Sunday Drive: 2021 Genesis GV80 Shakes Up Luxury SUV Market

Covid-19 has shaken everything up, so why shouldn’t it mess with Christmas traditions as well? One staple of our Christmas seasons past is to visit a “Candy Cane Lane” with another family in a nearby town. It is typically a warm-hearted, festive night of wandering through a modest neighborhood whose houses and yards are decorated in a potpourri of Christmas themes. But this year in Southern California all that is out the window: no gatherings, no wandering, and thus no Candy Cane Lane. So what does this have to do with the new Genesis GV80 SUV, you might be asking. The simple answer is the GV80 became our vehicle for taking a new stab at continuing our Christmas tradition at least after a fashion.

Among the many tests we put the GV80 through was the test of transporting the entire Nerad family — all five of us — to and through the 2020 Holiday Festival at Dodger Stadium just north of downtown Los Angeles and about 25 miles from our home. It happens that the Los Angeles Dodgers won the World Series this year, sadly not at Dodger Stadium but at a neutral site in Arlington, Tex., and this Holiday Festival represents the first chance for many Dodger fans to gather — in their separate vehicles — for a combined celebration of Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanza, and the World Series championship. So we were all in.

And the Holiday Festival turned out to be a unique test for the GV80, which is not only the first SUV from the Genesis luxury brand but also the vehicle that many feel will finally bring solid success to Hyundai’s upscale offshoot. The creation of the Genesis brand was announced late in 2015, and the first models from the standalone Genesis brand launched in late 2016 as 2017 model-year vehicles. But the luxury sedans hit the market just as American luxury customers were deserting sedans for SUVs in record numbers. Lacking an SUV, Genesis was left on the outside looking in at this phenomenon. Now, though, in the GV80 the brand has a very viable contender in the segment with more SUVs to follow forthwith.

So there is a lot of weight on the GV80 not only to be good but truly to be a game-changer. Happily, in most areas, the vehicle has the goods to do so. In fact, it has so impressed members of the North America Car, Truck, and Utility of the Year jury that it is a Finalist in the 2021 model-year competition. (The North American Car, Truck, and Utility of the Year winners will be announced join January 11. I serve as Vice President of the all-volunteer non-profit organization.)

MORE FOR YOU

As I found during my weeklong test drive of two versions of the GV80, there is a lot to be impressed about. First and most noticeable is the vehicle’s bold exterior styling that SangYup Lee, Hyundai senior vice president and head of global Genesis design calls “Athletic Elegance.” Certainly, the rear-drive, long-wheelbase GV80 is no shrinking violet. Its crest grille is as in-your-face as those of other luxury SUVs but, in our eyes, more artfully done, and it is flanked by quad headlamps that offer a distinct light signature. In fact, during our slow crawl through the Holiday Festival at Dodger Stadium, one carload of revelers lowered their windows to tell us how much they liked the headlights on our GV80. Mission accomplished, Mr. Lee!

Inside the GV80 offers a spare but not stark elegance that focuses on “the beauty of white space.” In crowded South Korea, open space is synonymous with luxury, and so the GV80 offers plenty of room for five passengers while in some iterations it also offers a less generously specified area for two more. During our journeys in the GV80, our family of five found it very commodious, and entry and exit were easy thanks to the generous rear doors.

Among the widest vehicles in its class, the Genesis GV80 emphasizes its width inside with a sleek horizontal dash highlighted by sleek, thin air vents that run across the passenger compartment. In up-level variants like the GV80 3.5T version we took to the Holiday Festival, soft-touch materials cover every surface, from the inside of the door handles to the quilted knee pads on the sides of the console. An impressive 14.5-inch, split-screen infotainment display dominates the dash. For aesthetic reasons, designers decided to limit the number of buttons and switches to control various functions, instead relying on controls embedded in the infotainment system.

The center console is equally minimalist. It houses a dial-type gear selector and another similarly shaped round control pad that was purportedly connected to the infotainment unit. The “Genesis Integrated Controller” was designed to let users set a destination or enter data without having to operate a keyboard on the navigation screen by using handwritten letters on the writing recognition control system. Now there’s an idea. But if writing on a touchpad isn’t your thing, the pad itself and the rotating ring around it are controllers as well. And in our experience, this is the one area in which this otherwise excellent design came off the rails a bit. For example, shifting from SiriusXM and FM radio, required by the Holiday Festival, became a remarkably challenging process drawing the entire family into a confab on how the thing “must work.” Finally, I resorted to voice commands, usually an iffy gambit best, to return to SiriusXM as we exited Dodger Stadium and turned left on to Sunset Boulevard.

The good news is the recalcitrant infotainment unit is the only issue we had with the GV80. On the road in both versions, the SUV is a champ, and we heartily applaud its rear-drive-biased architecture, although our 3.5T version was equipped with all-wheel-drive. The most challenging test we could give that system was wading through puddles left by lawn sprinklers run amok.

The engine choices are a 300-horsepower, 2.5-liter, turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder engine in the 2.5T or a 375-horsepower, 3.5-liter, twin-turbocharged V-6 in the 3.5T. Both engines are paired with an 8-speed automatic transmission, and both feature a dual fuel injection system that Genesis says combines the advantages of direct injection and multi-port injection.

An electronically controlled all-wheel-drive system is available on the 4-cylinder-powered 2.5T and standard on GV80 3.5T models. In normal driving conditions, power distribution is heavily rear-wheel-oriented, with virtually no torque going to the front wheels in steady-state driving to aid efficiency. But when conditions warrant 50% of torque can be channeled to the front wheels. The 3.5T offers EPA estimates of 18 mpg city/ 23 mph highway / 20 mpg combined, figures that are less-than-stellar in the segment.

To sum up the GV80’s considerable charms we have to cite its handsome exterior design and restrained interior styling, its overall room, and its comfortable yet decently sporting demeanor on the road. With pricing that starts at well under $50K for the 2.5T and can range up to about $70K for a fully equipped version of the 3.5T Advanced Plus, the GV80 is very competitively priced. In comparison, a base Lexus RX 350 starts at a bit over $46,000. Certainly, presence and gravitas are in the eyes of the beholders, but we think the GV80 trumps many of its competitors in those two qualities. It seems Genesis has finally come of age.