Hyundai Motor forays with its new Genesis sedan into the market for high-end cars dominated by the likes of BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus.
Blue, maroon and silver versions of the sleek, tightly contoured four-door car with a ground-hugging look swooshed down a test track at the automaker's Namyang R&D Center in Hwaseong, about 70 kilometers (43 miles) south of Seoul.
The Genesis, set to begin full-scale production this month at a specially refitted assembly line in South Korea, will hit domestic showrooms in early January before launches in China and the United States in the first-half of 2008, Hyundai said.
Hyundai unveiled a concept version of the car in April at the New York International Auto Show.
"This is our first try to directly compete (with) the European premium cars like BMW," B.H. Lee, chief developer of the Genesis, said Wednesday, adding that Japan's Lexus is also a target. "That is our goal and our purpose."
Hyundai says the cheapest version of the Genesis will cost just under US$30,000 (20,400 EUR).
The car will come in V-6 and V-8 versions. Depending on engine size and other options, the most expensive Genesis would cost under US$40,000 (27,200 EUR), said Oles Gadacz, Hyundai's chief global spokesman.
The South Korean automaker plans to release the car under its Hyundai brand and has clearly taken as its model rival Toyota Motor Co.'s success with the Lexus.
"Hyundai's flagship takes an approach similar to Lexus during its original launch: Genesis uniquely combines driving excitement, prestigious design and value to square off against the established luxury players," Hyundai said in a handout about the car.
The move into the high-end market is a first for Hyundai, a brand once the butt of jokes in the United States for perceived quality deficiencies.
In recent years, Hyundai has scored high in customer satisfaction and quality surveys and has its sights set on being seen more than just a solid manufacturer of reliable cars.
Anthony Moon, an analyst at Nomura International Ltd. in Seoul, says entering the luxury arena is right for Hyundai, despite soaring gasoline prices.
"It's a natural progression for them to move upscale," said Moon, who described the Genesis as "the next logical step for them to raise their brand awareness."
Hyundai has taken on branding this year in a big way, hiring a new ad agency and launching television spots in the U.S. with the catch phrase "Think about it."
Founded in 1967, Hyundai Motor Co. has been expanding aggressively in overseas markets in recent years and now has factories in China, India, Turkey and the United States. Another is being built in the Czech Republic. Affiliate Kia Motors Corp. opens its latest plant this week in China, its second there.
Hyundai and Kia together form the world's sixth-largest automaking group and aim to crack the top five by 2010.
Gearing up to start production of the Genesis caps off a year a tumultuous year for Hyundai.
Chung Mong-koo, its chairman, was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison in February for embezzlement related to a 2006 slush fund and bribery scandal that rocked the automaker.
An appeals court judge, however, suspended the sentence in September, saying Chung was too important to South Korea's economy to go to jail.
Later that same month, the automaker also struck a wage deal with its combative union and averted a walkout over annual salary negotiations for the first time in a decade.
The company has high hopes for the Genesis.
"The next task Chairman Chung has chosen (is) to upgrade our brand image and this is the car which will make his dreams come true," Hyundai spokesman Jake Jang said.
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