The woman crossing the street, holding her small daughter’s hand, squinted at the grille of my Genesis G80 while it waited at a red light. Behind the wheel, I watched her face. She wasn’t displeased, exactly—more perplexed. Puzzled at the unfamiliar grille and the winged logo on the nose of the car, flashing the word Genesis in the midday California sun, a word that hasn’t quite become a household name just yet.
In fact, during the days leading up to the new G80 Sport press drive, I found myself having this same conversation with a number of my friends and family:
“I can’t this weekend, I’m going to drive the Genesis G80 Sport.”
“What is that? The Hyundai?”
This is the biggest problem that the Genesis brand faces right now. The most recent of newly launched luxury brands, the Genesis name began as a Hyundai model and then split off to be its own luxury brand in 2015. Not everybody is aware of this fact just yet.
Genesis, essentially, aims to do for Hyundai what Lexus did for Toyota and Acura did for Honda, although I am sure it’d rather be more the former than the latter. And like most brands are wont to do, the people behind Genesis are wary of drawing any direct comparisons or saying they aim to compete with any specific automaker, although they clearly are in a highly competitive market—one that makes being an unknown brand very hard.
Manfred Fitzgerald, the head of the Genesis brand, confirmed that U.S recognition is still a work in progress. And that it takes time.
“There’s no shortcut to that,” Fitzgerald, the former Director of Brand and Design at Lamborghini, told me in an interview. “There’s nothing that I would try to rush by any means, but what I will say that with today’s technology, I think if you can get it right and if you are authentic and credible and not trying to play somebody, I think you can accelerate the whole process of creating brand awareness.”
He was talking about delivering a good product to the public, solid enough on its own that it would speak for itself. No smoke and mirrors. No huge and over-the-top ad campaigns. Again, easier said than done.
His job is also made significantly harder by the fact that the G80—formerly the Hyundai Genesis sedan—and G90—formerly the Hyundai Equus—sedans launched in the luxury sedan segment, which is already saturated and filled with competition. (Forget the old Genesis Coupe, it’s not a thing anymore.)
Besides the big German three, you’ve now got companies getting their shit together more than they have in decades like Lincoln, Cadillac, Jaguar and even Volvo to contend with.
And how did it hold up? I went to Napa Valley to find out.
In terms of providing you an exceedingly nice place to park your ass, the new Genesis G80 Sport is not bad at all. Its insides are swathed in buttery leathers, the seats will configure to most driving positions within reason and the infotainment screen is large and integrated nicely into the dash. Everything feels solid and bolted down. This is no Korean economy car.
The G80 is the smaller offering of the Genesis lineup, which right now only consists of it and the larger G90. I tested the 3.3-liter V6 twin-turbocharged G80 Sport, which offered up 365 horsepower and 376 lb-ft of torque.
It’s available in either rear- or all-wheel drive variants and slots in between the base G80, with the 3.8-liter, naturally aspirated V6 and the top-end G80, with the 5.0-liter, naturally aspirated V8.
On the twisty roads that curved through the vineyards of Napa Valley, the AWD G80's claimed 4,674-pound girth worked against it. The steering, though tight, offered little sensation as to what the front of the car was doing or where it was pointed. Often, the 275-section rear tires didn’t inspire the confidence needed to really push the car in the corners, which resulted in an oddly cautious swimming sensation, as much of the car’s weight lolled about in the corners.
And once we broke onto the twistier and tighter section of Highway 1 overlooking the Pacific, my willingness to nail the throttle disappeared altogether. The car was simply too large and the feedback too vague for me to play with such fire.
Of course, nobody ever called the G80 a sports car, despite it having the word “Sport” in its name. Selecting the “Sport” drive mode noticeably stiffened up the suspension, put the eight-speed automatic into the changeable-with-the-paddle-shifters manual mode and made the throttle more responsive, but still, I made no mistake: this was not a sports car.
If you really wanted to shout, “Watch this!” to your passengers, ideally, you’d find a stretch of two-lane backroad with nice and wide shoulders, put the car in Sport mode and hammer on the accelerator and brakes there, because that’s the type of the road where the G80 Sport shines. The power is adequate but won’t interrupt conversations.
The car will do the fast things, but you’re also aware that this isn’t its dominant personality.
Aside from that, the G80 was an awesome highway cruiser. Quiet and comfortable, something about chilling at 75 mph gave it the stability that was lacking on the pirouetting coastal roads. This, I suspected, was where most G80 Sport buyers would be spending their time driving anyway. Because that’s what luxury sedan buyers do.
And the G80 did look the part. No longer can a luxury sedan just be a sedan; it must have aggressive styling and an imposing air before you even get to the country club. Yet, the G80's styling still remained anonymous. The grille was wide like a vague Audi’s and the tail lights were polygonal like an approximate Lexus’. Objectively, all those parts fit together just fine. Subjectively, they didn’t spell out Genesis. Not yet, anyway.
Which, I guess, is all part of the growing pains that come naturally with magicking a spanking-new luxury brand from out of nowhere. Brand loyalty is a funny thing, but for customers who care less about the badge and more about the price, then the G80 Sport is a Pretty Good Car to buy. At $55,250 for the RWD G80 Sport and $57,750 for the AWD, they are positioned competitively against their German, American and Japanese counterparts.
It’s probably fair to say that with Genesis, the product won’t be the hard part. Hyundai makes solid cars these days. This is not news to anyone. But getting people to know and care what Genesis is will be the real trick.
So why a new luxury brand now? Fitzgerald said that it was because despite Hyundai being widely respected as a “good value for money car,” people still didn’t know that much about it. The solution was to create a different brand that would make people think of it in a different way.
There was initial skepticism back home in the South Korean market, but now people are enthusiastic. Fitzgerald wants the same for the U.S., Chinese and European markets.
Recall the early days of Lexus and Infiniti. Some of the commercials coming out of that time were as over-the-top as today’s fragrance ads. You got the sense that someone in a corporate office somewhere was screaming for acceptance and screaming louder if they didn’t get it. Both those brands put themselves on the map with huge, sometimes abstract ad campaigns.
Fitzgerald, conversely, isn’t as concerned with designing a crazy campaign or advertisement to get attention for the brand—in his eyes, brand recognition and loyalty will come after Genesis proves to customers that it can offer good cars.
“For us, it is so important to be credible and credibility delivers the core message to the customer,” he said. “Authenticity is, therefore, a prerequisite, so instead of looking at and benchmarking what others are doing and just concentrating on the basic core, I think we’ll fare very well.”
Maybe so. The G80 Sport is a solid start. I’d wager that blindfolded customers wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between a Genesis interior from a Lexus one.
But the driving dynamics need some sharpening. Not to shoot it into AMG territory (because, arguably, nobody needs that), but to push it that extra 20 percent that will eradicate the unshakable disconnect between the car and the driver.
If that happens, I’ll be looking forward to it.