2021 Genesis GV80 3.5T Review: A Fantastic Luxury SUV That Demands Recognition

First attempts at anything often lead to subpar results. The Genesis brand’s first SUV isn’t one of them.

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2021 Genesis GV80 3.5T Review: A Fantastic Luxury SUV That Demands Recognition © 2021 Genesis GV80 3.5T Review: A Fantastic Luxury SUV That Demands Recognition

"I didn't know they made an SUV," said the well-dressed stranger who just walked up with an air of impressed curiosity. He was, of course, talking about the Cabernet-colored 2021 Genesis GV80, the very first foray into SUV-dom for Hyundai's nascent luxury division. He wasn't in the wrong, of course—this is not yet something you see every day.  

On my very first day of GV80-possession, I decided to hit up Popeyes for some socially-distanced, Louisiana-style takeout and finally try their infamous spicy chicken sandwich to see what all the fuss is about (it just came to Canada in September, okay?). Mid-meal, a guy rolled up in an Audi Q3, got out, and promptly approached to ask what exactly I was sitting in. I don't blame him for being curious. The GV80's got presence, a whole lot more of it than most of its direct competitors, and at least enough swag to cause strangers in parking lots and gas stations to stare and inquire on more than one occasion in the short week that I had it.

However, it's one thing to build a car that looks like it could take on the Bentley Bentayga but an entirely different thing to make one that actually can. I mean, as Drake once famously pointed out, even the Chrysler 300, at one point in time, could be mistaken for hailing from Crewe. Like I did with the sandwich, then, I was determined to find out if the Genesis GV80 is really as good as it looked on the internet when we all first saw it

And I'm happy to report that the news is good. Is it good enough to lure the ultra-rich out of their Bentaygas and Cullinans? Probably not, but I wouldn't be surprised if it makes Q3 Guy rethink trading in for yet another Audi when his current lease is up.

Despite being around for a full five years now, Hyundai's standalone Genesis luxury brand has yet to produce an SUV before this GV80 (the V stands for versatility). This was an unfortunate oversight in our present SUV-crazed world, but it's been corrected now, so consider Genesis in the game for real.

Starting at a little under $50,000 and commanding more than $72,000 after destination for this top-shelf 3.5T Prestige version, the GV80 is aimed squarely at other luxury mid-size SUVs like the BMW X5, Acura MDX, and Mercedes GLE. It joins the G70, G80, and G90 sedans in the Genesis range and will eventually be sold alongside a smaller GV70 that's coming sometime next year.

  • Michael Tsui
  • Michael Tsui
  • Michael Tsui
  • Michael Tsui

Before you even get in it, though, Genesis's initial SUV doesn't look like something to be trifled with. Figuratively and literally, the GV80 is a grand machine. The grille is imposing, the chrome shines brightly, and the dual-horizontal head- and taillights are unmistakably Genesis. Opt for a Prestige-trim GV80 like the one you see here and you get massive 22-inch wheels that feature a delightfully intricate truss design in the spoke-pits. (That's a portmanteau of "spoke" and "armpits" if it wasn't immediately clear. Any other auto writer who uses this term to describe the valley in between wheel spokes from here on out owes me 25 cents per use, by the way.)

I'm a fan of the GV80's design and so is, it seems, everybody who happens to come across it in real life. 

A gussied-up Hyundai Palisade—a car one could easily argue does not need gussying up—this is not. That isn't merely an abstract compliment on how upscale this SUV looks either because the GV80's rear-drive chassis is, in fact, a Genesis-exclusive frame. As for the whole Bentayga thing, I think comparing it to any other car, Bentley or otherwise, is ultimately doing the GV80 a disservice. Sure, broad strokes-wise, they share some similarities but if we're gonna play that game, you might as well brand the current Mercedes A-Class a shameless clone of the previous-gen Kia Forte. See how that works?

Do you know what the GV80 looks like? A Genesis. Plus, can you really consider it a Bentayga ripoff if both cars were designed by the same guy?

Stepping inside the GV80, the interior is just as swanky as the exterior, if not more so. The wonderfully minimalist, upscale-looking digs hold up to scrutiny with liberal use of genuine wood, leather, cold-touch metal, soft-touch plastic surfaces, customizable ambient LED lighting, and luxuriously weighty, tempered glass gear-select knobs. 

The tech isn't bad either, headlined by an ultra-wide, 14.5-inch center touchscreen that can be controlled by a satisfyingly-clicky rotary wheel, a glass, concave touchpad inside said wheel, or, y'know, reaching out and touching the actual screen. Equipped with wired Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, the screen itself is quick to respond, easy to use, comfortably huge, super sharp, and boasts pitch-perfect colors. Album art has rarely looked better and I especially like how there are little, useful blurbs describing exactly what you're fiddling with in the settings menu. In terms of infotainment tech, the Korean brands are handily destroying the Japanese ones right now. Similarly high-end is the Advanced and Prestige trims' 21-speaker Lexicon sound system which rocks and rocks hard.

Keeping unwanted noises out, meanwhile, is standard acoustic glass in the windshield and front doors as well as hollow two-piece wheels that reduce road noise and, on Prestige trims, active noise cancellation which uses speakers to spit out opposing frequencies to neutralize unwanted sound. As a result, the GV80 can be a very quiet place although given how good the stereo is (and it is mighty good) it probably won't be very often.

  • Michael Tsui
  • Michael Tsui
  • Michael Tsui
  • Michael Tsui

Wireless charging, by the way, is standard on all but the lowest-rank 2.5-liter rear-wheel-drive GV80 where it isn't offered at all.

Exclusive to this top-of-the-line 3.5T Premium, meanwhile, is the presence of a 3D, 12.3-inch, fully-digital instrument cluster. Using a camera module that tracks each of the driver's eyeballs, the system essentially projects a slightly different image to each one, creating the layered illusion of needles floating over clocks and so on. The all-new Mercedes S-Class features something similar and it's admittedly pretty cool here, convincing enough to trick your brain into thinking it's looking at a real, physical cluster if you don't think about or look at it too intently. Like Mercedes-AMG's LCD steering wheel switches, however, screen-based novelty comes at the cost of outright resolution because as neat as the GV80's 3D gauges are, it does look a tiny bit rough around the edges. 

  • Michael Tsui
  • Michael Tsui
  • Michael Tsui
  • Michael Tsui
  • Michael Tsui

Speaking of things that could've been better, the knob-and-touchscreen HVAC controls are well-designed but the knobs that control the temperature could be clickier and more satisfying to use. The seats are alright for short trips and are quite nicely shaped to fit the human body but feature seat bottoms that could be softer since, not that long into an extended drive, my bum started to get sore. Something to keep in mind and, if possible, test for yourself if you intend to use the GV80 as a long-distance cruiser. 

Oh, and the wiper motors are a bit loud. Not loud enough to be audible over the hum of the engine but a bit annoying if you're ever sitting at a stoplight while it's raining, there's no music on, and the engine has been automatically shut off by the stop/start system. 

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  • Michael Tsui
  • Michael Tsui

The big Genesis can be had either as a five-seater or with the power-folding third-row present on my tester that ups capacity to a minivan-like seven seats. Like the third rows of pretty much everything of this size, it should really only be used to store small children or adults on short trips although I appreciate what Genesis has done to not make the GV80's optional back row feel like a complete penalty box to sit in, outfitting the space with cupholders and air vents finished in the same knurled surrounds that frame pretty much everything else in this cabin. 

The second row, meanwhile, is spacious and gets its own climate controls which include—on upper trims such as this Premium—heated seats. Manual sunshades are standard on all but the bargain basement trim while this top GV80 has them powered.

As a claimed segment-first, the Genesis GV80 comes standard with a center airbag in the front row located in between the driver's seat and center console. Able to deploy in 0.3 seconds, it keeps the driver from smacking into the front-row passenger in the event of a side collision.

Even with seats that aren't as comfortable as they probably should be and windshield wipers that aren't as silent as they ought to be, this is a capital-L luxurious cabin that rewards you for being able to afford it. It has diamond-quilted leather kneepads and seatbelt latches padded with felt to keep them from agonizingly clacking against the center console. And, look, if or when your rear end really does start to ache on a long trip, all it takes is a five-minute break to reset that timer. Find a gas station. Step outside. Have a friendly chat with a stranger about how far Korean cars have come. For the most part, the GV80's interior is serene, beautiful, and beautifully put together.

In case every review of every performance-leaning Hyundai/Kia/Genesis product since about 2015 didn't already make clear, ex-BMW M boss Albert Biermann is now in charge of R&D at the Korean conglomerate (Fun fact: the GV80's chassis is internally known as the M3). Hence, the GV80 drives exactly the way you'd expect a Hyundai-backed luxury-brand SUV to drive, which is to say really nicely and probably better than you'd think if you haven't sampled one in a long time.

Of course, there are limits to what a high-riding, 5,000-pound SUV can physically do but Genesis has managed to mask the GV80's heft well, blessing it with steering that's enjoyably light yet not completely numb, a surprisingly short brake pedal, and propping it up with multi-link suspension that feels comfy, purposeful, and never floaty. 

This V6 Prestige version even gets an electronic limited-slip differential that can shuffle all of the rear-axle torque to either the left or right wheel. It's a big-bodied car that throws its weight around competently, all things considered. Not that it'll likely be thrown around very often but its owners can find peace in the fact that it won't completely fall apart if the occasion ever does arise.

Behind our tester's shiny "Crest" grille sits a new, Genesis-exclusive 3.5-liter twin-turbo V6 making 375 hp and 391 pound-feet of torque available at just 1,300 rpm. This engine is shared with the newly redesigned G80 sedan and will also be available in the upcoming GV70. Lugging around more than 5,000 pounds of steel, rubber, leather, and aluminum, the GV80 3.5T provides perfectly adequate power. It probably won't blow your socks off or win any drag races against any similarly-sized Audi SUVs with "RS" in its name but it's quick enough to provide its driver a comfortable amount of highway passing ability.

A 2.5-liter turbo-four making 300 hp is also available. Regardless of which engine you choose, an eight-speed automatic transmission is in charge of changing gears and, like a well-trained butler, does its thing quietly, smoothly, and effortlessly, never really drawing any unnecessary attention to itself. In fact, I spent the majority of my time with the GV80 not once feeling compelled to even think about this car's gearbox or remembering that it even had one. 

Manual control can be had via a pair of metallic paddles behind the steering wheel but I'm not entirely sure why anyone would bother. Here's a suggestion for any Genesis engineers in the crowd: for the GV80's mid-cycle refresh, ditch the shift paddles, and use the money saved on softer seat bottoms. 

Speaking of comfort, the 3.5-liter versions of the GV80 get Electronically Controlled Suspension with Road Preview standard while 2.5-liter models may have it as an option. Road Preview uses a front-facing camera to identify and prime the dampers for any incoming potholes and road imperfections, a technology previously only found on the most expensive cars Germany has to offer. Over rough pavement, the GV80's ride is a little busier than expected given the niftily camera-assisted dampers and this car's general aura but in most regular conditions, it's a smooth, stable cruiser that's a relief to hop into after a long day.

For the commutes following an especially arduous stint at the office, the GV80 features a fairly impressive suite of assisted driving tech including the company's Highway Driving Assist II, Lane Follow Assist, and Smart Cruise Control with Machine Learning which apparently adapts its semi-autonomous behavior to its particular owner's driving style over time. 

I can't really speak to whether the week I had the GV80 involved enough driving for it to shake off the bad habits of whichever journalist had this car before me. But I can tell you that the system was able to navigate Toronto's Don Valley Parkway from the infamous 401 all the way to the Gardiner Expressway—a fairly scenic, nine-mile stretch of highway that curves quite a bit—at night in moderate traffic with the only input from me being a handful of light grabs at the steering wheel. This wasn't because the system necessarily needed me to keep it from crashing, but just to make sure I was still awake and paying attention.

The GV80's ADAS will also come to a complete stop, is easy to engage, and features relevant readouts that are clear and informative. HDA II now features the ability to change lanes but requires you to keep your hands on the wheel and hold the signal stalk up or down halfway and keep it there until the maneuver is completed. As it stands, getting it to work as intended feels like more work than just changing lanes the old fashioned way, and getting the car to do it for you for the first time feels like something the car should reward you for with a video game-style achievement popup in the HUD or something.

While we're on the subject of "alternative driving methods," the Remote Smart Parking Assistant (or "Smaht Pahk" in Massachusetts parlance) which lets you slide the GV80 into and out of narrow spaces with just the touch of the remote key fob does indeed work and walking your massive luxury SUV back and forth like a dog is another nifty parlor trick but, like the Lane Change Assist, I'm still not convinced that it's really all that useful in practice.

All in all, though, the GV80's assisted-driving tech is really quite capable and helpful for highway cruises that require minimal lane changes and is attached to a car that's more-pleasant-than-most to operate when you take manual control. 

To crib a Jon Hamm line from modern Boston classic The Town, Genesis is officially part of the Not-Fucking-Around Crew. First attempts at anything can often lead to subpar-albeit-excusable results but the GV80 feels like a luxury SUV from a brand that's been doing luxury SUVs for years. Sure, its seat bottoms could be softer, some of its feature-set feels a little gimmicky, and it probably—through no fault of its own—still won't satisfy the badge snobs who mainly buy cars like this so they can tell people they drive a Mercedes. In my eyes, though, the flaws are few, mostly forgivable, and far between. 

It's regal, imposing, and reasonably original-looking from the outside, a truly luxurious space to sit inside, and a more-than-decent cruising machine stuffed to the knurled-bezel gills with more-than-decent tech. 

Like good chicken sandwiches, BMW X5s, Lexus RXs, and even Porsche Cayennes are kind of a dime a dozen in big cities. The Genesis GV80 isn't, at least not yet. But after a week basking in its opulent styling, sumptuous cabin, and better-than-you-think driving manners, it definitely deserves to be. 

And remember: this is Genesis SUV Version 1.0, Year 1. If the German and Japanese luxury car establishment want to keep their lunches by the time Version 2.0 rolls around, this Not Fucking Around thing better start going both ways.

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