It is one of those dank Charleston mornings that clouds your glasses the instant you step outside and warns you with a breathy whisper: You will sweat today. Eating a breakfast of sausage and eggs at the Charleston Grill and looking out the window at a sopping-wet courtyard, car reviewer Linda Water Nelson says she doesn't mind the rain.
"We Texans right now love to see the rain," says Nelson, whose home city of Austin has had over 40 days without precipitation. Nelson, writing for 50-and-up women's website Vibrant Nation, is one of about 50 journalists who came to Charleston Monday to review Hyundai's 2012 Accent and Genesis sedans before they hit the market.
In the U.S., which became the South Korean company's No. 1 market for the first time ever in March, Hyundai has regional media introductions every time it releases a new model. This was the first time the company had debuted a car in Charleston, and reviewers from as far away as Florida and New York were treated to some of Charleston's swankiest accommodations: dinner at Magnolias, rooms at Charleston Place Hotel, and presentations at the Riviera Theater.
The press materials for the three-day event paid a rare compliment to Charleston's streets, noting that drivers would get to test the vehicles "on the smooth and sweeping roads of beautiful Charleston." The test drives took place Tuesday; by Wednesday, torrential rain had flooded downtown streets and parts of Interstate 26, leading to several early-morning wrecks.
Kurt Ernst, a reviewer from Jacksonville, Fla., was disappointed in the route that organizers had laid out, saying he would have hoped for more of an opportunity to drive on winding roads. The 60-mile route went along sweeping back roads on James Island and Johns Island before returning downtown on Highway 17. "Of course, the rain didn't help," Ernst says.
Company representatives gave presentations about the subcompact Accent and higher-end Genesis, and they were always available afterward for questioning. One Hyundai rep, Miles Johnson, explained that the company's name is properly pronounced hy-OON-die (Korean for "modern"), but that American television commercials had adopted an easier pronunciation that rhymes with Sunday.
The Powerpoint-assisted descriptions of the cars included striking adjective choices on the speakers' part: The Accent is "confident," its interior accents are "piano-black," and its rear end is "expressive." The whole design "creates the appearance of motion even when it's standing still."
One reviewer, Pulitzer-winner Dan Neil of the Wall Street Journal, asked the bold question of how Hyundai keeps its prices so cheap while keeping quality up. Is it one giant loss-leader scheme? And are company executives purposely limiting production on consistently sold-out models? No, representatives said, neither of those was the case.
Afterward, other reviewers clustered around Neil as he speculated about "low labor costs in a very oppressed part of the world — of course I'm talking about Alabama." One reporter remarked that Neil had quite a sense of humor to be a Journal reporter; Neil assured her that he wouldn't last long.
By the time the Accent test drives began at 9:15 a.m. outside Charleston Place, it was spitting rain again, and employees from Prestige Auto escorted the drivers under umbrellas to their choice of four-door and hatchback models in red, silver, blue, and eco-green.
Reviewers and event organizers alike were insistent that the posh surroundings were not meant to influence the car reviews. Ariel Garcia-Linares, a Hyundai representative who traveled from Miami to coordinate the test drive event, said that reviewers were treated to similar luxuries at previous years' model launches, and that no one was expected to give a positive review in return.
Besides, he said, "We're not going to put them in a Motel 6."