 as a 2009 model, Hyundai will try to position the Genesis more as a luxury sport sedan than Korean land barge it really is. Let’s talk about that a moment. The Genesis – or BH – is designed as the Hyundai flagship in Korea. As such, it will usually be a chauffer-driven conveyance with the chairman or president regally reclined in the doily covered rear seat. Big, comfortable, quiet. That’s the ticket.

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Mainstream Brand/Luxury Entry
Now, for a luxury car from an import-brand manufacturer to succeed, Americans expect the car to be more of a sport sedan. Like a Mercedes or BMW. Well, the Genesis largely delivers the specifications to be competitive, but it’s an image game. Of course, Honda, Toyota and Nissan sell luxury cars in the USA, but they sell them under luxury channel badges – Acura, Lexus and Infiniti. Hyundai is selling Genesis as a Hyundai – not a second channel – so Genesis carries the baggage of Hyundai’s market positioning.
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Can Hyundai, a Korean manufacturer once known for building low quality econoboxes but now getting credit for making some of the highest quality vehicles in the market compete against luxury marques? Hyundai hopes it has the right product and can find the right way to position and communicate that product to make it a success in the market. Hyundai likes to compare its $30,000 – $40,000 Genesis to $60,000 – $70,000 competitors from Germany and japan.
Editor’s note: I did see Hyundai’s Vice President of Product Planning, John Krafcik ogling the upcoming Pontiac G8 at the Los Angeles Auto Show. V8-powered (360HP), rear wheel drive, priced below $30,000, the G8 may steal some of Genesis’ thunder when they both hit the market at about the same time. John was kinda pale after looking over the Pontiac G8.
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The Genesis is not a head-turner, but a relatively safe, contemporary design and will offend no one. It looks modern, but not risky. In many ways it will blend in with its competition so Hyundai will have to depend on Genesis succeeding based on price and specifications. On the specifications side, Genesis promises to be very competitive.
Top Notch Interior with all the Required Luxury Filips
The instrumentation uses Hyundai’s blue glow gauges and ergonomics appear to be pretty good. The double cockpit instrument panel is modern and reminiscent of the new Cadillac CTS and other contemporary luxury cars.
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As expected in a luxury class car, there are high-tech features available such as aLexicon Logic 7 audio system with USB and iPod inputs, XM satellite radio (a standard HMA feature), HD radio, Bluetooth for hands-free cellphoning, and an optional navigation system with a huge, eight-inch screen.
RWD Platform with IRS. V8 Available
The Genesis is a front-engine, rear wheel drive 4-door sedan with independent rear suspension and an available V8 engine. Genesis has a larger interior than either the Mercedes E-Class or the BMW 5-Series.
There are three different powertrains, the base engine is a 3.3-liter, all-aluminum V6 with 264 horsepower and 233 pound-feet of torque. The first level engine option is a 3.8-liter version of the engine with 290 hp and 264 lb-ft. The V6s use an Aisin 6-speed automatic transmission.
The big news is the 4.6-liter V8, which is paired with a six-speed automatic with manual mode. The 4.6L V8 has 368 horsepower and 324 lb-ft of torque (on regular fuel; with premium, the numbers jump to 375 hp/333 lb-ft), it’s one of the most powerful engines in the segment, besting competitors like the Infiniti M45, Lexus GS460, BMW 7-Series.
Price has not yet been announced, but Hyundai has tipped the base price to be under $30,000 and it appears a fully equipped V8-powered Genesis should top out at over $40,000. After all, a fully optioned Hyundai Veracruz SUV can hit $40,000, so this is not completely uncharted waters for HMA. Remember our early comment about the Pontiac G8. It’ll be interesting to comparably equip G8 with the Genesis. Our guess is that they are pretty similar at the bottom end, but G8’s V8 entry will be substantially less expensive than V8 Genesis.
Will Hyundai Positioning Strategy Succeed Against Luxury “Brand” Vehicles?
With Genesis being part of the mainstream Hyundai lineup, it tests a positioning philosophy that no other mainstream brand has succeeded with. Sure we have big RWD V8 sedans at Dodge and Chrysler, Ford and Mercury and soon Pontiac. There are FWD V8s at Chevrolet and Buick. On the import side, VW tried it with a W8 Passat and the Passat bombed. The VW Phaeton – a much more expensive proposition than Genesis – bombed too. So, the jury is out. How will folks be attracted to a Hyundai “Luxury Sport Sedan” at an attractive price, with conservative styling, with a 100,000 mile warranty and powerful V8? Stay tuned.


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Steve Wilhite Leaves Hyundai – Marketing Man on the Loose

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Readers of VehicleVoice may not be intimately aware of the folks running the various car companies, but their comings and goings can make for great stories. The recent career of Steve Wilhite, until last Friday Chief Operating Officer of Hyundai Motor America, promises to be one of the more interesting.

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Wilhite’s Career – Ford, Volkswagen, Apple, Nissan, Hyundai… NEXT?
Wilhite has been a well-regarded car marketer since he joined Volkswagen of America in the early ’90s and help turn the company around through innovative advertising campaigns. Of course, he picked up the ball after VW had stopped taking cars produced at their Puebla, Mexico assembly plant until quality was acceptable. At their lowest, Volkswagen sold less than 50,000 cars in one year.
Wilhite Credited with “Think Different”
Following VW, Wilhite joined Apple Computer as the chief marketer. Apple’s “Think Different” campaign came under Wilhites tenure and set the image of the Apple brand for the late ’90s and early ’00s. Apparently, working for Steve Jobs as a senior executive is not the easiest job in the world. Wilhite recounts stories of being summoned to Jobs’ home at oh-dark-thirty more than once to brainstorm Apple marketing issues.
Tokyo a Wrong Move
But the car industry beckoned again and after a brief interlude Wilhite joined Nissan North America as head of marketing and then moved to Tokyo as head of Nissan’s global marketing. Frustrating job. Great title, but no real power. Spouse hated Tokyo. Writing on the wall. Hyundai came along.

The Hyundai Year – August 2006 – September 2007

Wilhite joined Hyundai Motor America in August 2006 as their “current” Chief Operating Officer. Following the departure of Finbarr O’Neill the COO job at HMA had been a revolving door. In fact, Wilhite’s predecessor Bob Cosmai lasted a bit over a year. HMA missed his first year’s sales targets by less than 2,000 units and the second year by about 15,000. Didn’t meet his targets… assassinated.
Wilhite joined a company with extremely ambitious sales targets. A target of 1,000,000 units in the USA for 2010 was a one-time target – part of Hyundai’s Global Top Five strategy. Wilhite inherited a sales target of 555,000 units for the 2007 calendar year when he signed on. This was adjusted to 510,000 units as the reality of the 2007 calendar year became clearer. By the time he left, HMA was on track to sell a bit over 450,000 units. So, either the Koreans eliminated another top American, Wilhite got extremely frustrated with Korean management and not achieving goals, or Wilhite has a really good offer in the works from another car company.
Wilhite to Fill Ford’s Top Marketing Opening?
We’ll go with the other car company offer for the moment. Conjecture has it that Wilhite would be the perfect candidate for the top marketing job at Ford Motor Company. Ford is looking. In fact, General Motors may be looking for a replacement for their top marketing exec Mike Jackson who “left” earlier this year. Looks like Wilhite may have several juicy opportunities if he chooses to stay in the auto biz.
In any event, Hyundai has lost another top executive… an executive who understands the power of brand building and was putting plans in place to enhance the overall perception of Hyundai in the USA.


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Hyundai Sonata Wins AutoPacific 2007 Ideal Vehicle Award for Premium Mid-Size Car:

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Hyundai Sonata owners rate the Sonata as the Ideal Premium Mid-Size Car. Owner ratings for Sonata’s package – size, roominess, and cargo space establish Sonata as the class leader among Premium Mid-Size Cars. Sonata does especially well in cargo space, visibility, ease of getting in and out and interior storage. Hyundai knows what their Premium Mid-Size Car customers want, and provides it. A sure way to beat the competition.


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Hyundai Elantra Wins AutoPacific 2007 Ideal Vehicle Award for Compact Car:

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Again, package considerations put the Hyundai Elantra at the top of the hotly competitive Compact Car class. The Elantra is highly rated for exterior size, passenger room, cargo space, visibility, ease of getting in and out, and interior storage. Interior lighting was also highly rated, while power and acceleration is slightly below segment average.


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Hyundai Entourage Wins AutoPacific 2007 Ideal Vehicle Award for Minivan:

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A minivan is a utilitarian people mover where function often wins over styling and image. The all-new Hyundai Entourage wins as the Most Ideal Minivan with exterior size, exterior styling and power and acceleration providing just what its target buyers prefer. The outstanding achievement of winning the Most Ideal Minivan Award in its first year out proves that Hyundai designers and engineers understand the American minivan buyer and have provided a vehicle that caters to their needs.


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Hyundai Tucson – Wins AutoPacific 2007 Ideal Vehicle Award for Compact Crossover SUV:

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The Hyundai Tucson is the Most Ideal Compact Crossover SUV for 2007. Tucson buyers prefer their current exterior size and passenger room, but would like more cargo space. Ease of getting in and out is highly rated, as is interior storage. Buyers also prefer the same size and style of wheels and tires.


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Hyundai Entourage – Troop Transport

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Ah, the wonderful world of Minivans. Where parents are relegated to a tin box on wheels. Where you share the same workload as a prison bus driver, only you’re not getting paid and there are no steel bars to protect you from the scoundrels in the back. Can’t imagine owning one? Well, neither could we. But after a weekend with a 2007 Hyundai Entourage the AutoPacific staff is starting to rethink the possibility that these minivan owners may have the last laugh…

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Walking up to the Entourage, for me, is like walking up to any minivan: depressing. It’s like I’m walking towards the ‘injection room’ on my last day at San Quentin. Part of the issue is package provisions. It would be very difficult to pack in everything that makes a minivan so great into something with a different image. Most manufacturers have identified the exact ingredients needed to build and successfully sell a minivan. They all take relatively the same shape or form and follow the magic instructions: front-wheel-drive, V6, and two sliding doors.


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