2021 Genesis G80 First Drive Review - Luxury without legacy

Emulate or innovate. When, as with the 2021 Genesis G80, you're taking on Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz in the segment that has for decades been their bread and butter, it would be easy to go conservative and simply borrow from their playbook. That's just what the first G80 did, indeed, a join-the-German-dots which ended up all proficiency and no passion. Nobody, though, would describe the new G80 as conservative.

Genesis had dropped heavy-handed hints as to what we could expect from its new aesthetic with the G90 and G70 refreshes, but we still weren't quite expecting the runaway style success of the G80 and its GV80 SUV sibling. The front, with its big, shield-shaped grille could teach some German designers how to do oversized fascias right, while the whisker-like LED quad-lamps either side – and the way they visually connect with the running lights on the front fenders – are delightful.

Genesis is proud of its new, brand-exclusive rear-wheel drive platform, and the G80 telegraphs that clearly. The overhangs are crisp and short; the hood a long, sharply-creased expanse; and the roofline flows elegantly into the deck-lid. Viewed from the side, there's a sweeping shoulder line that arcs back, from over the front wheels and along the doors, to meet the rear lights. They echo the same quad signature as the front, the Genesis brand picked out across the concave rear. From so many angles, it's as much about how the bodywork catches and reflects the light as it is the shape of the metalwork itself.

In short it's a triumph, muscular and attention-grabbing, and perhaps most important it doesn't ape what Audi, BMW, or Mercedes are doing. The same can be said for Genesis' wheel options. My G80 3.5T test car came on some relatively conservative five-spoke alloys, though the Spider-man-esque webbing around the hub suggests the design team couldn't quite resist making them unique. Better still, though, were the spiky fractals that graced the G80 2.5T I lived with next, each a shuriken snowflake ripe with dynamic tension.

The entry 2021 G80 2.5T RWD Standard at $48,100 (plus $1,025 destination) comes with more regular 18-inch alloys. If you want the eye-catching 19-inchers then they come as part of the Advanced package, a $4,600 upgrade. Those handsome 20-inch 5-spokes are reserved for the 3.5T with the Prestige package, meanwhile, which starts from $65,500. A maxed-out G80 3.5T AWD Prestige will cost you just north of $68k.

Genesis expects almost three-quarters of G80 buyers to opt for the 2.5-liter turbocharged inline-4 engine, which delivers 300 horsepower and 311 lb-ft of torque. The 3.5-liter twin-turbo V6 adds two cylinders and musters 375 horsepower and 391 lb-ft. Both engines can be had with either rear-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, and an 8-speed automatic transmission is standard.

While in the bigger, heavier GV80 last week I couldn't resist the lure of the V6, the turbo-four suits the G80 nicely. Not hurried, no, but smooth and refined, while the AWD in my test car felt sure-footed and stable even as fall's wet leaves left some back roads slippery. It's quiet, too – indeed the whole G80 experience is hushed, road and wind noise kept an an impressive arm's length. Genesis says it aimed to straddle its "Athletic Elegance" tagline – the G70 sports sedan at one extreme, the lavish G90 at the other – though the G80 definitely errs on the plush side.

The extra power is a good reason to go for the 3.5T, but an even better one is the electronically controlled suspension. Genesis' system uses a front-facing camera to map the contours of the road ahead and preemptively adjust the G80's settings, and it's astonishing just how good the result is. I'm talking Bentley-levels of smoothness over rutted, pockmarked asphalt at 55 mph.

Come the corners, neither powertrain is especially urgent for more aggressive driving. There's a Sport mode, which adds weight to the steering and rouses the 8-speed into a little more enthusiastic shifting, but the G80's natural tendency to waft in restraint still remains. It's stable in sharp turns, with minimal body roll, but you definitely need to take transmission duties into your own hands for more eager downshifts.

What might a new G80 Sport look like? Genesis isn't saying, and nor does it have anything concrete on electrification. The absence of even just a G80 mild-hybrid is disappointing, frankly.

The same can't be said for the G80's cabin. If the exterior styling is what lures you over, the near pitch-perfect interior could be what seals the deal. Genesis describes its theme as "Beauty of White Space," and the enthusiasm with which it embraces that luxury-minimalism diffuses any snickering.

Matte-finish, open-pore wood sits alongside real metal and glass; the base trim makes do with leatherette, but the meat of the range gets leather with even softer Nappa hide on the 3.5T Prestige. Genesis' attention to detail is what clinches it, the authenticity of its materials combined with its willingness to use them. No plasticky paddle-shifters here, and even the column stalks are metal-tipped with knurling to match the other controls.

A wide, 14.5-inch touchscreen dimples the dashboard for infotainment duties, its graphics crisp and bright. Genesis' UI is clean and easy to navigate, but it's just as willing to cover that all up with an ethereal screensaver to match the cabin's Zen. A glass touchpad in the center console handles text entry, with a metal scroll wheel surrounding it; a matching knob takes care of transmission duties.

It's a deeply pleasant place to find yourself, though it's not an entirely clean-sweep. There's Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, yes, but only wired rather than wireless. Genesis' digital key feature allows you to unlock and start the car with your phone, while its cloud profiles sync everything from seat position to navigation and sound settings across any new vehicle from the automaker's range, but only Android users can leave their keys at home. Apple's iPhone as a Key isn't supported.

The voice control system doesn't use a wake-word, relying on you pressing a button on the steering wheel instead, but once it's listening you can do everything from adjust multimedia and navigation through to tweaking temperature and opening or closing individual windows. OTA updates, meanwhile, will keep the navigation data fresh while the connectivity also improves the directions with real-time traffic and refines the voice recognition for trickier commands, but it can't be used to upgrade the G80's core systems as we've seen other automakers do.

As for the 3D instrument cluster – available only on the 3.5T Prestige – that uses an eye-tracking IR camera to deliver a three-dimensional interface for the driver's gauges. It works, though since it hews off half the screen's resolution for each eye, the graphics are noticeably less crisp than in 2D mode. I'd rather Genesis had used the camera for a hands-off driver assistance mode: the G80's Highway Driving Assist II system is standard on all trims, combining adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping, but you still need to keep a hand on the wheel while it's at work.

Genesis says it'll learn from how you drive normally to adjust its settings for acceleration, distance from the vehicle ahead, and how you react to other traffic, to make the whole experience feel more familiar, though I don't think I had either G80 long enough for it to build that personalized profile.

Like with the GV80, though, I wouldn't have complained about spending that getting-to-know-you time. The new G80 is a vast leap ahead over its unmemorable predecessor, yes, but it also holds its own in the fiendishly competitive midsize luxury segment. It's a category dominated by the Audi A6, BMW 5-Series, and Mercedes E Class, sedans which pair their individual excellence with the legacy of brand recognition that so many buyers expect.

Genesis – just five years old, and really only moving out of Hyundai's shadow with the arrival of the G70 in 2018 – doesn't have that history yet. What the 2021 G80 demonstrates, however, is that it's aiming to use that as an advantage as much as possible. No legacy means no preexisting expectations from old owners: you can, if you're of a mind to, act fast, decisively, and leapfrog any second-guessing about whether the avant-garde will rub brand stalwarts the wrong way.

The challenge, then, becomes one of visibility. Genesis has the refinement, and competitive pricing – so much of what the Germans charge for as extras come as standard in its handful of trims – and now the G80 actually stands out on the road, too. Parked next to the Audi, BMW, and Mercedes trio, I guarantee the Genesis will prompt the most questions. The most common may be "what is that?" but when the car that's getting attention is as good as this, I suspect that still counts as a win.