2021 Genesis GV80 Review: Korea Crafts a Global Contender

The verdict: Genesis’ first effort at an SUV is an outstanding success, with refined performance, state-of-the-art technology, unique style and luxury appointments that shame some established brands.

Versus the competition: The GV80 has a more luxurious cabin than anything from Infiniti, Cadillac or Lexus, and it gives the European class benchmarks a run for their money. Add the value pricing and standard safety equipment, and it becomes a significant class contender.

A few years ago, South Korean automaker Hyundai launched its first foray into the luxury market with a stand-alone brand, Genesis and if you weren’t entirely aware of that fact, it might be because it started with three sedans as everyone’s tastes were migrating even more rapidly to SUVs. Fast forward to today, and Genesis has finally made up for that omission with this: the all-new 2021 Genesis GV80 mid-size SUV. It’s meant to go up against models like the BMW X5, Lexus RX, Lincoln Aviator and Mercedes-Benz GLE. It’s rear-wheel drive, built off of the same platform as the G80 sedan, and features a choice of turbocharged engines, a ton of gee-whiz technology, unique styling and aggressive pricing.

But it’s hard being the new kid on the block, and Genesis has a lot to prove if it wants to be considered in the same breath as a Benz or Bimmer. After spending an afternoon in this new GV80, however, I can attest Genesis has brought its A-game to the party, and the traditional luxury brands should be worried.

Related: 2021 Genesis GV80: Well Worth the Wait

Nothing Else Looks Like This …

Let’s start with the way it looks. It’s incredibly distinctive, but it’s different without being … weird. It starts with the quad-lamp setup in front flanking that huge trapezoidal grille that features what Genesis calls its “G-Matrix” look; step back a pace and take it all in, and you’ll realize that the front end mimics the Genesis winged shield logo in the shape of the grille and headlights. The sides feature long character lines that stretch in unbroken curves to the rear, where the same quad-light treatment is used on the LED taillights.

Genesis has been a bit heavy with the chrome in some spots, like those huge swaths along the bottoms of the doors, but it’s not too garish or glaring. The RWD proportions of the GV80 are striking, with the overall look combining the more successful elements from Lincoln’s latest showstoppers, Bentley’s Bentayga and some unique elements that are all Genesis’ own look. It has exceptional presence on the street, and is especially stunning in green or silver paint. 

… Outside or In

The impressive looks carry over to the cabin, which finally showcases all that Hyundai and Genesis have learned about crafting luxury interiors. The materials in the GV80 are top-notch, easily on par with the best interiors in the luxury class and better than a lot of supposedly top-tier luxury brands (I’m looking at you, Lexus). Genesis’ special theme again revolves around that “G-Matrix” look, represented in the interior by knurled-metal patterning in just about every metal surface. Every knob has it, from the four-way touch-sensitive multimedia selector to the climate controls to the electronic transmission gear selector. It’s on the vent controls, the window switches, the volume knob on the steering wheel, the turn signal and wiper stalks. It lends an upscale texture and interest to the interior bits and pieces, and actually does help in gripping various surfaces when using them, too.

There are a few special items of note in the GV80’s occupant compartment. Let’s start with that unique steering wheel, which reminds me of the steering wheel on a 1992 Buick Roadmaster. That two-spoke, thick-center look is definitely retro, but again, it’s unlike anything else you’ll find in a modern luxury car. The other controls are a mix of dedicated buttons (such as those that surround the climate control screen) and capacitive touch-sensitive ones (which is the climate control system itself). Unlike other luxury brands, however, Genesis hasn’t gone overboard with touch-sensitive controls it’s limited to just a few operations of the climate control system, thankfully. I can live with this.

The round multimedia controller is also unique. It consists of a touch-sensitive round center panel and a knurled-metal rotating ring, both of which are also four-way controllers. It gives you a lot of flexibility in controlling the massive 14.5-inch multimedia screen, but if you don’t want to use a remote controller, the screen is also touch-sensitive, although some of it is a bit far from the driver to reach without a stretch. Much of it is also controllable via voice commands, which did seem to work quickly and without error when I tried them. The gauge cluster on most models is a reconfigurable mix of a fixed analog speedometer to your left and a digital display screen to the right, and there’s an optional head-up display that’s also big, bright and easy to adjust. Spend some money on the top-tier trim and you can get a nifty 3D digital display, which changes when you switch drive modes and uses infrared cameras to track your eyes and adjust itself accordingly.

Another special feature is the optional Lexicon premium audio system, which features 21 speakers in 18 locations throughout the cabin and 1,050 watts of power through 14 channels. This model and the G80 sedan host the first automotive systems from Lexicon, a brand that’s better known for home amplifiers and receivers, but the company definitely did its homework here the system is dynamite, rivaling the Revel system at Lincoln and the AKG Studio Reference system in the latest Cadillac Escalade for clarity, punch and power. 

The Limitations of a Rear-Drive Platform

Now this is a mid-size SUV, and a rear-wheel-drive one, too, so interior space suffers a bit from the packaging limitations of such a vehicle. You sit high in the GV80, and that does help for visibility. Front-seat comfort is excellent, and the second-row seats have adequate legroom, about what’s expected for a mid-size model like this. There is a third-row option, but it’s available only on one specific GV80 the V-6 all-wheel-drive Advanced Plus trim.

That’s honestly OK there’s barely any room in the third row and it’s suitable only for children. But it also highlights the cargo room of the GV80, which might be one of its few downsides. The liftover height to get cargo over the bumper feels quite high, and the cargo area floor itself also seems high, both likely a function of the GV80’s rear-suspension setup. 

Mechanical Refinement

Under the hood, you have your choice of two engines for the new GV80: either a 300-horsepower, turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder or a 375-hp, twin-turbocharged V-6. Both are mated to a standard eight-speed automatic transmission. The four-cylinder can be had with rear- or all-wheel drive, while the V-6 comes with AWD as standard. Either powertrain is a winner in my opinion, but I’d be hard pressed to actually justify the extra cost of the V-6 over the already outstanding performance of the four-cylinder. The turbo four makes the GV80 quick and responsive, with the transmission shifting seamlessly and smoothly. You’ll never lack for power when you want it, and it’s quiet and placid at cruising speeds, as well. The V-6 has a little extra grunt, but it’s just more for the sake of more the standard engine is so good that splurging for the bigger one is really just a matter of prestige buying, or of picking a higher trim so you can get more goodies. 

Ride quality is also excellent even with the optional 22-inch wheels (19-inch wheels are standard and 20-inchers are available, as well). The GV80 is definitely skewed more toward the luxury end of the spectrum instead of the sporting end and to me, that seems proper for a vehicle like this. I’ll never understand why so many automakers are trying to turn tall, heavy wagons into sports models nobody drives these things aggressively, and nobody’s taking one to a track day, so why not focus on making it cushy and comfortable instead?

That’s exactly what Genesis has done, crafting a beautifully premium driving experience with the GV80, one that focuses on control and refinement, but not isolation to the point of numbness as we’ve sometimes seen on other premium South Korean vehicles including Genesis’ own big G90 sedan. Genesis’ German executive influences are evident here, as a number of former BMW executives went to the brand several years ago and have been rightly credited with crafting a premium rival to the traditional German luxury brands.

Undercutting the Competition

So what does all of this newfound luxury and surprising refinement run you? The base price for a four-cylinder RWD GV80 is $49,925 (prices include destination) and includes items like 19-inch wheels, a full suite of electronic safety systems that all cost extra on every German luxury SUV, faux-leather heated seats and a navigation system with that big 14.5-inch screen. Load up the GV80 with the V-6 AWD and the top Prestige trim level, and you’re looking at a total price of $72,375. That undercuts a lot of competitors like the BMW X5 and Mercedes-Benz GLE by several thousand dollars across the board, all while even beating the Mercedes for base engine horsepower.

Anyone who’s currently out there shopping for a mid-size luxury SUV would do well to put the 2021 Genesis GV80 on their consideration list. Its combination of style, luxury, refinement, features, technology and highly competitive pricing are sure to make it one of this year’s hottest must-have entries into what is already a loaded class.

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