2021 Genesis GV80 Review: First Drive

Genesis is sticking to one of life’s golden rules: arrive fashionably late.

The luxury upstart showed up a few years ago with a pair of sedans. From there, it grew the line with a third four-door, the excellent G70. But even when Genesis was launching, the market was clamoring for SUVs. Here in 2020 that’s even more true, with SUVs out-selling their traditionally-shaped brethren. It’s a hot market, which means the GV80 needs to be good right out of the gate to hit Genesis’ ambition plans of doubling sales.

I won’t beat around the bush, then: the GV80 is good. Very good. The Korean brand has leapfrogged the competition from Japan, Sweden, and Britain, showing up with a mid-size SUV that can absolutely stand toe-to-toe with the German big three. The GV80 pulls off that tough feat thanks to a one-two-three combo of confident looks, an incredible interior, and a smooth ride worthy of the luxury realm.

New design language, stunning interior

It’s hard to remember at this point—after the G90 facelift, the G70’s, and the first look at the GV70—but the GV80 was the first clean-sheet look at Genesis new design language a year ago. As the Athletic Elegance flag-bearer, it ushers in a new, more distinctive look for the young brand. That diamond-shaped grille makes a big first statement: seriously, it’s enormous. While huge grilles are nothing new this decade, the thin headlight strips are. The lighting units draw the eye around the flanks of the GV80, where the side vents line up with them. Follow that visual line all the way around back, where another quartet of lighting elements align too. A fillet of chrome breaks up the lower bodywork, though it blends in more than you’d expect when the GV80 is out in the wild.

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The GV80 has road presence, looking substantial and expensive. It also manages to look like nothing else in its crowded class, though there’s something just a little Bentley Bentayga about its general volumes. That’s not a coincidence: designers Luc Donckerwolke and SangYup Lee both worked for the British brand prior to their time at Genesis. The GV80 design feels more refined though, with the Genesis badge itself dictating the main elements for a more cohesive look. Wheels up to a massive 22 inches also give it a powerful stance.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Genesis G70 Review

As stand-out as the exterior is, it’s the GV80’s interior that really sets it apart. Premium materials abound throughout, and the upper trims drop in open-pore wood and quilted Nappa leather seats. Most controls feature a rim of knurled aluminum, providing a consistent tactile experience whether you’re adjusting your side mirrors or using the rotary drive selector.

Genesis has been experimenting with colored leather for the GV80, and the results are fantastic. My Lima Red 3.5T tester features a black/vanilla combo, but the Maroon Brown and Smokey Green combo, available only with the Cardiff green exterior, is easily the best one. Take note, every other luxury brand.

Thanks to a long 116.3-inch (2,955 mm) wheelbase, there’s more than enough room for both first- and second-row passengers. The second row slides and reclines too, the latter to a surprising 22 degrees, the most in the class. It’s enough for the engineering team to refer to the second row as the “Star Lounge”: with powered sun shades, heated and ventilated thrones, and three-zone climate control, being driven could be as good as driving. And if you’re sticking little ones back there, you’ll appreciate being able to change the seat temp from up front.

The third row, available on a single 3.5T trim in the US and both V6 trims in Canada, is tolerable for adults, but they won’t want to be back there for long trips. To Genesis’ credit, there’s more knurled metal and well-damped cubby lids back here, so it doesn’t feel like a plastic penalty box.

Behind the third row you’ve got just 11.6 cubic feet (328 liters) to play with. Fold them or opt for the five-seat arrangement and space balloons out to 35.0 cubes (991 liters). Convert the GV80 to a two-seater and it offers a cavernous 84 cubes (2,379 liters) of space. That’s more than any of the Germans and just slightly behind the Volvo XC90.

Smooth and quiet progress

I split the day evenly between the 2.5T and 3.5T. Both are all-wheel drive: it’s the only option up in Canada, though America can get the smaller engine powering just the rear wheels. All-wheel drive models function as rear-drive for as often as possible; when slip is detected, the system sends as much as 50 percent of the available power to the front axle. No matter which powertrain combo you pick, the transmission is the same smooth-shifting eight-speed auto. 

The 2.5-liter puts out an even 300 horsepower, backed up by a plateau of 311 lb-ft from 1,650 to 4,000 rpm. That’s more than you’ll find in the German four-pots, though the GV80’s big-boned 4,784-pound (2170 kg) curb weight means it won’t be winning any stoplight grands prix. It doesn’t disappoint either: the 2.5T is adequate, no more, no less.

Those craving more thrust will want to budget for the 3.5T. A larger version of the much-loved V6 found in the G70, it upgrades the available firepower to 375 hp and 391 lb-ft. As in the sedan, it’s eager to rev and emits a pleasant growl, though the laminated glass keeps much of it from disrupting the interior. Best to be outside and near those grille-shaped exhaust tips.

Both drivetrains make for smooth, seamless progress on the gently winding country roads around Creemore, Ontario. What strikes me first is how quiet the GV80 is. There’s little road noise from the 20-inch wheels, and only a faint whisper of wind from around the side mirrors. Even the four-cylinder is serene, and it lacks the fancy active noise-cancelling of the 3.5T Prestige. The range-topper dots the cabin with microphones, which pick up the ambient noise from outside and produce inverted sound waves to cancel it out. With a persistent wet snow whipping around all day, the in-cabin calm is incredibly soothing.

SEE ALSO: 2019 BMW X5 Review

Helping further is the electronically-controlled adaptive suspension (standard on V6 models), which uses a segment-first road preview system. Using the front-mounted camera, the system anticipates speed bumps and potholes, adjusting the suspension in advance to minimize their impacts.

As calm as the GV80 is, it can’t match the sportiness of the X5 and GLE. The steering is light yet direct, the brakes inspire confidence, and body roll is minimal, but the GV80 feels at its happiest when simply cruising. That’s fine: most buyers will prefer that. But I do wonder what a genuine M or AMG competitor would feel like given this sturdy platform…

Tech everywhere, safety kit standard

I could fill this entire review with only talk of the GV80’s technology and still not cover everything. There is a lot to cover, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t point you to our hands-on preview from summer to cover some of it.

This isn’t just a whole new segment for the brand, on a whole new platform. It also ushers in the first major rethink of the Genesis infotainment system. It uses a largest-in-class 14.5-inch touchscreen, with an easy-to-grok tile system. More importantly, touch isn’t the only way to interact with the GV80’s central nervous system. There’s a rotary dial between the seats, which is a joy to spin thanks to tactile clicking. You can press any of the four directions to navigate as well, and the central touch surface allows for handwriting too. It represents a steeper initial learning curve than the current system, but the number of potential inputs means it flattens quickly. I’m surprised by the lack of wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support, though.

SEE ALSO: 2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE Review

Higher trims use a novel 3D instrument panel. It’s super crisp, and try as I might, I can’t “trick” it into display errors by darting my eyes all over the place (while parked). A full-color, 12.0-inch head-up display is also available.

A powerful, 21-speaker Lexicon sound system pumps out the tunes, with subs mounted under the seat. If that’s not enough to keep you alert, Genesis has also fit the GV80 with what it calls the Ergo Motion driver seat. This uses seven air cells within the seat to subtly alter its shape, combating fatigue and even fixing posture. The side bolsters also change based on the selected driving mode: the seat hugs you just a little more firmly when you select Sport.

A panoply of driver assist features come on every GV80. Automated emergency braking, lane-departure warning, auto high beams, rear cross-traffic avoidance, safe exit assist, and blind-spot monitoring are all standard from the “base” starting model up. Higher trims add things like Highway Driving Assist, which can now handle lane changes: all you need to do is signal (and the lane needs to be clear, of course). “Smaht Pahk” is available too, letting you remotely instruct the GV80 in and out of tight spots. Should the worst happen, the GV80 includes 10 airbags as standard, including a segment-first central airbag between the front seats.

Canadians also get an added bonus not found on US-spec models: a terrain select mode in addition to the usual drive select system. This adds specific drivetrain calibrations for sand, mud, and snow.

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Verdict: 2021 Genesis GV80 First Drive Review

Genesis has knocked it out of the park with its latest creation. If that’s starting to sound like a broken record to you, know you’re not alone. Take it up with the established luxury brands, who’ve seen this newcomer show up, steal their lunch money, and then continue to leave their wallets on the table. It isn’t perfect, but it offers an impressive range of strengths.

Speaking of money, the GV80 line begins at just $49,925 ($64,500 CAD). A well-equipped 2.5T AWD rings in just over $60,000 ($70,000 CAD), while a completely loaded 3.5T runs $72,375 ($85,000 CAD). You’re looking at thousands more for its competition to match the GV80’s spec, and none will feel as special inside.

Despite a late start and strong competition, the GV80 has found its own niche within the luxury mid-size SUV segment. The party has arrived.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this article mistakenly stated the GV80 had an air suspension, not an electronically-adjustable one. This has been corrected.)

Discuss this story at our GV80 forums.

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