LAS VEGASâ€“The new-car market may be in the toilet. Everyone is still afraid of a return to high fuel prices. We probably all should be driving compact hybrid sedans. Yet automakers keep on rolling out rear-wheel-drive sporty cars.
In the past 12 months, we've seen debuts of the resurrected Dodge Challenger, updated versions of the Nissan 370Z and Ford Mustang, and the long-awaited return of Chevrolet's Camaro.
Now here's the latest: the rear-wheel-drive 2010 Hyundai Genesis Coupe.
Hyundai? Competing against the Mustang, Camaro and Zed?
Yes, yes and maybe.
Coming off its best year ever (selling more than 80,000 vehicles in Canada), Hyundai is following up its Lexus-chasing $37,995 Genesis luxury sedan, which was introduced last year, with a new sports coupe iteration.
Using the same rear-drive platform and lots-of-features-for-little-money pricing scheme as the Genesis sedan (which won the value-oriented 2009 Canadian Car of the Year award), the new two-door Coupe seems priced right as well.
The Coupe is being sold at Canadian Hyundai dealerships right now in two distinct flavours: a four-cylinder 2.0 L turbocharged model that starts at $24,495 and a six-cylinder 3.8 L non-turbo version that begins at $32,995.
Even with optional automatic transmissions, assorted luxury goodies and doo-dads, and a race track-oriented GT package, all told, the most you can spend on the 2.0 L is $31,645; on a 3.8 L, $36,795.
With all due respect to the terribly timid front-drive Tiburon, Hyundai doesn't have much of a heritage in the sporty coupe segment. There's no museum filled with ex-Trans Am racers or pop songs titled "Genesis Coupe Sally."
So while Hyundai has come a long way â€“ quality now is the match of the Japanese, contemporary styling, top-notch safety ratings â€“ for now, those rock bottom prices are the best bait the Korean automaker has to catch sports coupe buyers from more established rivals.
The 2.0-litre inline turbocharged four that powers the Genesis Coupe 2.0T puts out 210 horsepower. A six-speed manual transmission is standard equipment, along with all kinds of stuff that would be extra on other four-cylinder sports coupes, like steering wheel-mounted Bluetooth, audio and cruise controls, keyless entry and 18-inch alloy wheels.
From the $25,998 Mitsubishi Eclipse to the $26,598 Nissan Altima Coupe (with the likes of the Chevrolet Cobalt SS, Honda Civic Si in the mix as well), Hyundai says the rear-wheel-drive 2.0T beats its front-wheel-drive coupe competition on price, features and horsepower.
Even V6 models of the Challenger, Mustang and Camaro are more expensive.
Although farther up the food chain â€“ where the sports coupe sharks are even hungrier â€“ the 3.8 may be the better bargain within the Genesis Coupe lineup.
Considered against a $38,095 Mazda RX-8, $41,700 BMW 135i or $45,200 Infiniti G37, the Hyundai has a distinct price advantage. And only the Infiniti, with 330 hp, has more cojones in the engine department.
But sports coupes aren't bought as rational purchase decisions. They're more about how they make you feel in the driver's seat. So how does the new Genesis Coupe stack up against its rivals in a seat-of-the-pants evaluation?
Pretty well, actually.
On the highway drive northwest out of Las Vegas to Spring Mountain raceway, near Parump, Nev., the Genesis Coupe 3.8 GT went down the highway with just the right amount of feedback from all of its driver controls. The steering was nicely weighted; the suspension was taut yet resilient.
Another advantage the Genesis Coupe has over some of its compact competition is its size. It's a bit larger all around, more like the Infiniti G37 2+2. And with the exception of a leather steering wheel that feels like cheap plastic, the Hyundai matches the Infiniti's build quality, use of materials and features. And like the Genesis sedan, the Coupe is quiet and solid at speed.
Even Hyundai admits, with only 210 hp, the 2.0T is challenged by the car's hefty 1,495 kg curb weight. Its 8.3 second 0-to-100 km/h is only average among the mid-$20,000 front-wheel drive segment. Nor does it have the kick-in-the-pants push normally associated with a blown mill.
On the track, though, it's the new Hyundai's chassis that will blow you away.
With the GT package (which adds Brembo brakes, thicker anti-roll bars and a limited-slip rear differential, in addition to the upgraded rubber) there's minimal body roll, the brakes are strong-like-bull, the steering is accurate, and it's easy to sway back and forth between under- or oversteer.
While the 2.0T could use some work (it's the same unit â€“ turned longitudinally â€“ as in the Mitsu Evo, so there's plenty of aftermarket go-fast parts waiting for you and your credit card), the 3.8 V6 is the engine that moves the Hyundai away from milquetoast sports coupe and closer to fiery sports car, shaving a couple of seconds off the 2.0T's 0-to-100 km/h run.
Like most production cars, too much speed into a corner will cause the Hyundai to eventually understeer.
But the limit is high and a stomp on the throttle will rotate its rear-end around. For experienced drivers, it's all very controllable and rewarding.
On public roads, the six's 226 lb.-ft. of torque feels adequate. But at the track, you really need to push all the way to its 6300 r.p.m. redline. The engine doesn't feel strained, though, when doing so.
Too bad the Hyundai's six-speed manual doesn't have the greased-lighting feel of a BMW box. And, ultimately, the Hyundai sports coupe can't keep the pace of tidier two-seat sports cars (like a Nissan 370Z). But gripes with the new Genesis Coupe are few and far between. Especially when you throw in the X-factor value pricing.
In a segment that only makes up 2 to 3 per cent of new-car sales in Canada, Hyundai expects to sell fewer than 2,000 Genesis coupes by the end of 2009.
But like its sedan stablemate, the Coupe's real impact will be felt in how it changes the way you think about the once-quaint Korean automaker.
Travel was provided to freelance writer John LeBlanc by the automaker. firstname.lastname@example.org
In photos: 2010 Hyundai Genesis Coupe