WHEN Genesis first arrived as a standalone luxury brand in 2017, it had one hand tied behind its back; with no SUVs available in its lineup, its sedan-only strategy limited its appeal to only a small slice of the current automotive landscape.
That all changes with the 2021 Genesis GV80, a midsize sport-utility contender that dives head-first into a market gone mad for big, plush people movers.
On the plus side, it’s a vehicle that promises to plunk the Genesis brand onto a far larger stage than it’s had up to this point in its brief existence.
But the GV80 has been tasked with the role of ambassador in perhaps the most competitive, cutthroat corner of the high-end segment.
Doing sport-utility battle with BMW (the X5), Mercedes-Benz (the GLE-Class) and Audi (the Q7) is a challenge that more often leaves scars rather than scaring up new customers for those few premium products that dare to invade their well-established domain.
With the GV80, however, that distinguished German competition proves to be more of a yardstick than a whipping post — and one where the final measure is much closer than anyone could have predicted.
There’s no mistaking the Genesis GV80 for any other deluxe hauler currently plying mall parking lots and grade-school pick-up queues. That’s a singular achievement for an SUV, as even a demanding window sticker provides no guarantee of escaping the homogeneity of modern crossover design.
Key elements of the GV80 include its razor-slash LED running lights framing a massive trapezoidal grille, with similar sheet metal cutouts masking turn indicators just behind its muscular front fender wheel bulge.
A rising chrome indentation above the GV80’s rocker panels and a unique double-spoiler effect molded into the top and mid-sections of the Genesis’s rear hatch, combined with a sloping roofline, also work together to create a design with visual punch yet still one graceful enough to belie its enormous size.
Still, it’s the cabin that makes the strongest argument for considering the GV80 as a legitimate competitor to the established SUV ruling class.
As tested in the Prestige trim, the Genesis features a spectacular level of interior fit and finish, with details such as diamond-stitched leather (a color-keyed light green to match the vehicle’s darker paint job), a simple yet effective LCD gauge cluster, and a panoramic screen perched on the dashboard coming across as highlights.
Nearly every surface one might touch inside the Genesis is either soft, beveled or otherwise machine-turned to feel as though it has been custom-made for your fingertips rather than scooped off an assembly line.
Luxury vehicles often tout themselves as oases from the outside world, and the GV80 delivers that in spades whether you’re in the driver’s seat or scoping out the scene from the spacious second row. You’ll want to avoid the optional third set of seats, however, unless you’re low enough to the ground to walk under a limbo bar. Leave them folded flat and take advantage of the generous cargo room offered by the Genesis instead.
The only true flaw in the GV80’s presentation has to do with its somewhat convoluted infotainment interface. Although touch-sensitive, the display is positioned far enough away from the driver to require the use of a dished rotary controller on the center console.
Interpreting what sequence of pushes and clicks will take you where you want on the corresponding screen is not always obvious.
The model I drove also had a bug in its navigation system that placed the SUV 110 miles to the east of its actual location, a problem that persisted even after I performed a factory reset.
As with most of its brethren, the Genesis GV80 offers a choice between turbocharged drivetrains. Its base four-cylinder checks in at 300 horsepower with the 2.5T model, while the 3.5T I drove features a twin-turbo, 3.5-liter V6 good for 375 horsepower and 391 lb-ft of torque.
That option also makes all-wheel drive standard (with rear-wheel drive possible at the entry-level), while an eight-speed automatic gearbox is included across every version of the SUV.
That the GV80 is as quick as a sports sedan is no surprise; a low five second 0-60 mph time is expected from any luxury SUV in the midsize class.
Thus, where the vehicle truly excels is with its calm character. Out on the road, the Genesis hews big and confident, a schooner in a sea of sailboats, and one that never lets the winds of its forward progress perturb passengers (unless Sport mode is engaged, which comes with a concomitant rise in engine noise).
The GV80 won’t deliver the same immediacy or thunder associated with a pedal dip in the top-tier eight-cylinder X5 or GLE-Class, but it compares well to the analogous six-cylinder models, which still command a premium price over the Korean entry. Put it this way: The least-expensive BMW midsize SUV is only $7K less than the most expensive Genesis.
Even leaving aside the difference in cost, the GV80 is wise to highlight comfort and confidence rather than attempt to dazzle with muscle or agility.
A relaxing ride home in traffic or down the interstate for a weekend getaway is far more rewarding in an SUV than a too-taut suspension aching for exercise that will rarely, if ever, come its way.
It’s impossible to ignore the Genesis GV80’s placement as a screaming deal in a sea of very expensive SUVs. Starting at less than $50,000 and climbing up just past the mid-$60K mark, Genesis has managed to undercut almost every one of its rivals without dialing back on anything luxury buyers consider important.
In fact, it’s not a stretch to place the GV80’s excellent interior and its eye-catching sheet metal ahead of its premium SUV peers, leaving it lacking only in terms of sheer thrust on the spec sheet.
Being able to turn in such a complete performance with its very first sport-utility vehicle highlights how immensely serious Genesis is about establishing itself as a mainstream luxury competitor.
This is a vehicle that feels far more expensive than its monthly payment would suggest.
But more importantly, it’s also one whose every aspect is the result of a carefully considered, extensively tested and painstakingly assembled process intended to remind you that a high-end automotive experience doesn’t begin and end with the badge on the hood.