Cohort Classic: 2002 Hyundai XG350 – Feels Just Like Starting Over

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I saw a Hyundai Equus not too long ago. Black, with diplomatic plates and polished to a shine, it was just as imposing as any S-Class or Jaguar XJ. Something with which the South Korean embassy could ferry his dignitaries about without having to drive someone else’s flagship.

So, to paraphrase the Talking Heads, how did we get here?

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Unsurprisingly, and given Hyundai’s history, the story of the Equus (We’ll get to the 350 in a bit, I swear) begins with Mitsubishi. In 1986 they launched this, the Debonair. Designed to complete with the likes of the Toyota Crown and the Nissan Cedric. It looks like someone from Mitsubishi decided to take the Chinese method of design and penned a sedan that would look like a legitimate luxury car if you squint really hard.

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For reference purposes, here’s the Toyota Crown of that era. Then again, you could get the Debonair as a special V3000 Royal AMG (yes, that AMG) model

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Anyway, Right around the time, Hyundai realized they had a bit of a problem. They were sponsors of the 1988 Olympics, but they didn’t have a car in their roster that would be luxurious enough to actually ferry important people around. Oh, sure they were building Mk. II Ford Granadas as their big car offering but it was highly unlikely that the decade-old design would impress people and bring Hyundai’s name into the foreground. Especially because the Hyundai-Ford Granada didn’t actually have any Hyundai badging on it. Fortunately, Mitsubishi was more than willing to share their Debonair with Hyundai, who rebadged it Grandeur.

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This is the result. It seems it was subject to about the same amount of work that was done to differentiate GM A-bodies.  I’m sure that the Japanese Olympic delegation who went on to win 14 medals on those games had little difficulty in picking out the connection between the two (or maybe they didn’t, I don’t have enough data to know whether any of them would’ve cared enough cars to notice.)

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10 years after those Olympics, Hyundai was launching our featured car in Korea, the 1998 Grandeur, which was the third generation of the nameplate. And this time they would have a go at doing everything in-house without any help from old Mitsu. This means everything from the 2.5-liter Delta and 3.0-liter Sigma V6 and the five-speed automatic to the design was 100% Hyundai. This also meant that they would be able to export it at their discretion instead of having to go through all the trouble of asking Mitsu.

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This one, captured and uploaded to the Cohort by cjcz92,represents the last one in the evolutionary chain of the XG, as it was known outside Korea. The 3.0-liter Sigma was taken out and replaced with its bigger 3.5-liter brother for 194 horsepower and 216 ft-lb. of torque. Better still, this is the “L” version. Don’t let the letter fool you; it doesn’t actually have any extra length like one has come to expect of any car which name ends in L, this is merely a trim package that includes a sunroof, CD changer and various other goodies.

But like those first Hyundais after they were finally allowed to be imported after they were emissions compliant, I’m afraid that the XG350 didn’t quite cut up the mustard in its segment. Nor was it able to schmooze its way in.

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Lets take the design for example. Remember my rant about the Kia optima and its design being about as interesting as the plastic used to make a multifunction copier? The XG unfortunately suffers from the same problems. Oh sure, they tried to spice it up with the careful application of a chrome waterfall grille and other tasteful applications of shiny to trigger the bit of the brain that lights up whenever elderly people see a Buick, but I’m afraid that it doesn’t really work. When the contemporary Toyota Avalon somehow manages to look more dynamic, it’s time to read between the lines.

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Then we get at the interior. It’s ludicrous to expect that cars at this price point won’t make heavy use of the corporate parts bin on their interiors. People who don’t want the turn-signal stalk from the compact car on their own need not apply here. Unfortunately Hyundai’s parts bin in the late ‘90s was still a bit too cheapy-feeling to compete with other near-luxury vehicles, let alone the likes of Lexus or entry level Audi’s.

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The public seemed to agree with me, the XG350 never broke the 20,000 sales mark. Its best year was 2005 when it shifted 17,645 units (Avalon: 95,318) before being replaced with the new generation of the Grandeur, now called Azera. But it seems like the Grandeur/XG/Azera have never really gotten it right. In 2011, Hyundai only sold 1,254 Azera’s. Then again, it seems these days the Genesis does what Azerdon’t.

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Oh, and about the Equus that I was talking about at the beginning? Well, remember the second generation Grandeur, the one I didn’t talk about and was still done with help from Mitsu?  Hyundai took that platform and stretched to create this, the Hyundai Dynasty. The first in the ultra-luxury Hyundai line that ends with that embassy-endorsed Equus.