words: Stu Fowle

If the automotive industry had seasons, this would be one hell of a winter we're sitting through. The kind that would have weathermen jumping off bridges just to escape the deep depression of reporting on yet another ice storm. Dennis Quaid would be on his way to rescue Jake Gyllenhaal from a pack of wolves in a frozen New York library. And each time a bit of heartwarming news flows out of places like Detroit, or Munich, or Tokyo, a bitter wind gust tears across our faces and the freeze sets back in. Just when I was ready to lie right down in a snow bank, the invite arrived to drive Hyundai's new Genesis coupe, fittingly, in the warm desert outside Las Vegas. Oh yes, I packed shorts. And sunglasses, too, because I think the thaw is coming.

The new Genesis isn't just a car to satisfy a small niche of enthusiasts with little regard for widely-appreciated assets like fuel economy, refinement, value, and comfort- the comparisons between this car and Infiniti's G37 only tell one small part of the Genesis coupe's story. That's because no matter what you want to call a competitor, Hyundai's paradigm shifter is ready to debate.

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If fuel efficiency is a top concern, you'll be happy to know that the Genesis 2.0T, the base level, turbocharged four-cylinder model producing 210 hp and 223 lb-ft of torque, is the only rear-drive coupe on sale in the U.S. rated by the EPA at 30 mpg. The engine shares some internals and its block with Mitsubishi's Lancer Evolution, meaning it should also have some serious tuning potential. Stock, it uses continuously variable valve timing on both the intake and exhaust sides and pushes the car to a top speed of 137 mph. Add the optional six-speed automatic and highway economy falls to 29 mpg and 20 in the city, while the manual's city mileage is estimated at 21 mpg. The sport coupe segment's traditional leader, Honda's Civic Si, achives 21/29 mpg, while the underdog Chevy Cobalt SS just edges out the new Hyundai at 22/30. But both are, of course, front-wheel drive. And who cares about fuel economy when you can leave the gas station in a smokin' sideways burnout?

For that pleasure at Genesis pricing, the choices are limited to a trio of American muscle; the Ford Mustang, the Dodge Challenger, and the Chevrolet Camaro all come in V-6, rear-drive form at under $25,000, meaning they actually undercut the 306 hp, 266 lb-ft, 3.8-liter V6 version of the Genesis (I-4 versions aren't offered in any of the three Yank cars.) While we have not yet driven the Camaro, the Genesis has some obvious advantages in ride, comfort, and handling over the Ford and the Dodge. At 3389 pounds for a manual or 3397 pounds for an automatic, the Hyundai also has a small weight advantage over the solid-axle Mustang and a huge one over the Challenger, not to mention more expensive competition like the Infiniti G37 and the BMW 1- and 3-series coupes. In addition to the aforementioned fuel savings, the lower weight also shows through in the Hyundai's performance.

To fully test the Genesis' capabilities, we drove to Spring Mountain, a country club-style private racetrack in Pahrump, Nevada. Not only was Hyundai cool enough to give us full freedom to run hot laps, but staff also set up a small autocross (with an RX-8 R3 on hand for comparison) and a drifting circle with Formula D driver Stephan Verdier giving pointers and outrageous demonstrations of flawless car control. At the end of the day, I even hitched a ride in the concept version of Rhys Millen's Red Bull drift car; it had all the aero components, sticky tires, light wheels, and a screaming exhaust, but no engine mods or lightening. Let me tell you — a good wheel/tire combo and a set of uncorked pipes do wonders for this little monster of a sports coupe.

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But I digress. First up on the track was a 2.0-liter turbo model outfitted in "Track" form. Regardless of the engine, this package includes xenon headlights, a spoiler, 19-inch wheels, Brembo brakes, unique seating surfaces, a limited-slip differential, an upgraded Infinity stereo, and a few other minor goodies. The Genesis' smallest engine is smooth and refined, but can only be described as underwhelming on the track. Its strong, flat power curve and a muted exhaust note are enjoyable in everyday cruising, but those aren't assets that make for an entertaining track session. However, the car feels incredibly well balanced and there's a definite feeling that with a few tweaks, this four-cylinder could be a serious performer. In its stock form, it seems seriously under-worked.

I moved to Hyundai's autocross course, hoping to judge whether the 2.0T would have a home court advantage there as a result of the car's lower curb weight. However, all I found was that the differences between the two models was quite minimal. The 3.8-liter engine adds just 95 pounds to the car, and product manager Derek Joyce says the car's front-to-rear weight balance of 55/45 percent remains intact regardless of the powerplant. As a result, I couldn't get my 2.0T autocross times within a half-second of my best V-6 time on the 21-second course. Furthermore, the autocross brought out one minor flaw in the 2.0-liter not exhibited by its big brother; in tight slaloms, the car's power steering pump can fall behind the action and cause the steering weight to cycle between inconsistent phases of heaviness and lightness. It isn't a problem that should affect many buyers, but it is worth noting.

The Genesis only has one other noteworthy flaw, one that exhibited itself back on the Spring Mountain road course. There's no lockout mechanism for the six-speed manual's reverse gear, so rushing the three-two downshift can result in the driver overshooting the gate for second gear, instead jamming the shifter into a corner below reverse's location next to first. Getting a feel for the gearbox helps prevent this, and most buyers will likely just learn to be patient with that downshift. Still, a few other journalists at the event noted the same problem, so perhaps a fix is in the works.

For out-of-the-box, 100,000-mile-warranty-protecting performance, there's no substitute for the 3.8-liter screamer, which felt nearly as fast as the 330-horsepower Nissan 370Z I drove on this same track in December. The engine has a good growl and even better power, and fuel economy numbers of 17/26 mpg for the manual are respectable.

I'm not sipping fuel as the rear end slides ever so slightly out of the last corner at Spring Mountain before setting the car up for the track's only real elevation change. The car's steering is lighter than that of the G37S on hand for comparison, feeling quick and playful rather than solid and luxurious. It feels far more direct and communicative than the Genesis sedan's system; initial turn-in is sharp but communication breaks down just a bit from there. Still, among its modern competitors, the Hyundai feels quite good, and it certainly possesses the most feedback of any product from the brand to date.

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Likewise, the Genesis' chassis is responsive like nothing else from Korea. When I drove the Genesis sedan I felt that the platform had some potential but was hindered by soft dampers and too much weight. The coupe feels like the sedan, only perfected. Both are predictable and can be pushed toward slight oversteer, but the coupe ditches any signs of Lexus-fighting softness. It's what we hoped for from Hyundai from the beginning, only better than highest expectations. The balance of track-ready agility and on-road comfort makes Infiniti's harsh G37 seem less appealing and puts the Genesis right up in the BMW 3-series' blind spot. And did I mention the Track model's standard limited-slip? Yes, the 335i should certainly be paying attention.

Because of what I've come to expect from big red brake calipers with the Brembo name tattooed along the side, I'm not quite as surprised by the Genesis' braking performance. Whether on the track or the low-speed autocross, the 13.4-inch front/13.0-inch rear brakes show no sign of fade after four hours of abuse by twenty-some journalists. They're so confident that on my last run of the day — when the brakes should have been in the worst condition — I was diving into the pedal later than ever. I kept a close eye on coolant temperature gauges through the day as well and never saw a single one pass the halfway mark. Meanwhile, down at the drifting demonstration, the Genesis had made it through full, brutal, Jack Bauer-like interrogation and hadn't cracked. No one could watch the beating these cars were taking without seriously considering a call to the bank to discuss the current interest rate for a new car loan.

The Genesis, then, seems like the answer to collective complains about each of its competitors. It's a pony car without the size and weight. It's a 3-series or G coupe without the price tag. It's a Cobalt SS or a Civic Si with rear-wheel drive. But more importantly, it's the solution to those simple complaints and it's fantastic to drive. It looks good. It has a great stereo. It's comfortable, yet entertaining. It's a beam of sunlight in the cold, dark climate of today. And for a budget-minded enthusiast, it simply can't be beat.