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Hyundai’s luxury offshoot wades in with a traditional large SUV. Should rivals worry?

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Lexus, Infiniti, DS, Jaguar, Volvo, Alfa Romeo, Cadillac – all have tried over the past couple of decades to steal a slice of the lucrative ‘premium’ new car market from BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Audi. Some have failed, others have failed miserably and some are clinging on. Volvo might be the only one to offer a true alternative, thanks to a generous helping of design appeal and an early start on electrification.

So what hope does Genesis, Hyundai’s luxury offshoot, have? First of all, it has the force of Hyundai and Kia behind it, whose models have evolved rapidly from bargain-basement offerings to cars that are genuine contenders to win group tests. Genesis therefore benefits from a depth of engineering might, and from strong in-house EV and hybrid powertrain technology.

Side trim echoes the twin-slit lighting style but looks suspiciously like a flying B. The rest of the design has echoes of Bentley Bentayga, too.

The new wave of Genesis models arriving in Europe now is not Hyundai’s first stab at making standout luxury cars, of course. Roughly 5 Series-sized saloons badged ‘Hyundai Genesis’ have been sold since 2008 in the US and South Korea, where buyers tend to be more accepting of new luxury brands. The second generation gradually lost the Hyundai branding before becoming the Genesis G80; and the G80 saloon we’re now getting in Europe is actually the third-generation version of the brand’s saloon. Although it launched the smaller G70 and larger G90 saloons – and even a Genesis Coupé – along the way, the brand has so far struggled to gain traction in the US because it had no SUVs.

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And so to the GV80. Becoming the Genesis brand’s de-facto flagship model, this is a large SUV meant to take on the BMW X5, Mercedes GLE, Audi Q7, Land Rover Discovery, Range Rover Sport and others. With so much competition from other, better-known brands, though, Genesis needs to offer something compelling with its full-sized luxury 4x4. Let’s find out what that may be.

The Genesis GV80 line-up at a glance

Unlike some of its European rivals, the GV80’s range is very simple, with just one four-cylinder petrol and one six-cylinder diesel available. Both come with the same in-house eight-speed torque-converter automatic.

It’s a similar story with the trim levels, where there is a choice between Premium and Luxury. Premium is generally well equipped but misses out on leather seats, wood trim and digital gauges.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace: Genesis GV80

DESIGN & STYLING

2 Genesis GV80 2021 road test review hero side

The press blurb for the GV80 starts by detailing the rigorous testing regime the car was subjected to before it went on sale in Europe and elsewhere. It was a joint project by teams based at Hyundai’s R&D centre in Namyang and at its massive proving ground, and European teams at the Nürburgring. We have a great appreciation for this kind of engineering but can’t help wondering if laps of the Nordschleife is really the modern large SUV buyer’s main concern.

Given that Genesis’s greatest challenge will be making itself known, it is surprising it has chosen to launch its showroom line-up with some very conventional powertrains. For now, it’s standard petrol and diesel engines across the range, although hybrids and EVs are coming. Petrol and diesel engines are still big business in large SUVs, but when launching an entirely new brand in 2021, it helps to claim your space in the still-developing EV segment, like Polestar has done, for example. For the time being, ‘conventional’ might just struggle to cut through for Genesis.

Big mesh grille reinforces the Bentley comparisons. The light signature is distinctive and consistent with that of all other Genesis models

There are two engine options available at launch. The first is a 2.5-litre four-cylinder petrol with 300bhp. The other, tested here, is a new 3.0-litre straight-six diesel with a single turbo putting out 274bhp. A 3.5-litre turbocharged V6 is offered in other regions, but there are no plans to bring that one to Europe. In any case, the engine comes mated to an eight-speed torque-converter automatic gearbox, which is not the ubiquitous ZF unit but an in-house development.

Most Genesis models use the rear-wheel-drive platform that’s also found under the Kia Stinger just as this one does, but GV80s drive all four wheels. In normal conditions, all power is sent to the rear – optionally through an electronically controlled limited-slip differential – but 50% can be sent to the front.

The body and structure are mostly constructed from high-strength steels, but aluminium is used for the doors, bonnet and tailgate, as well as the suspension towers. The GV80 is certainly no Lotus Elise, at 2255kg, (although our test car was 38kg shy of that) but that is a fairly typical weight for the class of car.

In the metal, the GV80 is an imposing-looking car. Its size and gigantic 22in wheels help to give it presence, but thanks to Genesis’s signature grille and the thin horizontal LED strips for the headlights, it looks even wider still.

Other than the almost Kamm tail on the rear hatch, the surfacing is relatively calm. For some, that might make the look a little generic, but others will appreciate that it’s not trying to be needlessly aggressive or sporty. There is a definite ‘bargain Bentayga’ look about the car (less of a surprise when you consider the career progression of Genesis head designer Luc Donckerwolke), a notion not dispelled by those chrome ‘gills’, which are almost a flying B.

INTERIOR

11 Genesis GV80 2021 road test review cabin

In addition to the design, the interior is an important area where Genesis ought to set itself apart. The theme that the GV80 establishes is a far cry from the slightly cold minimalism you might find in an Audi or Tesla. Luxury-spec models like our test car get open-pore wood trim and leather with contrasting piping. All Genesis cars have plenty of physical buttons and that slightly odd, two-spoke steering wheel that’s a bit of a 1970s throwback, but a likeable one at that.

If Genesis wants to convince buyers of established luxury brands to jump ship, its standards for material cabin quality must be outstanding, and in some ways the GV80’s are – with one glaring exception. The regular leather (nappa leather is optional) feels smooth and supple, almost everything else above waist height is covered in a convincing leatherette finish, and even the interior’s lower plastics have a soft touch to them. The buttons have pleasing heft and most of the silver plastics do a reasonable impression of metal. That the top of the steering wheel and column – something you look at and touch all the time – is made of hard, coarse, ill-fitting plastic was a notable disappointment to more than one tester.

Navigation with augmented reality proves to be less useful than it sounds and the live view of the road is slightly distracting.

If you do want a car with striking interior quality, though, you must take care with the spec: unlike our Luxury test car, lower Premium trim gets leatherette seats and more piano black trim.

The interior features plenty of storage in the centre console, with a generous number of charging ports (they are all USB-A rather than a mix to suit all devices), and a wireless device charger and a three-pin 12V power outlet are optional extras.

The rear bench can slide forwards and recline in a 60/40 split, and leg room is generous, although more space under the front seats would allow taller adults to stretch out more. A third row is optional. Our five-seat test car offers more space under the boot floor than the seven-seater has. The boot area doesn’t have any especially clever features other than buttons that allow you to fold the rear seats down remotely, which aren’t a unique feature.

Infotainment and sat-nav

Genesis uses a version of Hyundai’s system, which is already one of the best on the market, but it adds a rotary controller that doubles as a touchpad for writing addresses, making it even better. The display is a 14.5in touchscreen and works very quickly and logically once you’ve got used to it. It is set fairly high and far away, so you need to reach to use it. That might well be deliberate, to encourage you to use the less distracting rotary controller while driving.

Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are standard and very well integrated, with the Media and Map shortcut buttons taking you to whichever system you have been using, rather than defaulting to either CarPlay or the built-in interface. The only real niggles are that smartphone mirroring isn’t wireless and that all USB ports are USB-A, rather than a mix of A and C.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

A 3.0-litre diesel isn’t the fashionable, responsible option today that once it seemed, but it’s still the default choice for many buyers in this segment. In the GV80, it’s a straight six, like those you get from BMW and Mercedes; and producing 274bhp and 434lb ft, it’s also on a par with those rivals for power and torque. In practice, it delivers its plentiful power smoothly and quietly, with gratifying shove in the mid-range.

You can hear it under hard acceleration, but the muscular rumble of a big diesel remains quite a pleasant accompaniment compared with a more strained-sounding four-pot. That said, there seems little need for the fitment of the car’s digital sound symposer, which amplifies engine noise through the speakers, but thankfully it can be turned down or off. The engine is perfectly matched to the eight-speed auto as well, the gearbox shifting smoothly and quickly, and almost always seeming to be in the right gear regardless of whether you’re pootling or pressing on. Equally, it can be easily persuaded to drop down a gear without kicking all the way down.

Gigantic 22in wheels certainly yield an assertive stance but they don’t do the ride any favours, despite the adaptive damping. Michelin Pilot Sport 4 SUV tyres give plenty of grip.

Genesis’s 0-62mph claim of 7.5sec doesn’t sound like much to raise an eyebrow, but in our testing the GV80 did much better than that, clocking 60mph from rest in just 6.7sec. The four-wheel drive system and rear diff combine to put power down without even a chirp from the tyres. The same is true out of corners. On a dry road, you can floor it and, despite the drivetrain’s rear bias, at most you will feel the rear axle squirm only slightly as the car surges up the road.

That performance potential doesn’t come at the cost of economy in normal driving. Mixed use, which included performance testing, yielded 32mpg, but 36mpg was possible with more gentle aggregated use, while a steady motorway cruise even allowed mid-40s to the gallon. Given the GV80 uses no hybridisation and weighs what it does, that’s very good going. Braking is similarly strong.

Despite a fair bit of dive during an emergency stop, the GV80 pulled up from 60mph in just 2.41sec, which is better than both an equivalent BMW X5 and Land Rover Discovery. During normal driving, the brake pedal is progressive and easy to modulate, too, and it allows you to easily do limo-driver stops, and without the start-stop system getting its timing muddled.

RIDE & HANDLING

27 Genesis GV80 2021 road test review cornering front

From the first few metres, it’s striking how softly suspended the GV80 is. It uses multi-link axles with steel coils at both ends, rather than air suspension like a lot of rivals do – a fact you might imagine would penalise it either on handling or ride. It does come with adaptive damping as standard, though, which allows you to firm up body control a bit in Sport mode. Amusingly, the car’s seat bolsters tighten a bit in the same mode, although the effect is pretty mild, and if you’re slight of build, there’s still plenty of room between the bolsters to slide around within.

It’s also surprising, therefore, that the GV80 handles fairly tidily for such a large car. Although the body rolls quite a bit on the soft suspension, it hangs on very well in corners thanks to meaty 265-section Michelin Pilot Sport 4 SUV tyres. The steering has a medium weight and a slick, oily feel to it and it gives a consistent rate of response once the body has settled, making this large vehicle relatively easy to place despite some slight woolliness. Actual steering feedback is notable by its absence, though, so there isn’t much warning when the front tyres do let go; and, as the roll builds and builds, they surely will.

It tackles corners in a tidy and easily controlled manner, aided by strong grip from its tyres, decent steering response and good traction from the four-wheel drive system.

A large SUV is never going to be the keen driver’s choice, but it’s reassuring that even when provoked on the test track, the GV80 remains largely viceless. Part of that is thanks to the stability control, which stops the movement of the heavy body from forcing the car too far off line.

Ride comfort and isolation

As decent as the GV80’s performance and handling might be, the same cannot be said for the car’s ride. The GV80 manages to combine an extremely relaxed and permissive primary ride – to the point where it’s not inconceivable that rear passengers might experience some travel sickness – with a disappointingly thumpy secondary ride. Potholes and bad road surfaces are communicated much too harshly into the cabin. You not only feel when those 22in wheels thwack through potholes, but you can hear it as well. Tuned on the Nürburgring it might have been, but perhaps the engineers should have ventured further beyond Germany’s perfect roads.

It’s possible the standard 20in wheels with 50-profile tyres alleviate the issue, but they are available on only the lower Premium trim cars, which miss out on a lot of desirable equipment. Supposedly, the GV80 has a Ride Preview function that uses a camera to analyse the road ahead and proactively adjusts the suspension, but clearly it isn’t enough to mitigate the influence of those 22in wheels.

That’s a great shame, because wind noise and general constant road roar are well suppressed, thanks to the use of active noise cancelling and double glazing. In our empirical cabin noise testing, the GV80 was a few decibels quieter than its rivals. There is one exception that the noise cancelling apparently can’t deal with: the concrete section of the M25 motorway. Granted, it can be painful in any car, but at 70mph in the GV80, it created a resonance that felt like it might shatter the windows.

The seats are mounted high up to give a commanding view, towering over most traffic. They have the usual adjustments, including tilt and lumbar support, and prove very comfortable on long drives. With the Comfort Seat Pack, they also gain ventilation and massage functions, as well as an extendable cushion.

Assisted driving notes

On paper, the assisted driving suite is full-featured, with adaptive cruise, lane keep assist, blindspot assist, rear cross-traffic warning and speed limit recognition all fitted as standard. The Innovation Pack lets the cruise control look further ahead and use nav data, and it adds reverse parking
collision avoidance and nifty cameras that show your blindspot in the gauge cluster when you indicate.

The adaptive cruise control works okay, but it could look further ahead and the speed limit assist isn’t always correct. We’ve had it speed up in 50mph roadworks, and then fail to recognise the gantry when the speed limit did end. The lane keep assist is also quite infuriating, as it is too sensitive on country roads, but adjusting it requires going through several menus on the central screen.

Given there are a number of buttons in the interior that are less relevant, it is frustrating there is no shortcut button to the assisted driving menu.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

1 Genesis GV80 2021 road test review hero front

If there is any area where Genesis is truly different, it’s in the buying experience it offers. It doesn’t use the Hyundai dealer network. In fact, it has no dealers.

As with a couple of other new entrants (Polestar and Tesla), you buy a Genesis either online or from a small number of brand stores, where you can be shown around the cars by customer service reps who don’t work on sales commission. Showroom prices are fixed, with no haggling. Genesis calls its stores ‘studios’ and has opened one in the UK so far, in the Westfield shopping centre in west London, but there will also be pop-up stores at events. Test drives can be arranged at home, but only in London and the south-east for the time being.

CAP expects a circumspect reception for the GV80, retaining 5% less value than the Audi over three years.

If you buy a Genesis, you are also assigned a ‘personal assistant’, who can help with any enquiries and who will arrange home vehicle collections for servicing, which is free for five years or 50,000 miles. The warranty also lasts for five years but is not limited by mileage.

Our GV80 test car was a few thousand pounds cheaper than a like-for-like BMW X5 or Mercedes GLE, but that gap narrows on personal finance because the Genesis is not expected to hold its value quite as well. Both for cash and on finance, the car is comparable to a Land Rover Discovery on value.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace: Genesis GV80

VERDICT

29 Genesis GV80 2021 road test review static

The big question for any new brand is what it adds to the market – and a week with the new Genesis GV80 hasn’t provided a definitive answer to that. It’s a good car, but then there are very few bad cars in the luxury SUV market. The GV80 is hampered by a compromised ride and, while the styling has its fans, ‘blingy but bland’ was a recurring take on it among our test jury.

For those who are captivated by Genesis’s style and alternative take on customer service, and who aren’t fussed by having the last word in chassis sophistication, there is little else to put you off. The engine and gearbox, although not revolutionary, are both excellent; the interior runs its rivals close for space and material quality while offering a unique ambience; the infotainment is among the best; and, depending on how you buy it, it’s a bit cheaper than the German establishment. You needn’t even set foot in a dealership to do so.

Genesis’s first flagship model in Europe could have done with a clearer USP but, despite being a little under-defined in character in some ways, it’s good enough to have left us keen to see what else is to come from the brand.

What Car? New car buyer marketplace: Genesis GV80

Richard Lane

Richard Lane
Title: Deputy road test editor

Richard joined Autocar in 2017 and like all road testers is typically found either behind a keyboard or steering wheel.

As deputy road test editor he delivers in-depth road tests and performance benchmarking, plus feature-length comparison stories between rival cars. He can also be found presenting on Autocar's YouTube channel.

Mostly interested in how cars feel on the road – the sensations and emotions they can evoke – Richard drives around 150 newly launched makes and models every year. His job is then to put the reader firmly in the driver's seat. 

Genesis GV80 First drives