2015 Hyundai Genesis

2015 Hyundai Genesis

My buddy calls from baggage claim, and I tell him I'll be pulling into the arrivals lane in a Hyundai. When I get there, he looks right at me but then continues scanning the stream of oncoming traffic. I get out of the car, a 2015 Genesis, and finally recognition takes hold. "I'll be honest," he says. "This didn't register as a Hyundai." And that's precisely the idea.

The Genesis and its big brother, the Equus, are Hyundai's version of what Toyota did with Lexus. They didn't go and create an entirely separate brand, but it's clear they want to distance the Genesis from the proletarian Hyundais. They replaced the slanted H on the grille with a winged Genesis logo, and enlisted Lotus to help tune the suspension. It even comes with a Google Glass app. OK, Glass, do my friends know this is a Hyundai?

The original Genesis, introduced for 2009, was a strong effort. It nailed the Germans to the wall in terms of price and power, but you could tell that Hyundai didn't have decades of sport-sedan experience informing its suspension and steering choices. The new one incorporates knowledge gleaned from the first go-around. And this one isn't just great on paper; it's great to drive, too.

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The base car starts at about $39,000 and packs a 311-horsepower V-6 and an eight-speed transmission. It's quick and makes silky noises as the revs climb. There's also a 5.0-liter V-8 that gives you 420 horsepower, but adds $13,500, seriously denting its value proposition. The V-6 model also weighs about 400 pounds less, which improves the entertainment factor when you're chasing BMWs down the on-ramp – something, I can report, it is happy to do. The one I drove, a rear-wheel-drive V-6 with a passel of options, cost $49,950 – enough for a Caddy or an Audi. But an A6 or CTS at this price would have four cylinders under the hood, not six. A BMW 5 Series would have its interior draped in something called "SensaTec" instead of leather. And if you want a $49,000 Mercedes E-Class, you'll be looking at used cars. The Genesis rips off the Lexus playbook by undercutting competitors with a car that feels just as nice – if not nicer.

The car I drove had the Ultimate package, including a swath of matte wood running across the dash. That broad slab of timber is essentially a knotty middle finger at Audi, the current world champion of interior woodwork. It's also a clue that Hyundai now has a better understanding of its audience. Yes, luxury-car buyers enjoy electronic frills like cruise control that will handle stop-and-go traffic and a trunk that opens when you stand next to it, but what they really want is craftsmanship, visible evidence of money spent. And on that front, nothing under 50 grand can touch the Genesis in full, ultraleather, wood-and-aluminum-trimmed regalia.

Even the exterior styling is starting to gel. The first Genesis was staunchly anonymous, but this one dares to assert itself. It's not the most original shape – there's some Audi in the grille, BMW in the rear side glass – but it looks good. In fact, when I got home from the airport, my next-door neighbor called over, "People are gonna think you're a drug dealer with that Jag in the driveway!" I told him that maybe people wouldn't think that once they realized it was a Hyundai.

But, hey, give it a few years. Hyundai is new at this game, but they're getting better every year. It strikes me that now is the best time to buy a car like this, when the machine is excellent but the sticker still reflects an underdog striving for credibility – whatever profit is built into the Genesis, you know that none of it's based on badge-snob status. And that's really appealing. You're paying for a car, not a name. But if anyone asks, it's a Hyundai.