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An Accessible Taste of Luxury

2004 Hyundai XG350 L sedan

By Warren Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 9, 2004; Page G01

PARIS

The rooms are dark. The services are marginal. The prices are steep.

But customers still clamor to get into the Hotel Clarion Saint-James & Albany here. They crave the luxury of location.

2004 Hyundai XG350. (Hyundai)

Nuts & Bolts

Downside: Controversy here. I think the XG350L's suspension, much like the Kia Amanti's, is too soft. Other drivers disagree. They accuse automotive journalists of not understanding the needs and wants of normal drivers who, those critics say, simply want a reliable, good-looking, well-crafted, upscale family sedan that can be bought without risk of bankruptcy.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Good ride. Squishy handling. Very good acceleration.

Head-turning quotient: Immense visual appeal inside and out. Even recalcitrant Hyundai critics were forced to admit that Hyundai had scored a home run here.

Body style/layout: The Hyundai XG350L is a front-engine, front-wheel-drive, four-door family sedan with seating for five people.

Engine/transmission: The car's 3.5-liter, 24-valve V-6 develops 194 horsepower at 5,500 revolutions per minute and 216 foot-pounds of torque at 3,500 rpm. It is linked to a five-speed automatic transmission that also can be operated manually.

Cargo and fuel capacities: Maximum cargo capacity is 14.5 cubic feet. The fuel tank holds 18.5 gallons of recommended regular unleaded gasoline.

Mileage: Not great. I averaged 23 miles per gallon in city-highway driving.

Changes for 2004: Mild cosmetic upgrades to front and rear of car. Minor tweaking of suspension system and other drivetrain components. Nothing major.

Amenities: They are notable here because there are so many offered on the XG350L as standard equipment, including leather seating surfaces, projector-lens fog lights, one-touch power windows, side-view mirrors that automatically tilt downward for a better view of the curb when backing up, a speed-proportional steering system, cruise control and a premium sound system.

Safety: Four-wheel anti-lock brakes, traction control, dual front air bags, side and head bags.

Pricing: Base price is $25,599. Dealer's invoice on base model is $22,896. Price as tested is $26,778, including $500 in options and a $590 destination charge. Dealer's price with options and destination charge is $23,985.

Purse-strings note: Compare with Kia Amanti, Toyota Avalon, Buick LeSabre, Honda Accord LX V6, Volkswagen Passat. Yes, Hyundai detractors, get over it. Hyundai is now a bona fide competitor in this league -- quality, price and all.

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The hotel is a short walk to the Louvre Museum and other important cultural and historical sites. People are willing to pay for that perceived advantage.

It proves that luxury is a matter of perception. Consider another example, the 2004 Hyundai XG350L sedan. It has everything that more expensive automobiles possess -- everything except a prestigious name and a high-end price tag.

Among purists, the absence of pedigree and extravagant pricing disqualify people and things from membership in the luxury class. Purists believe in the doctrine of exclusivity. To wit: That which is affordable is available to everyone. That which is available to everyone is not exclusive. That which is not exclusive is not luxurious.

The XG350L, in much the manner of its well-crafted cousin, the Kia Amanti sedan, runs contrary to that thinking. It embraces the notion that luxury is something more democratic. As such, it is to the car-buying public what the Louvre is to the tens of thousands of tourists who annually visit the portrait of the Mona Lisa -- a much-valued thing of accessible beauty.

Certainly, the XG350L's body sculpture is attractive. It is a long, sleek silhouette with muscular front and rear ends. Its grille mimics the design of the frontispiece on the Lexus RX 330 sport-utility vehicle. It has the catlike stance of a Jaguar XJ8 sedan and the overall elegance of a baby Bentley.

Yet there is nothing about the XG350L's exterior or interior treatments that feels imitative, or cheap. Even the polyurethane boiserie, the fake wood surrounding its center console and adorning its instrument and door panels, seems rich.

I'm still scratching my head over how Hyundai managed to deliver all it does in this car at a base price under $26,000. The list of standard equipment is impressive.

Functionally, there is the 3.5-liter, 24-valve, 194-horsepower V-6 engine. It is exceptionally quiet, smooth -- strongly reminiscent of the performance of the highly touted 3.5-liter V-6 sold by Nissan Motor Co. in the United States. A five-speed automatic transmission that also can be operated manually is standard. It feels good in the hand. There is no jerkiness in moving through the forward gears, and no fight to shift into reverse.

The XG350's predecessor, introduced in 2001 as the XG300 (because it had a 3-liter V-6), was a discernible slouch in the handling department. It wallowed in corners and practically bottomed out over urban street bumps and potholes.

Hyundai made some suspension improvements to the car when it was reintroduced as the XG350 in 2002. Those fixes helped to reduce its wiggle-wobble behavior around curves. But in 2004, although much has improved, more work needs to done in that area. On several occasions during test drives, when I took the car deep and fast into corners, it communicated its displeasure by wildly wagging its tail, threatening to swing out of control in protest.

It remains best to drive this one fast on the straightaways when road conditions and the law permit. But drive it gently and with reasonable caution when those roads bend and become more challenging.

Still, I don't regard the XG350's soft suspension as an insurmountable disappointment any more than I view the suspension systems in the Mercury Grand Marquis or Toyota Avalon with proscriptive disdain. Those cars are deliberate softies, built for long-distance cruising comfort as opposed to racetrack performance.

Luxury, in this case, does not seek a first-place win at the finish line. It simply wants to coddle driver and passengers in transit; and that, indisputably, is something the XG350L does remarkably well at a remarkably affordable price.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company