Before many of you were even born, I took my first test drive in a Hyundai. Turn the clock way, way back to 1985, and you’ll see me seated behind the wheel of the South Korean maker’s first entry into the U.S. market, the ultra-budget Excel. I headed out to my usual test loop, ran the 1.5-liter four-cylinder up and down the tachometer a few times, noted a distinct lack of enthusiasm and refinement from the wheezing 68 horses under my right foot, then reached to adjust the cabin-air fan.

The knob fell off in my hand.

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Incredibly, that original Excel—one of the low points among the cars I drove in the 1980s—did gonzo business in its first year. Buyers flocked to dealerships, drawn like stampeding Black Friday shoppers to Walmart by the $4,995 sticker price—which back then significantly undercut even such econo-warts as the Chevy Chevette. But then knobs started falling off in their hands, too—and Hyundai, after that auspicious first year, suddenly became the favorite target of everyone from auto reviewers like myself to late-night TV comedians.

Fast-forward three decades, and it’s hard to believe a car like the Excel ever existed. Hyundai quickly and smartly addressed those initial quality shortcomings, stepped up with an industry-leading 10-year warranty, founded a West Coast-based design studio to inject its products with SoCal style, and generally raised its game so successfully that brands like Honda and Toyota for years have had good reason to sweat whenever Hyundai launches a new model.
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Now it’s time to pipe a little dread into the boardrooms of storied premium marques like BMW, Lexus, and Mercedes-Benz: Hyundai is launching its own luxury division, dubbed Genesis. And after driving the brand’s rear-drive flagship, the G90 sedan, it’s clear that a genuine competitor to the luxury establishment has arrived.

“Genesis is not a new brand; it’s a new company,” says Hyundai president and CEO David Zuchowski. “This is the product of a conversation we started 10 years ago. We’ve paid our dues. It’s been seven years since the first Genesis sedan [sold under the Hyundai banner], and we’re now number one in customer loyalty in the segment.” The new Genesis division, Zuchowski notes, will help the automaker tap into the booming luxury market, which has seen sustained growth over the past seven years. The company is kicking off its birth by launching two models: the G80 mid-level luxury sedan and the full-boat, full-size G90. The G80 is arriving in dealerships now; the G90 follows in September.

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Genesis isn’t targeting the luxury stalwarts with the new sedans alone—it’s also hoping to reshape buying and ownership experiences. “We want to evolve luxury in a human-centric way,” says Erwin Raphael, general manager of Genesis. “Our research shows customers want respect. They want us to value their time.” To address those desires, the two new Genesis sedans will come standard with free scheduled maintenance, Sirius traffic and map updates, unlimited roadside assistance, and valet service (the dealership will pick up your Genesis, service it, and drop it off wherever you like). All free for three years. And the product line will continue to grow. By 2021 Genesis expects to have six models in its stable, including a near-luxury sedan and a mid-luxe SUV. All will be built on new platforms with dedicated powertrains.

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At first, Genesis models will be sold at existing Hyundai dealerships, but not every showroom will carry them. “Right now we have 415 dealers, with about 350 of them selling our Equus sedans,” says Zuchowski. (The remaining stock of the now-discontinued Equus is being sold now.) “We’ll likely have closer to 300 dealers selling Genesis, and in five years we expect Genesis to become a standalone operation.”

For sure, Hyundai is gambling big by stepping into a market arena occupied by the likes of BMW, Mercedes, Lexus, and Audi. As Zuchowski notes, Genesis is only the second luxury-brand launch of the 21st century. The other new luxury player, Tesla, arrived boasting a unique skillset: electric power with lots of range. What is Genesis going to offer that the established big guns don’t?

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“We’re going to be extremely strong on value and standard content,” says Raphael. “Buying a G90 couldn’t be simpler. In addition to exterior and interior colors, our customers will have a choice of two engines and rear-drive or all-wheel drive. That’s it. Everything else is included.”

“Everything else” is a lot. Standard safety features, for instance, include a multi-view camera, automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection, lane-keep assist, smart blind-spot detection, front and rear parking sensors, and a system that monitors the driver for potential signs of fatigue or distraction. Says Raphael: “Compared with 11 safety features that are standard on our cars, the next-closest competitor, Mercedes-Benz, offers just three as standard.”

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Of course, electronic conveniences aren’t enough. The G90 also needs to wow buyers with luxury and performance. But here too the G90 comes ready to play. Its structure, Hyundai claims, is both lighter and stiffer than the Mercedes S-Class’s. Two sturdy engines are available: an all-new, twin-turbocharged, direct-injected 3.3-liter V-6 (365 horsepower), and the 5.0-liter “Tau” V-8 (estimated 420 hp) previously seen in the outgoing Hyundai Genesis. Both mate to a standard eight-speed automatic with paddle shifters.

The exterior is clean and handsomely sculptured—if not particularly striking. From the rear, the G90 says “S-Class” all the way. The front end is dressed with a massive, Audi-like grille and standard LED daytime running lights (the V-8 edition gets full-LED headlights). And certainly the form is functional; drag coefficient is just 0.27, and the generous 124.4-inch wheelbase helps deliver what Hyundai says is class-leading front-seat legroom. As for the rather generic overall shape: Stay tuned. Hyundai just signed up former Bentley design director Luc Donckerwolke as its chief stylist. Surely the man behind the Lamborghini Gallardo and Murcielago will bring some rakishness to future Genesis designs.

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Inside the G90 is a lavishly attired space with a beautifully stitched Nappa leather instrument panel and seats, a 22-way power driver’s seat with heating and ventilation, a 12.3-inch high-definition widescreen display for navigation and multimedia control, and climate control and audio-system buttons whose faces are beveled at different angles for more accurate finger placement. The list of standard conveniences goes on and on: carbon-dioxide sensor that directs fresh air into the cabin if C02 builds to a level that could reduce alertness, wireless cell-phone charging in the center console, a heated steering wheel, power rear-seat sunshades, and … well, if you can name it, the Genesis G90 probably has it. Standard.

Driving is a hushed, controlled, and relaxed experience. Hyundai claims best-in-class levels of quiet and low vibration. To get there, Hyundai went so far as to specially design the standard 19-inch aluminum wheels with integral sound-absorbing chambers for reduced tire noise. An adaptive suspension with electronic damping filters out most road imperfections while simultaneously minimizing roll. The 3.3-liter six feels as crisp and responsive as a naturally aspirated engine, with no noticeable lag or turbo whine. The eight-speed automatic is capable of clicking off shifts that are all but imperceptible. The driver also has a choice of driving modes for altering the steering heft, throttle response, suspension stiffness, and more.

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For its first flagship, Genesis has an impressive piece on its hands. The G90 delivers power, luxury, safety, and conveniences at a level that belie its expected price. Zuchkowski says final figures haven’t been set as we go to press, but a reasonable guess (and a few “that’s not out of line” nods from Genesis execs) put the G90’s base price in the mid-to-high $60k range. That would put it roughly $4,000-$5,000 less than a base Lexus LS460—and the G90 offers far more standard luxury features and equipment. The price advantage over a BMW 7-Series or a Mercedes S-Class is considerably more substantial.

Will the new G90 knock BMW, Benz, and Lexus off their lofty perches? Not likely. Not yet, anyway. What it will do, though, is offer a serious challenge that many value-conscious buyers are sure to find too attractive to ignore. The car is damn impressive right out of the box, with more than enough standard tech to delight even the most demanding luxury customer. As for what the G90 and other future Genesis models will do in time, well, one only needs to look back at Hyundai’s fast-climbing past to appreciate just how bright the Genesis future may well turn out to be.

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2017 Genesis G90 Specifications
On Sale: September
Price: $68,000 (est. base)
Engines: 3.3L turbocharged DOHC 24-valve V-6/365 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 376 lb-ft @ 1,300; 5.0L DOHC 32-valve V-8/420 hp @ 6,000 rpm (est.), 383 lb-ft @ 5,000 rpm
Transmission: 8-speed automatic
Layout: 4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, RWD or AWD sedan
EPA Mileage: 17/24 mpg (V-6 RWD city/hwy); 16/24 mpg (V-8 RWD city/hwy)
L x W x H: 204.9 x 75.4 x 58.9 in
Wheelbase: 124.4 in
Weight: 4,650 – 4,900 lb
0-60 MPH: 7.0 sec (V-6 est.); 6.5 sec (V-8 est.)
Top Speed: 140 mph (V-6 est.); 145 mph (V-8 est.)