words: Stu Fowle

So this is it — the car that's going to reset the bar, make Korea a true world-conqueror, and send the traditional luxury brands quivering in their fancy Italian loafers. A game-changer. A lot of statements have been made about the Hyundai Genesis, but until now, no one had driven one on U.S. soil. That's no longer the case.

Naturally, we weren't going to accept our invitation to drive this big Hyundai without lining up some sort of control car. Indeed, this situation seemed to be seriously lacking one crotchety old man to remind the Genesis how things were in the good ol' days, when the Europeans were the go-to choice for a classy import. And none are quite as classy, and classic, as the Mercedes E-class, a car whose genealogy can be traced back to the W121 models of the 1950s.

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Of course, the Benz isn't a direct-price competitor, but it is a symbolic one, the car Hyundai chose for early benchmarking. Hey, it sounded crazy to us, too, but like Pontiac going after the BMW 5-series with the G8, the idea is to make shoppers think, "Why would I buy a Toyota Avalon when I could have a budget E-class?" rather than to convince Mercedes buyers to save a year's worth of college tuition for Junior by stepping down to a Hyundai.

However, a few Benz buyers could be tempted if they took the time to examine the situation. That price differential is severe — our E550's as-tested price of $67,865, which includes an optional panorama roof, park-distance control, a premium package (navigation, heated/cooled seats, Sirius, and Bluetooth), and an AMG sports package (18-inch wheels, metal paddle shifters, plus AMG bodywork and exhaust), is almost $26,000 more than the Genesis. This Hyundai isn't a stripper, either — our V-8 Genesis sedan features a technology package featuring an upgraded stereo, navigation, a rear backup camera, Bluetooth, XM with NavTraffic, HID headlights, and a cooled driver's seat.

If there's one other area in which the Genesis handily overtakes the E-class, it's in space. With a 195.9-inch by 73.4-inch footprint, the Genesis stretches 4.9 inches longer and 1.7 inches wider than an E550, while its 115.6-inch wheelbase (3.2 inches more than the E) allows the Genesis to boast a passenger cabin volume equal to that of the Mercedes S-class. If you're keeping track, that's C-class price, E-class vibe, and S-class room. But for all we know at this point, the Genesis might be the dynamic equivalent of the Geländewagen. To find out how the big Korean stacks up, we're heading west from Bakersfield, California, ready to traverse the San Rafael range toward Santa Barbara with two tanks of high-test fuel.

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Although it requires an additional 0.9 liters of displacement to do so, the E550 has the distinction of being the only car in its class with more power than the Genesis. Its 5.5-liter V-8 whips 382 horses at 6000 rpm while the Hyundai's 4.6-liter motivates seven fewer ponies at the same engine speed. But the Merc's higher displacement pays off in torque, carving out a strong plateau of 391 lb-ft from 2800 to 4800 rpm. The Hyundai's 333 lb-ft build more slowly, peaking at 4500 rpm. Hampered further by a mild throttle tip-in and a six-speed transmission that's always looking to jump into the highest gear possible, that difference is noticeable at the exit of every low-speed turn California's Highway 33 throws our way. The E550, with one extra gear to choose from, always holds on to the right cog.

In fact, the Genesis feels a step behind the Mercedes all the way around. The steering, a speed-sensitive rack-and-pinion system with a relatively low ratio of 14.86:1, provides more feedback than the unaided hydraulic system in the V-6 Genesis, but feels lighter and more Lexus-like than the German. The E550's artificially heavy feel might not be best in class, but it's playing that role pretty well today.

The most surprising thing about the Hyundai's suspension is that it's actually been stiffened significantly beyond the Korean market car's. But it is still much softer than the Benz, and biases the car toward cruising. It exhibits a level of insulation that'll appeal more to traditional luxury buyers than those expecting extreme road-carving performance.

Two factors in particular contribute to the Benz's comparative athleticism: a 3885-lb curb weight that undercuts the Genesis by 120 pounds, and an Airmatic suspension that allows the driver to pick between three levels of pavement stomping. Even on the softest setting, the Mercedes still feels more aggressive than the Genesis. The two cars are almost dynamic opposites — in the Benz, every road irregularity, every crumbled bit of rock dropped from a cliff is transmitted to the driver. The Hyundai erases those small details completely, but when it comes to sweeps in the road and off-camber corners, the multi-link front and rear suspension can't quite keep up. The chassis is slow to respond to driver inputs and there's too much travel on rebound. Overall, it falls in somewhere between a non-sport package Mercedes and a Lexus GS.

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That said, the softness actually helps the Genesis work around understeer. There's enough power and enough looseness in the suspension that small throttle adjustments will lighten up the rear end and cause the car to rotate in a slow, controllable manner. Meanwhile, ESP corrects the slide without completely shutting down the fun. Narrower 235/50R18 all-season tires are more willing to break loose than the Merc's 265/35R18 rear summers, which only let go under full, merciless mashes of the throttle.

After a half-hour of hard driving, the Mercedes begins to show some weaknesses, too. The brake pedal, which from the beginning had too much travel before biting down, has developed a light shudder and even more give, the result of downhill switchbacks in 100-degree heat. Its 13-inch front rotors and four-piston calipers are the same setup as in the Genesis, though the rears are slightly smaller. Yet the Hyundai's brakes aren't exhibiting the same fade despite the extra weight they're stopping. And they've delivered impressive feel right from the beginning, with perfectly linear input right from the first millimeter of travel. Hyundai's pushed the safety angle with its cars ever since it made ESP standard across the line, so it is fitting that the Genesis' standout feature is its binders.

Stereo geeks will say that the best feature is actually inside the cabin, though. The Genesis V-8 uses a standard 14-speaker system from high-end maker Lexicon, a company that heretofore worked only with Rolls-Royce. Our test car has an upgraded system, a 17-speaker sound orgy complete with 528 watts of Logic7 Discrete 7.1 audio and a 40-gig hard drive. Only a few systems — those in the Lexus LS and Infiniti M come to mind — provide such clarity throughout the range, from deep bass to piercing treble.

The Hyundai's interior is otherwise impressive but decidedly conservative. Buttons are laid out logically and a long stretch of leather replaces the standard car's wood dash inlay. It's an interesting, attractive touch that's an inexpensive and simple way to silence dashstrokers who might not think the wood looks real enough. Unfortunately, Hyundai saw it necessary to mimic the console-mounted iDrive-style control dials of its competition. While it works well, the navigation screen is well within reach and touch controls would have been just as convenient. Outside of that one detail, the cabin is a soft, quiet, and comfortable place.

But you can still feel the cost differential. The Genesis's buttons don't feel heavy and expensive like the E550's. When you put the Hyundai in gear, the shift lever lacks the Benz's damping. The E-class's air vents and control stalks even feel as if they had a whole team of engineers dedicated just to them.

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If we're being too hard on the Genesis, it is only because of the bar that's been set for it by the company itself and by the readers in forum communities. Take away the claims, the benchmarks, and the hype, and it's a truly impressive car for the money. Pit it against the cars in its price range, which will include the Chrysler 300C, the Pontiac G8, and the Nissan Maxima, and it's hard to be unimpressed by its space, power, and features. The G8 might be the most athletic of that set, but the Genesis counters with more refinement and a long list of toys the Pontiac doesn't offer.

The Genesis is a brand-new concept for Hyundai in this country, and pitting it against the veteran Mercedes shows that, for all the significance of Hyundai's ambitions, the new kid in town still has a few lessons to learn. Our suggestion to Hyundai: keep the V-6 Genesis the way it is for the masses. That car's plenty fast (more on that next week) and incredibly comfortable. Maybe add more premium options like a panorama roof or rear seat entertainment. But for the customers who want the extra power of the V-8, offer a sport package. Tighten up the suspension, dial in more steering feel, and add a sport algorithm to the transmission. Give it 19-inch wheels with wider rubber. Make the exhaust just a hair angrier. Dress it up with aluminum trim and more aggressive bodywork. That might, just might, scare the old guard from Germany.