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2021 Genesis GV80 first drive review: The brand's most important debut yet

Genesis' long-awaited SUV is finally here, and just a few days after its public debut, we take it for a spin in South Korea.

The GV80 is now officially on sale in South Korea.

Genesis

The auto industry is a tough nut to crack. Successfully launching a new brand in such a mature industry is a nearly impossible task, especially in the luxury space. There's no shortage of excellent competition, and the deep-pocketed motorists these vehicles cater to can afford to be as picky as they want. If you're going to succeed, your products had better be good.

Despite immense challenges, the folks at Hyundai are winning big. It was only five years ago when this South Korean industrial giant transformed Genesis into a standalone brand. Since then, the luxury division's products have won numerous awards and the respect of both discerning drivers and the motoring press alike. Genesis' potential is huge. But it's lacked one major thing in order to really break into the luxury scene: an SUV.

For years, designers and engineers have been hard at work creating this, the GV80, Genesis' first SUV. Originally debuting in concept form at the 2017 New York Auto Show, the production GV80 was publicly unveiled just a couple of days ago at a media event in Seoul, South Korea. Following its debut, I got to drive the GV80, and though my time behind the wheel was brief, I can firmly say I walked away impressed.

New, lightweight bones

The GV80 will be available with either two or three rows of seats. Loads of luxury amenities and the latest technology are par for the course in this segment, and Genesis' SUV will provide plenty of both.

Looking to the future, the GV80 is built on a new, rear-wheel-drive platform, one that will underpin future Genesis products. Providing stiffness and safety in spades, the GV80 incorporates loads of hot-stamped, high-strength steel. And in order to keep mass in check, the hood, doors and tailgate are all fashioned of aluminum.

The GV80 will be offered with a choice of either rear- or all-wheel drive. Models equipped with the latter gain Multi-Terrain Control, a driver-selectable system that tailors the vehicle's performance to varied conditions, thanks, in part, to a limited-slip rear differential. Three settings are offered: sand, mud and snow.

The two-line head- and taillights are really quite striking.

Genesis

Looking the part

Dovetailing nicely with the rest of Genesis' lineup, the GV80 features a prominent, shield-shaped grille, one of the brand's hallmark design cues. A special mesh texture fills in this space, something Genesis calls the "g-matrix" pattern, which is also echoed in the lighting fixtures and on various interior components.

Another signature styling element is a unique, two-line motif, which is perhaps most noticeable in the GV80's headlamps. This feature is carried through along the bodyside and into the quad-element taillights. Front and rear, this makes the GV80 unmistakable, especially at night. For added bling, buyers can option wheels up to 22 inches in diameter.

The GV80's exterior is attractive enough, though it's perhaps a touch busy. Fortunately, when it was time to craft the interior, designers were much more restrained. This vehicle's cabin is positively sumptuous, an absolute class act that should keep BMW and Mercedes-Benz product planners up at night.

Unlike the interiors offered by some rival brands -- Acura and Lexus come to mind -- this Genesis' cockpit is clean and elegant. The dashboard is deceptively simple and mostly horizontal in configuration. A broad, 14.5-inch screen pops up from its top surface and is home to an infotainment system with a new and steep learning curve. Another screen is located on the center console where it tilts up to meet the dashboard, and houses a variety of hardware switches and controls for the HVAC system.

We absolutely love this green-and-brown interior color scheme.

Genesis

Also punctuating the center console are two prominent knobs, each textured with a knurled pattern. The rear one serves as the gear selector while the forward one, which feels like an old iPod scroll wheel, controls elements of the infotainment system and surrounds a small touch pad, which supports handwriting recognition.

Top-quality leather is another feather in the GV80's cap. The headliner and accompanying roof pillars are wrapped in a rich, micro-suede material. Five different interior color combinations will be on the menu -- and we can't get enough of the green-and-brown motif seen in the photo above.

Even more remarkable than all this is the power-adjustable second-row seat, which is also heated and ventilated. Not only do the backrests move at the push of a switch, the split lower cushion is adjustable for rake, as well. This should make the GV80 a supremely comfortable road-trip machine for your backseat passengers.

Slide into the driver's seat and you're treated to a two-spoke steering wheel. At first glance it looks a bit odd, but the meaty rim feels natural in my hands. In keeping with current trends, the GV80's instrument cluster is fully digital.

Thanks to beautiful design, excellent materials and a heaping helping of comfort, the GV80's interior is, simply put, damn fine. Absolutely nothing about it feels cheap or poorly thought out. It's one of the best cabins to ever come out of South Korea.

The cabin even looks sumptuous in this more milquetoast shade of beige.

Genesis

A few special features

Not only does the GV80 benefit from a host of driver-assistance technology, things like automatic emergency braking with pedestrian detection and rear cross-traffic alert, it has several unique bits of tech. One of these is called Road-Noise Active Noise Control, or RANC for short. With an array of microphones sprinkled throughout the cabin and extra computer processing power, it's designed to make this vehicle's cabin noticeably quieter. Think of it as the next generation of active noise cancellation.

An electronically controlled suspension with steel springs is included. With a forward-facing camera, it can read the pavement ahead and adjust the dampers to deliver a smoother ride, something that's quite valuable in South Korea, where there are loads of speed bumps.

Another feature of note is the adaptive cruise control. Unlike competing systems, this one is augmented by machine-learning capability. It can adjust to different motorists' driving styles so it "learns" your habits and responds as you would in various conditions.

Augmented-reality navigation will also be included in the GV80. It projects virtual guidelines over actual road images to help drivers navigate challenging situations. We've seen tech like this before in Mercedes' MBUX software.

The GV80 will be offered with two turbocharged engines in the US.

Genesis

A little jealousy, a lot of mystery

The Korean-spec GV80 tested here is powered by a 3.0-liter I6 diesel, matched to an eight-speed automatic transmission. This engine is a little gem, and something North American drivers should totally be jealous of. Not only is it smooth and quiet, it's muscular, too, delivering around 274 horsepower and 434 pound-feet of torque. Unfortunately, it's extremely unlikely this engine will ever be offered in the GV80 on our side of the Pacific.

American customers will have to make do with a pair of turbocharged gasoline powerplants. A 2.5-liter four-cylinder should serve as the base unit. For drivers that want more, a new, Genesis-exclusive 3.5-liter V6 will also be offered. Unfortunately, there's plenty of mystery swirling around these engines. No horsepower or torque figures are available just yet, not even estimates. The same is true of fuel economy figures and pricing.

Seoul, man

Of all the places on earth to evaluate a new car, South Korea's beautiful and sprawling capital city is less than ideal. As you might expect, it's crowded, and the speed limits are low -- I don't think I got a chance to take the GV80 past about 60 mph. On top of that, and in the interest of full disclosure, I only got about an hour behind the wheel, driving almost exclusively on straight roads. Don't expect any earth-shattering commentary about how the GV80 handles, but of course, this is a very early look at the vehicle. A more thorough test will be conducted in due time, no doubt.

The not-for-US diesel engine is the best thing about the way the GV80 drives. It hits hard down low, pulling with vigor. Diesel clatter is minimal and it should have no issue meeting the strictest emissions standards in Europe and other countries. That engine's partner in crime is a Hyundai-designed eight-speed transmission. It's silky smooth and delivers perfectly timed gear changes.

Given my limited time behind the wheel, it's difficult to comment on the GV80's chassis tuning. The steering is rather numb, which is pretty much the norm in modern vehicles with electrically boosted systems. The ride is quite smooth and well isolated, though those gigantic 22-inch wheels do it no favors. Impact harshness from surface irregularities is a bit starchier than I originally expected. North American models should be noticeably firmer than Korean-spec versions, too.

The GV80 will arrive in American showrooms later this year.

Genesis

Underway, the GV80's cabin is nice and quiet, but it doesn't seem any more hushed than competing vehicles. I expected Hyundai's latest and greatest active noise-cancellation system to work miracles, though it did not. Perhaps Korea's low speed limits and bowling lane-smooth roads didn't provide the GV80 with enough of a challenge. I can't wait to test this vehicle back home in Detroit where the highways have more craters than the surface of the moon.

Final thoughts

The GV80 is now officially on sale in South Korea, though it's not expected to arrive in the US around the middle of the year, most likely as a 2021 model. So many things are up in the air right now, and it's impossible to say with any certainty what changes will be made to the GV80 for the American market.

Since an on-sale date hasn't been squared away, pricing is, naturally, a mystery as well. In South Korea, the GV80 starts at around 66 million won, which works out to about $57,000, though that's an estimate, at best. Like other Genesis products, the GV80 should offer a strong value proposition compared to its rivals, though it is not likely to be cheap.

The Genesis brand's first SUV is a damn impressive vehicle. Comfortable, quiet and beautifully presented, it proves just how serious Hyundai's luxury arm is getting these days. Given the world's ongoing obsession with SUVs, the GV80 is practically guaranteed to significantly bolster this brand's showroom performance, both in America and around the world.


Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.

Originally published Jan. 16.