The GV80, Genesis’ first SUV, is well worth the long wait

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Genesis gv80 suv front three-quarter Genesis

Sangyup Lee misses his Porsche, a rare widebody 964-generation 911. “It’s at my house in Los Angeles,” says the head of the Genesis Design Center. “The house is right off Mulholland, which is one of my favorite roads. It’s east of the freeway, you know, where they used to race back in the day. I bought them both when I was working at Audi’s West Coast design studio. The car is just like the one I used to see parked near campus when I was a young design student at the Art Center in Pasadena. I promised myself I would have one someday.”

Lee now lives in Seoul, South Korea, where he has just unveiled the 2021 Genesis GV80, the brand’s first SUV, but his Porsche remains the focus of the conversation. He finds a photo of the car on his smartphone and proudly passes the device across the table. Although business takes him to California about once a month, finding time to drive his prized sports car is hard to come by. “I need to drive it,” he says. “It’s been too long. I need to spend a couple of weeks in California and soak up some car culture.”  

During his stint at Audi, he designed the Bentley Bentayga, also that brand’s first SUV. Before that, Lee worked at General Motors where he helped shape the fifth-generation Camaro convertible and the ultra-tough stance of the C6 Corvette Z06. When I mention that some of the GV80’s exterior details, like elements of its grille and front fender trim, remind me of the Bentley, he adds quickly, “but better.”

Genesis desperately needs the seven-passenger GV80 in showrooms and on sales reports. Hyundai’s luxury brand launched five years ago and has survived on a rationed diet of sedans in the hungriest luxury SUV market on record. Last year it sold only 21,000 cars in the United States, and most of those were G70s, its latest and smallest four-door, which is about the same size as a BMW 3 Series.

Built in South Korea and based on a new rear-wheel-drive chassis that it will share with the next G80 sedan, the GV80 also has a BMW in its sights: the X5. No surprise, Hyundai’s head of research and development, Albert Biermann, was recruited from BMW’s M division in 2015. At 194.7 inches long, 77.8 inches wide and 67.5 inches tall, the GV80 isn’t the largest or the most spacious three-row SUV in this class, but its dimensions mimic the X5’s almost exactly. Its 116.3-inch wheelbase is also just an inch shorter than the German’s.

Genesis gv80 suv rear three-quarter action
Genesis

Lee has accentuated the GV80’s rear-drive architecture with its long dash-to-axle ratio, set-back cabin, and wide stance. Although the Genesis is 1.5 inches taller than the BMW, it looks lower. “We worked hard to give it an athletic roof line,” says Lee. “But did you notice how low and wide it looks from the rear?” Its proportions are more akin to the Lincoln Aviator, which is also based on a rear-wheel-drive platform, but the Genesis is quite a bit smaller than the American SUV. The Lincoln is five inches longer, plus a couple of inches wider and taller than the Genesis. It also has a longer, 119.1-inch wheelbase.

Those dimensions lend the Lincoln a larger cabin, but the GV80’s interior space hits the meaty part of this market with plenty of leg and headroom in its second row and an optional third row that’s best for kids. Unlike some of its rivals, Genesis will not offer second-row captain’s chairs.

When it comes to interior design, materials, and appointments, however, the Genesis GV80 has a slight advantage. Quilted leather is available, Bentley-esque knurled knobs are everywhere, and a massive 14.5-inch touchscreen is standard. The GV80’s infotainment system can also be manipulated with a slick round controller on the console, but it isn’t a knob like you get in most luxury models; it sits flush with the panel surface for a cleaner look. Our tester even featured soft close doors like you’d see on a Porsche Panamera.

Lee didn’t miss a trick. The rotary shifter is lit at night for additional ambiance and the number of buttons and switches has been kept to a minimum. Lee says he wanted white space; this can sometimes make for some funky ergonomics, but not in the GV80. The climate controls are simple and there’s a useful volume knob on the console.

The gauge cluster is virtual and can be configured to your liking. There’s also a 3D setting, which sounds tacky but proved impressive, and its navigation system offers an augmented reality display similar to one offered by Mercedes. It projects directional graphics atop the street camera view.

Genesis gv80 suv wheel closeup
Genesis
Genesis gv80 suv front hood badge
Genesis

Genesis gv80 suv front three-quarter closeup
Genesis
Genesis gv80 suv rear taillight closeup
Genesis

I also had my doubts about the SUVs unique two-spoke steering wheel. At first it reminded me of the wheel in my Uncle Leo’s 1974 Monte Carlo, but it feels good in your hands and looks regal in the flesh. The seats, which are heated, cooled, and offer massage, are comfortable and feel luxurious.

The GV80 also features the company’s new noise-canceling system called Road-Noise Active Noise Control (RANC). Bierman says it eliminates low-frequency tire noise and road roar in real time by generating sound waves of opposite phases in 0.002 seconds. Indeed, the cabin is very quiet, even on the available 22-inch wheels and Michelin Primacy Tour A/S tires, sized 265/40R-22.

With its optional all-wheel-drive system, which adds 220 pounds, the GV80 weighs over two and half tons. Although its doors, hood, and tailgate are aluminum, its body is steel. But the SUV doesn’t feel overweight on the road. Instead, after much testing on racetracks, including the Nürburgring, Biermann has given it a firm suspension and impressive balance. Just as he did for so many BMWs, Bierman set the GV80’s engine back in the chassis and moved its battery to the rear of the vehicle for optimal weight distribution.

Although the ride is smooth enough on the 22s, it should be a bit better on the 19s or 20s. Body roll isn’t an issue, and the steering has a satisfying heft.

When the GV80 goes on sale this summer, most models will get all-wheel drive, and two turbocharged engines will be available. A 290-horsepower 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, which will also power the G70 and Hyundai Sonata N-Line, will be standard. A new twin-turbo 3.5-liter V-6 producing 375 horsepower will be optional, as well. Although it makes 10 hp more than the brand’s existing 3.3-liter V-6, the new engine’s output is conservative compared to Lincoln’s impressive 400-horse 3.0-liter. A responsive eight-speed automatic transmission with shift paddles will back both Genesis engines, and all-wheel-drive models get an electronically actuated limited-slip rear axle. EPA fuel economy estimates are not yet available.

The test car we drove uses a 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder turbo diesel offered only in Korea. With 275 horsepower it packed enough punch, but acceleration will surely be better with the more powerful gas engines. The gas engines are considerably lighter and shorter, which should further improve the GV80’s balance.

Genesis gv80 suv front angle interior
Genesis

Standard active safety systems and electronic driver aids include Forward Collision-Avoidance Assist with Pedestrian Detection, Highway Driving Assist, Rear Cross-Traffic Collision Avoidance Assist, Blind Spot Collision-Avoidance Assist, Driver Attention Warning, and Smart Cruise Control with Stop and Go. The smart cruise control even features software that learns and then mimics your particular driving style, and every GV80 gets 10 airbags, including one between the front seats to keep the driver and passenger from knocking coconuts during a side impact.

Prices haven’t been set yet, but the 2021 Genesis GV80 should cost between $50,000 and $65,000 depending on trim level and options. That makes it cheaper than many of its European rivals and basically assures its value appeal, which has long been a posture of Hyundai’s U.S. strategy. More fun to drive than a Lexus RX and with a more refined ride than the Aviator, it has the potential to triple the brand’s sales volume in America.

When Genesis was just shucking sedans, it was easy for the other luxury brands to ignore the startup. Those days are over. In fact, Lee has already designed its next SUV, a smaller five-passenger crossover most likely christened the GV70. It’s coming soon. Hopefully he found a little time in between to drive his 911.

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