November 19, 2008

Adult Contemporary

THE TRIP: START: Los angeles | FINISH: monterey | CAR: hyundai genesis v-6

THE TRIP: START: Los angeles | FINISH: monterey | CAR: hyundai genesis v-6

When Cadillac licensed Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" for a series of ads in 2002, it made sense in a visceral way: Baby boomers might have aged, but they still responded to John Bonham bashing away on the drums. Still, Zeppelin? Selling stodgy luxury cars?

The same kind of disconnect is at work with the Hyundai Genesis -- a confounding, unapologetic luxury sedan from a company known for building rental-fleet-caliber vehicles with 100,000-mile warranties.

The plan? Offer a full-size luxury car that competes in performance and accoutrements with the model it so obviously benchmarked -- the Lexus GS -- but at a $15,000 discount on the sticker. Makes sense: It's the Lexus for people who don't want to pay retail. Still, a Hyundai? Wrapping the seats in virgin cashmere and chiseling the dash from Carrara marble wouldn't be enough to scrub away the proletarian commuter-car underpinnings for some buyers.

Map: Jason Lee

Hyundai is in the same brand jam Lexus fought its way through in the 1980s. In the luxury game, people need a reason to pick you over the establishment options. Lexus got out by building German cars without the $1,700 repair bills. Hyundai is hoping to do it with the value proposition: Get a "Lexus lite" with enough leftover for a month in Acapulco.

Does it work? Yes and no.

We took a loaded six-cylinder Genesis -- $39,250 all in, with 18-inch wheels, navigation, air-conditioned driver seat, a backup camera and a 40-gig radio hard drive -- for a trip from LAX through wine country and up to the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance in Monterey, to see if the aspirational Korean sedan was pureblood or poseur.

Gliding through Buellton, 150 miles northwest of L.A. and the backdrop for the movie "Sideways," it's immediately apparent which pages of the Lexus marketing plan Hyundai success-fully cribbed. The interior comes from luxury-car central casting -- and that's a good thing. Nothing looks even remotely like a piece from the standard Hyundai parts bin. High-quality leather and walnut frame the glowing-blue dash, and the nav screen sits on top of an uncluttered radio and climate-control panel.

On the outside, the Genesis is a Lexus GS doppelganger, blending seamlessly with the rest of the posh metal at the venerable Hitching Post steakhouse­ (where the house-made merlot is excellent, no matter what Paul Giamatti says). The subterfuge is made more convincing by the complete lack of identifying nameplates. The liquid "H" on the trunk is the only Hyundai hint on the car.

Ultimately, though, the differences are in the details. The Genesis gets top marks in crash tests, but the lighter-gauge steel doors don't shut with the same thunky authority as those in more expensive cars. The windshield also lost an altercation with a small stone kicked up by a truck on Highway 101 outside Salinas. By the next night, the bite in the thin glass had turned into a four-inch crack. And though the Genesis stayed planted and silent on good roads, the ride over rough pavement was what Hyundai calls "sporty," but my mom would call "carsick." Still, the fact that the Genesis is in the same conversation as a Lexus -- in something other than the punch line to a joke -- is a remarkable testament to Hyundai's upmarket determination.

I witnessed the other end of that automotive evolutionary line at the annual Concours d'Elegance in August -- more than 200 exquisitely restored classic cars, arranged along Pebble Beach's 18th fairway to be scrutinized like ultra-expensive livestock at the no-credit-limit county fair. Former Microsoft COO Jon Shirley's low-slung, touch-it-with-gloves 1938 Alfa Romeo 8C hardtop won Best of Show, but Jay Leno's 1953 Chrysler "Tank Car" had the most eyeball. He basically attached running gear, a steering wheel and a seat to a five-ton, 1,600-horsepower World War II tank engine. And he drives the six-miles-per-gallon monster to work.

With Pebble Beach's links out of commission for the Concours, it was time to drift back toward Los Angeles and a round at blissfully masochistic La Purisima, off the Pacific Coast Highway between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara.

Locally, "La Piranha" is known as the place where visiting vanity handicaps go to die. They didn't even play the Q-school finals from all 7,105 yards, what with morning winds of 30 miles per hour and synapse-shorting green contours. Pitch up and make a double-breaker for par and it feels like you've escaped punishment, but your time is going to come.

Looking on the bright side: Having my soul crushed by an unreachable par 4 made it easier to accept the cartoonishly bad traffic on the way back to LAX.