Five years ago, when Hyundai launched the XG as the flagship of its fleet, luxury was not a word associated with the brand. After all, this South Korean car maker had made its reputation with bargain-basement compact cars, some seriously lacking in quality. Recently, Hyundai has done more than just keep up.
Quality has improved dramatically in its bread-and-butter economy models, and it now offers a range of models that provide serious competition to mainstream brands.
With continuing improvement in power, convenience, and styling since its launch, the spacious and elegantly styled four-door, five passenger Hyundai XG350 offers the trappings of cars in the so-called near-luxury class. There is still one difference, however: price. The two XG350 models still have sticker prices closer to those of plain midsize sedans in the mid-20s.
Add in Hyundai's five-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty coupled with its standard-setting 10-year/100,000-mile powertrain warranty, and the Hyundai XG350 represents real value.
A full range of luxury features is standard on the base model, and the only slightly more expensive upgraded model adds a few more nice conveniences. Equally pleasing is the competent 194-horsepower engine, which delivers good acceleration performance. Anti-lock brakes, electronic brake-force distribution, and traction control come standard, active safety features that can help the driver maintain control in an emergency maneuver.
The Hyundai XG350 has the presence of a luxury car. The front end could fool many a discerning observer, especially as it remains discreetly minus any Hyundai logo that might hint that this is a value-priced car.
The stylish front end is set off by an impressive horizontal grille flanked by neatly integrated projection-lamp headlights. Thin, inset, chrome-like strips wrap around each corner of the bumper and are mirrored on the rear bumper. Detracting slightly from an otherwise gracefully clean nose presentation, Hyundai chose to break up the large air intake in the bumper with body-colored horizontal ribs and mold a license plate emboss into the center of the bumper. But you may need to bolt a license plate there, anyway.
A modestly crisp beltline blends smoothly into gently rounded shoulders at the rear, capped by the bright jeweled tail lights. The license plate is located in a recess in the trunk lid, topped with a bold, horizontal strip of brightwork and framed by the backup lights; this gives it a look in keeping with other luxury cars. Only the trademark Hyundai logo on the rear belies the heritage of the elegant design.
The windshield and window design balances openness with structure. The slim windshield pillars minimize blind spots. Tall side windows add to the airy atmosphere inside. The outside door handles are well-designed: attractive, comfortable, and easy to grab.
Spaciousness may be the first attribute expected of a luxury car and the XG350 certainly measures up. It is a roomy car by midsize sedan standards. It bests the likes of the Maxima, Impala, Camry and Avalon in most interior measures.
The leather-clad seats, front and rear, are comfortable, balancing on that fine line between firmly welcoming and aggressively hard. They are flat and firm like a Mercedes seat, but lack support in the seat bottom; snack and re-fueling stops will be welcome breaks on long drives. The lack of side bolsters makes getting in and out is easy.
From the driver's seat, almost everything about the XG350 is friendly and familiar. The hefty steering wheel trimmed in wood and leather invites spirited inputs and features redesigned cruise controls with more pronounced and readily discerned delineations. A smooth, quiet dashboard houses gauges in a well-shaded recess. Faux-wood trim suggests luxury and the light color highlights the roomy feeling of the interior.
Instruments are straightforward, clearly marked and easy to read, using white markings on a black background. The speedometer is placed in the middle of the display, the tachometer is on the left side and the fuel level and engine coolant temperature gauges are in a large display on the right. A big emergency flasher button is mounted just to the right of the steering wheel, easy to reach quickly for those times when the traffic ahead comes to a sudden halt.
Audio and climate controls are paragons of ergonomic excellence. They are mounted high on the center dash, with the stereo properly positioned above the climate control panel. Buttons for both are large, clearly marked and easy to operate. The air conditioning automatically switches to recirculation mode when outside air quality deteriorates. LED readouts are large and easy to read. The stereo features an in-dash CD player, but the sound lacks dynamic range. A trip computer above the audio/climate controls includes a clock that's easy to read.
The XG350 offers good rear-seat headroom, but is a little lacking in legroom. It beats all but the Camry in rear-seat headroom, but in rear-seat legroom it comes in behind all except the Maxima. Rear-seat head restraints lock into their selected positions and ratchet forward, making them more effective at preventing injuries. When in position, they block rearward vision somewhat, but they can be removed (with a struggle) when not being used. XG350 does not have a head restraint for the center of the rear seat. However, it does have ISO-specification anchors (covered when not in use) for child safety seats across the rear bench.
The design of the garment hooks show attention to detail and makes picking up the dry cleaning a breeze. Instead of being suspended from the roof-mounted assist grips, they fold out from the headliner, making them much more user-friendly, and less likely to dump the week's dry cleaning onto the floor. Few manufacturers make garment hooks that work as well as this Hyundai's.
Trunk space is more limiting, and here the XG lags behind midsize sedans. An inside pull-down will keep your hands clean when the outside of the trunk lid is covered with slush or rainwater, a nice detail. Gas-pressurized struts are used instead of goose-neck hinges to eliminate the problem of hinges crushing cargo as the trunk is closed. Beneath the floor resides a full-size spare mounted on a matching alloy wheel. As with most new cars, the XG's trunk features an inside safety release, should someone be trapped in the trunk.
The Hyundai XG350 feels like a substantial automobile and it is, pushing the large end of the midsize envelope with mass to match, outweighing the opposition by as much as 300 pounds. Its long wheelbase stretches 108 inches to help smooth highway undulations and enhance high-speed stability.
As expected of a car that aspires to luxury status, the XG features a fully independent suspension that smoothes out sharp pavement ridges and coddles the body through abrupt directional changes. Handling is helped by a multi-link rear suspension geometry that keeps the back tires in better line with turning front tires. On bumpy pavement, however, the XG350 doesn't quite match the sophistication of pricier luxury sedans. Road noise and tire noise seem a bit loud to merit upper class designation.
We found the XG350's engine smooth and quiet, willing and free-revving. Its relative silence adds to the pleasant ambience of the interior, not intruding on comfortable conversation or quiet thought. This dual-overhead-cam engine produces 194 horsepower at 5500 rpm and 216 pound-feet of torque at 3500 rpm. That's respectable power at reasonably low rpm, which translates to good throttle response around town.
Hyundai's five-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly enough. Upshifts are on the long side, and the transmission is slow to kick down for passing. In semi-manual Shiftronic mode it always upshifts at a pre-programmed engine speed, rather than holding a lower gear when you open the throttle wide. That's unfortunate, because the XG is fun to drive and we would enjoy holding a lower gear and pushing the engine to its redline.
Steering is light and easy. The power assist to the steering varies with engine speed, a strategy that is invisible most of the time but noticeable when the transmission upshifts when exiting a turn and the power assist increases.
Braking is reassuringly linear. Anti-lock brakes (ABS) help maintain steering control while braking on slippery surfaces. Electronic Brake-force Distribution (EBD) apportions brake application front-and-rear to minimize stopping distance. Traction control helps maintain steering control when accelerating, especially on slippery surfaces. EBD doesn't come into play in normal driving, but its presence was comforting as were the large front brake discs, now 12.1 inches in diameter. When it comes to stopping, any little bit can make a big difference.
The Hyundai XG350 wouldn't be confused with a Mercedes or Lexus at close quarters, but passing on the street it is more likely to be mistaken for a new luxury car than a sedan in its price class. Close-up inspection displays a wide array of convenient features and luxury touches that aren't generally found in this price class and will be much appreciated by owners. With the impressive improvements in quality that Hyundai has made in the past few years, this comfortable, easy-to-drive, and attractive automobile offers exceptional overall value.
New Car Test Drive correspondent Tom Lankard reports from Northern California; with nctd.com editor Mitch McCullough in Southern California.
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