Secondhand Gems: Korea Vs. Japan: $25K Sport Coupe Battle

By Christopher Smith

May 17, 2011

A few years back Hyundai unveiled a car called Genesis. The automotive world noticed, because it was arguably the car that took Hyundai to the next level as a primetime player in the automotive big leagues. Though it didn’t necessarily rewrite the rules of motoring nirvana, its four-door design, attractive accommodations, and robust V-8 engine were still plenty good enough to grab the attention of near-luxury sedan shoppers, even before the familiar, reasonable Hyundai sticker price was factored in.

So when the Korean manufacturer announced the sporty Genesis Coupe would follow suit, many enthusiasts took the news quite seriously, especially when rumors of turbos and images of a Genesis Formula Drift car began to surface. It all sounded great, but could a manufacturer whose legacy was dominated by cheap, throwaway transportation really achieve such a dramatic turnaround as to deliver a passion-inspired performance coupe?

The short answer to that question is yes, but as is often the case with short answers, there exists considerable room for interpretation, especially when compared to other rear-wheel-drive sport coupes. In seeking out what we believe are the true competitors for this machine, we’ve looked past V-6 editions of the Mustang and Camaro, both of which cater far more to the American muscle car sect as opposed to traditional sports car shoppers. Whereas the Genesis Sedan fit best with European competitors, we feel the Coupe is most at home with Japanese sports cars and the enthusiasts who love them.

$25,000 will net a well-equipped, nearly-new V-6 Genesis 3.8 Coupe, a slightly older, slightly higher-mile Nissan 370Z, and what many enthusiasts consider to be the benchmark for rear-wheel-drive sports cars, the Mazda RX-8. This is exclusive company for a rookie to be in, but simply making the cut means we must decidedly consider the Genesis to be a Secondhand Gem. To see whether or not the young Korean can compete with some very fine Japanese sports cars is another challenge altogether.


2010 Hyundai Genesis 3.8
Last July, Editorial Director Martin and Editor-In-Chief Miersma had a bit of a coupe throwdown, involving, among others, the Nissan 370Z and the Mazda RX-8. Interestingly enough the Genesis was not included on that short list, but that’s because it’s just not quite up to the standards set by those two admittedly brilliant machines. That shouldn’t suggest, however, that the Genesis is somehow inferior; the reality is that this first effort by Hyundai is quite the dancing masterpiece, served up in a design that’s unique and attractive while not being overly flamboyant. Inside, it’s best to forget everything you’ve heard about Korean interior fit and finish because this car is superbly comfortable and supportive for either long distance cruising or side road attacks, and the cockpit layout is as sharp as cars costing twice as much. The 306-horsepower 3.8-liter V-6 with its svelte soundtrack offers up power and torque aplenty—we prefer it over the 210-horsepower 2.0 turbo, though the weight savings from the smaller mill does give the Genesis a slightly more tossible feel. The stock brakes do an admirable job of reeling in 3400 pounds of Hyundai, but Brembo brakes on the harder-edged Genesis Track model deliver a much better feel. Considering a gently used 3.8 can be found for around $24,000, it’s clearly one of the best performance bargains in the nearly-new segment.

What this car needs, then, is a bit more time in the oven to better blend all the ingredients together because it’s just not as edgy or flagrant in its desire to go fast. The suspension and chassis are quite communicative if a tad reserved, even on the beefier Track model. The notchy six-speed manual isn’t the best box we’ve ever sampled, and the clutch may as well be a big foot lever attached to a set of vertical blinds. These are small gripes to be sure, but at the end of the day this is the reality facing Hyundai. As good as the Genesis Coupe is, the bar set by the competition is still just a bit higher.

2010 Mazda RX-8
What more can be said about the RX-8 that hasn’t already been blasted time and again in the print and digital pages of the universe? Seriously; right now there are short, black-eyed, gray-skinned aliens 35 light-years away having a telepathic conversation about how they wished their flying saucer had the balance and handling purity of the RX-8. It’s one of those ageless, elemental performance machines that isn’t driven so much as it’s worn, like a body suit that comes with wheels, an engine, and a couple extra tiny doors that give this small coupe surprising practicality in the people mover department. And it’s a sexy body suit to boot, with the minor restyling it received in 2009 only accentuating the RX-8’s well-proportioned haunches. Revised suspension tuning, shorter gearing, and a 90-pound diet were more substantial changes in 2009, allowing the Mazda to make better use of its 232 horsepower and featherweight 159 pound-feet of torque.

And therein lies our biggest gripe with the RX-8, and we’ll wager good space bucks that some of those aliens feel the same way. This car was slightly underpowered when the first 2004 models hit the market, and horsepower levels across the board have only gone up since then. Engaging this car’s modest-at-best powerband requires regular trips to 8500 on the rev counter, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing except it’s the only way to really get this car moving. Want to turn a good lap at the track? Keep the engine on boil. Want to merge on the highway? Keep the engine on boil. Want to pass a new Camry on a tight two-lane? You guessed it, keep the engine on boil and hope the driver isn’t sporting a V-6 and an attitude. That’s a lot of time spent boiling an engine for not much chutzpah in return, and then there’s the 1.3-liter rotary’s appetite for fossil fuels—both gas and oil—which make it about as frugal as a Cadillac Escalade. If the performance payoff was better, perhaps we could justify the RX-8’s excessive thirst and love-it-or-hate-it exhaust note experienced whenever that power peak is finally reached. But as it stands, there’s another sports car we’d rather spend time with.

2009 Nissan 370Z
Choosing a winner or loser for this particular comparison was rather like deciding which roller coaster to ride first, only without the two-hour wait. Opt for the Z and you’ll be on the receiving end of 332 horsepower from its 3.7-liter V-6, easily scooting the iconic sports car to 60 in under five seconds and away from the other cars on this list. Its six-speed manual has a neat feature called “SynchroRev Match” that automatically blips the throttle on downshifts, so every gear-down maneuver feels like a heel-toe home run. The Z offers steel-girder rigidity in the corners—that is, a steel girder with track-ready suspension that defines the term confidence-inspiring, empowering car and driver to go faster with every lap. The steering is sharp, precise, and informative, the brakes grip with fervor, and the on-demand thrust ensures this roller coaster ride is one to remember. For track days, there are few cars as rewarding as the Z—at any price point.

For everyday driving, the Z’s Hollywood styling attracts plenty of attention, most of it from the younger set who’ve no doubt piloted their own 370Z in Sony’s Gran Turismo. Ergonomically speaking, it’s not the best or most comfortable ride to be had; the back seats are, well, not there, but driver and passenger up front are well cared for in aggressively bolstered buckets facing a decidedly race-themed set of gauges and controls. It’s not the classiest arrangement to be found, for sure, and we could do with less plastic in a car of this stature, but it’s not wanting
for visual appeal.

The downside to the Z is that, occasionally, we might find ourselves visiting Uncle Jarred out on the farm, four miles down a cratered road that hasn’t seen a resurface since the days of ABBA. Under any circumstances like this, the 370Z’s knife-edge racing reflexes become a liability, making it a rather tough car to live with on a daily basis. Even in the best of conditions the 370Z is a noisy, buzzy, jarring machine that almost seems to be self-aware when not on a track,loudly voicing its objections whenever it has to perform mundane tasks like, say, going to work. There’s also a small issue with price—technically we did find one 370Z with 12,000 miles on eBay Motors for $24,900 but we do stress one. Realistically these cars with average mileage (15,000 to 20,000 or so) will sell closer to $26,000, but diligent shoppers can occasionally find a bargain. In our opinion, the little bit of extra dough for one of the most dynamic, kick-in-the-pants sports cars available is well worth the investment.

Hyundai may have once been considered the manufacturer of throwaway cars, but times have well and truly changed. The Genesis Coupe may not offer the harmonious driver-vehicle relationship found with the RX-8, nor does it have the swagger and bite of the 370Z, but it does have the stones to run with the best coupes on the planet. Japan won this particular battle, but should Mazda or Nissan rest on their laurels, there’s another Far East neighbor ready to fill the void.