2021 Genesis GV80 first drive review: Splashy, sumptuous and special SUV


Have you ever come across one of those fantastical news stories of somebody who randomly wakes up with the ability to play piano? You know, a person whose fingers suddenly and magically master classical sonatas, having never so much as stumbled through Chopsticks previously? I’ve always been suspicious of those accounts, but this 2021 Genesis GV80 is making me reconsider. Why? Because with exactly zero experience building true luxury SUVs, this Korean upstart seems to have nailed the brief right out of the box. This is a harmonious, fully realized midsize crossover with its own appeal — one ready to rub shoulders with Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz at the front of the pack.

Admittedly, the Genesis isn’t an overnight sensation, let alone some sort of unknown startup. The brand is built on Hyundai’s considerable shoulders, and Hyundai has been fielding convincing Genesis sedans for years, as well as some awfully good mass-market sport utilities. But this GV80 isn’t just Genesis’ first SUV, it’s the parent company’s first unibody crossover built on rear-wheel-drive architecture, too. But just because Genesis is belatedly arriving to the ball doesn’t mean it’s content to be a wallflower.

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On the contrary, all you need to do is take one look at the GV80’s massive, Superman-shield-shaped grille or its distinctive double-hashmark lighting to know that this SUV isn’t looking to slip in the side door and mingle unnoticed. The top-shelf Prestige trim seen here rides on massive 22-inch Michelin Primacy Tour all-season rubber, and the rest of the vehicle’s details and proportions really suit being fitted with oversized wheels. Even lesser trims start out on still-large 19 inchers. For better or for worse, the 2021 Genesis GV80 is a seriously unsubtle piece of design, and even if it’s not your thing, there’s little doubt that it looks expensive and that it has serious curb presence.

Whether you use the traditional fob or the available digital, sharable phone key to open the door, you’ll find that the GV80’s gravitas carries over to its cabin. The cockpit is swathed in all manner of upscale materials and finishes, including substantial planks of matte-finish wood and knurled switchgear that looks and feels premium. Prestige trims like this one ladle on lots of extra niceties, including a suede-like headliner and very trick 3D-effect all-digital gauge cluster (the latter is an industry first).

Then there’s the 14.5-inch widescreen infotainment system with its high resolution and sparkling graphics. It’s perched atop the dash like a billboard, but thanks to its ultra-long span and the gentle curvature of the gauge binnacle, this display doesn’t look like a tacked-on afterthought. Manipulated via touchscreen or a large jog wheel with integrated directional click ring (not unlike iPods of yore) and a center handwriting recognition pad, the GV80’s infotainment system is new and powerful, yet it’s surprisingly easy to get accustomed to its tile-based layout. 

Thankfully, there’s plenty of room inside, too. The 194.7-inch-long GV80 rides atop a 116.3-inch wheelbase, which affords ample head-, shoulder- and legroom in both the first and (slidable and reclinable) second row. Yes, a power-folding third row is available, but only on a single upper-midrange trim with the larger engine. With the way this plus-two setup eats into cargo space while only offering tight seating accommodations, I’d recommend sticking with a two-row model. 

For those keeping track, cargo space behind the optional third row is a modest 11.6 cubic feet. Space behind the second row is a more substantial 33.9 cubes, and if you fold all the seats behind the front row, you’re looking at 84 cubic feet, a figure that edges out the Mercedes GLE-Class and trounces the BMW X5.

The cabin is a special place with its own sense of style and lo tech. That two-spoke rugby-ball wheel is controversial, though.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

If you’re looking for another good reason to skip the third row, try this: You can’t get my pick of the GV80’s range, the Prestige model. I seldom recommend splurging on a top trim, but it’s worth doing here for the added creature comforts, including Genesis’ novel Ergo Motion massaging front seats that can measure occupants to make posture recommendations. The latter are clad in higher-quality, quilted Nappa leather and are comfy enough that you might decide to lounge in your driveway, just to get the chance to listen to the high-fidelity, 21-speaker Lexicon surround-sound audio. What’s more, select highline models are also treated to an adaptive multilink suspension front and rear that includes a road-reading camera to optimize the dampers for any surface in advance — with those heavy 22-inch steamrollers at each corner, you’ll want whatever tech assistance you can get to smooth out the ride.

Pro tip: When ordered in more unusual color combinations like Maroon Brown with Smokey Green leather, the GV80’s cabin feels premium and often more luxurious than what’s offered by comparable German and Japanese rivals such as the Audi Q7, BMW X5, Mercedes GLE and Lexus RX. In fact, this Genesis compares well against less-popular class picks like the Lincoln Aviator and Volvo XC90, both of which are perhaps better known for their stunning interiors than they are for anything else.

All of this is to say that not only is the GV80 luxurious and precisely assembled, it looks and feels both original and special, as well as appreciably high-tech. If there are any false notes, they’re small crimes of omission — Apple CarPlay and Android Auto aren’t offered wirelessly, and you can’t get a Wi-Fi hotspot or rear-seat entertainment. That two-spoke rugby-ball steering wheel is a bit of an odd throwback, too, but at least it’s distinct.

The GV80’s 14.5-inch infotainment system is snappy and feature rich, with both touchscreen and jog-dial interfaces.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

If you’re looking for a fire-breathing sport utility with more of an emphasis on the former than the latter, the GV80 is not your ride — at least not right now. At launch, there will be two engines available: a turbocharged, 2.5-liter four-cylinder and a twin-turbo 3.5-liter V6, both yoked to an obedient eight-speed automatic transmission. The I4 is available in both rear- and all-wheel-drive formats, and it puts out 300 horsepower and 311 pound-feet of torque. While my brief drive time in the I4 suggests it’s up to the job, it’s the V6 powertrain I’ve spent the most time with, so it’s the combination I’m going to focus on for this review. 

That’s just as well, because with a vehicle that’s as bold and brash as this, choosing the burliest powertrain only seems fitting. Plus, the GV80 is no lightweight — a base RWD 2.5T is over 4,500 pounds, and an all-mod-cons 3.5T with mandatory AWD like this one tips the scales at around 5,000 pounds. The V6 has 375 hp and 391 lb-ft of torque, enough to sling this sled to 60 mph in 5.7 seconds. 

That time won’t throw a scare into a BMW X5 sDrive40i owner, let alone an X5 M pilot, but that’s just fine. The GV80 handles sharply and the suspension setup is on the firm side regardless of drive mode setting, but this Genesis isn’t a hot-rod wagon on stilts like a Mercedes-AMG GLE63. The GV80 feels powerful, but it’s still a coddle-me-first, thrill-me-second proposition. From its muted growl at full throttle to its supple, direct steering and easy-to-modulate brakes, the GV80 is a zen cocoon. This is a vehicle that knows and embraces its mission for balanced, total luxury, and it’s unexpectedly excellent for exactly that reason.

The GV80 offers a third row, but this SUV is at its best in a five-seat configuration.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

None of this is to say that GV80’s big six feels lazy. Yes, it’s super quiet on the inside owing to active road-noise cancellation tech, laminated glass and all kinds of sound-deadening materials. But the V6 sounds better on the outside, and more importantly, it’s got the power to underscore those looks. In fact, it’s worth noting that while both powertrains are rated to tow 6,000 pounds, the twin-turbo setup helps the 3.5-liter’s torque peak kick in earlier and hang around longer (1,300 to 4,500 rpm) than the less-expensive four-cylinder (1,650 to 4,000 rpm), which should help be an even more effective towing partner. For my money, it’d be great if Genesis were eventually to offer an even-more-powerful V8 or hybrid model to match the Germans — the chassis is up to it.

That said, if there’s an Achilles heel with the GV80’s performance, it’s fuel economy. Of course, that’s a problem shared by every model in this class — at least those without hybrid assist. An entry-level RWD 2.5T rings up at 25 miles per gallon city, 21 highway and 23 combined. A loaded AWD 3.5T like this Prestige is rated at 23 mpg city, 18 highway and 20 combined. These are unimpressive figures — especially on premium fuel — but they’re wholly competitive for this class.

If you’re looking for more pleasing numbers, I’d suggest checking out pricing. The GV80 range starts at under $50,000 delivered for a 2.5T RWD — picking up right where Hyundai’s excellent Palisade Calligraphy SUV leaves off. Yes, the Lexus RX is slightly cheaper for starters, but it’s also smaller, less powerful and less luxurious. The Germans? They’re all more expensive. Just over $60K will get you into a base 3.5T AWD.

At around $72,000, the loaded GV80 Prestige isn’t cheap, but this Korean-built SUV is both a strong value and excellent overall.

Chris Paukert/Roadshow

At the other end of the range, my pick, the loaded-up Prestige with all-wheel drive and the big engine rings up just shy of $72,000 (including $1,025 delivery). To be sure, that’s a lot of money, but it’s far, far cheaper than a comparable European. Besides, I think I even prefer the way the GV80 feels overall.

No matter which trim you opt for, there’s a full suite of advanced driver assist systems in the mix. Forward collision with auto-brake, lane-departure warning and blind-spot assist are standard, as is a driver monitor. The Prestige trim comes bundled with with Highway Driving Assist II, which includes lane centering, sign recognition and even automated lane changes, as well as Remote Smart Park Assist, which allows drivers to park in tight spots while standing outside their vehicle. These features are also available as part of two driving assistance packages on lesser models.

It’s 100% true that Hyundai miscalculated where the market was going when it chose to launch its new premium Genesis brand with three sedans, just as consumers were jumping the passenger-car ship in favor of SUVs. But at least Genesis was smart enough to realize that if you’re gonna be late to the utility-vehicle party, you’ve got to come hard with swag and substance. The automaker’s first stab at the genre has both, and while it’s far from an overnight sensation, this 2021 Genesis GV80 has the goods to shock luxury buyers — and more than a few car companies — with its all-around excellence.


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