German automakers rule the US luxury market. Genesis is determined to change that

Genesis is getting noticed for its sleek designs and attention to detail.

May 1, 2021, 10:10 AM
The Genesis X Concept, an EV-based GT (Gran Turismo) concept car.
The Genesis X Concept, an EV-based GT (Gran Turismo) concept car.

The sleek silhouette was breathtaking: A long clamshell hood that appeared to go on indefinitely. An interior swathed in upcycled, sustainable materials. A futuristic dashboard connected to a "floating" center console.

The automotive work of art could have been German. Or British. The clue that gave it away: A shield-shaped Crest Grille.

Genesis, the luxury vehicle division of Korean automaker Hyundai, was sending a veiled message to its competitors with the Genesis X Concept, a chic, high performance electric GT the marque debuted on March 30.

Over the last two years, Genesis has been busy racking up industry awards and earning praise from the automotive community as it rapidly rolls out new models. U.S. consumers, who tend to be brand loyal, are only starting to take notice of Genesis. But the inveterate leaders in the highly competitive space -- BMW, Mercedes, Lexus and Audi -- are bracing for a protracted fight.

"It's a credible brand with its own identity and personality," Ed Kim, vice president of industry analysis at AutoPacific, told ABC News. "Most luxury automakers are trying to emulate BMW. Genesis is setting itself apart from a design perspective. That's a good thing."

The low, broad silhouette of the Genesis X Concept. The company's Two Lines design theme is applied throughout the interior and exterior.

The distinctive "Two Lines" architecture, G-Matrix pattern and quad LED lamps identify the brand "within seconds," according to Sang Yup Lee, head of Genesis Design.

Luc Donckerwolke, chief creative officer for Genesis, explained the company's "beauty of the white space" philosophy to ABC News: "Purism is our priority in a world full of unnecessary detail. Our philosophy is closer to the butler attitude rather than the finger food buffet. We do not distract the driver with an orgy of buttons but integrate them wisely into our landscape according to their relevance for driving, safety and entertainment."

He added, "The design is the brand, the brand is the design."

The 2021 Genesis G80 luxury sedan comes equipped with either a 3.5T V6 twin-turbocharged engine or a 2.5T inline four-cylinder turbocharged engine.

Seductive styling is certainly not unique to Genesis. Aston Martin's voluptuous sports cars are arguably some of the most attractive (and desirable) conveyances manufactured. The British luxury marque, however, has struggled for decades to make a profit. Genesis, too, may be up against factors beyond its control, according to Jeff Schuster, an analyst at LMC Automotive.

"Do we need another luxury brand that's just as good as the others?" he told ABC News. "The Germans have a stronghold on luxury. It's tough to compete against the Europeans."

Schuster pointed to the tribulations of Alfa Romeo, Acura and Infiniti, luxury carmakers that are floundering to attract buyers. Marketing Genesis as a value brand with avant-garde designs may not be enough to take market share away from competitors, he argued.

"It's hard to build a brand with limited product lineup," he said. "The next 18 months will be a test for Genesis."

The company's signature (and polarizing) Crest Grille.

Genesis' success may be riding on its two sport utility vehicles. Last fall it introduced its flagship GV80 SUV, an optional three-row ute targeted at BMW X5 and Mercedes GLE customers. The distinctive and handsome $48,900 SUV, available with either a 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder or 3.5-liter twin-turbo V6 engine, offers many of the same safety features and technology in higher priced vehicles.

Genesis launched its first-ever SUV, the GV80, in September of 2020.

Then there's the quilted Nappa leather, 14.5-inch touchscreen, acoustic glass in the doors and windshield, wood trim and ambient lighting. The smaller, more "athletic" GV70 SUV, starting price $37,525, debuted in December with deliveries to begin this summer.

"The GV80 marks an important milestone for the company. It allows us to connect with a broader segment of consumers," Mark Del Rosso, CEO of Genesis Motor North America, told ABC News. "We believe our volume will increase significantly with the GV80 and GV70."

Industry insiders initially knocked Genesis for its sedan-heavy lineup at launch. The luxury spinoff's first vehicle was the midsize G80 sedan (a renamed Hyundai Genesis) followed by the larger G90 and G70 sport sedan.

"It was the wrong product mix in a market begging for SUVs. So shoppers went elsewhere," explained Kim. "Korea was so heavily focused on sedans years ago. Everyone drove a sedan in Korea. SUVs were a niche."

The all-new GV70 is the fifth model from Genesis and the company's second SUV.

Kim said GV80 customers will be highly pleased with the SUV's finesse and superior quality.

"There is evidence everywhere that Genesis sweated the details with this vehicle," he said.

The cabin of the GV80. Genesis has racked up industry awards for its designs.

Kim expects the GV80 and GV70 to boost Genesis' 2021 market share from less than 1% to about 2%. The SUVs will also attract younger buyers, helping push down the average age of the brand's customers. According to AutoPacific's research, Genesis and Chrysler are tied for having the oldest new vehicle owners in the industry with a median age of 65. Lincoln owners rank second. Genesis sold 16,384 vehicles to American drivers in 2020. BMW, the No. 1 luxury brand in the U.S., delivered 278,732 vehicles last year.

Genesis executives are prepared for a long and challenging road ahead, according to Stephanie Brinley, principal automotive analyst at IHS Markit. There were some stumbles in the beginning -- early Genesis vehicles were badged as Hyundais and sold at Hyundai dealerships -- but the brand quickly changed course to stay relevant.

Hyundai Motor's "Genesis" is seen during its unveiling on Jan. 8, 2007, in Seoul, South Korea.
Chung Sung-jun/Getty Images, FILE

"They're creating a brand for the next 40, 50 years," she told ABC News. "I am really impressed with their perseverance and how they're building out their product lineup."

The rave reviews of the brand's vehicles may be attributed partly to the "aggressive poaching" of engineers and designers from other luxury brands, Brinley noted. Donckerwolke was a rock star designer at Bentley before moving to Genesis. Manfred Fitzgerald, a former Genesis executive, spent 12 years at Italian automaker Lamborghini. Top employees at Audi and BMW's M Division were also hired to help launch the nascent brand.

The GV80, for example, has been compared to the Bentley Bentayga, a $177,000 opulent SUV that can easily cost several thousand dollars more with bespoke customizations. Donckerwolke, who designed the Bentayga, strongly disagrees.

"Apart from a big grille with a diamond pattern, a winged logo and a statutory presence, the cars have nothing in common," he asserted. "The Bentayga [shares] its platform with other vehicles of the VW Group ... Genesis is a refined and innovative design with incomparable architecture made possible by the highest level of integration of advanced technology."

A Hyundai Motor Co. Genesis Mint concept vehicle is displayed during the 2019 New York International Auto Show in New York on April 17, 2019.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

Hyundai first introduced the Genesis nameplate on a luxury sedan in 2008. Next up was a Genesis sports coupe in 2010 followed by the Hyundai Equus full-size sedan in 2011. A more refined (and expensive) second generation Genesis premiered in 2015.

A man looks inside a Hyundai Equus luxury sedan on display in the lobby of the company's headquarters in Seoul, South Korea, Nov. 27, 2014.
Bloomberg via Getty Images, FILE

Genesis transitioned from a model name to a standalone brand in November of 2015. Schuster noted the parallels between Genesis and Toyota's launch of Lexus, its luxury division, in 1989.

"Lexus was an extension of Toyota at first. Hyundai followed Toyota's model to a T," he said.

Added Kim: "Lexus came out with guns blazing. It catapulted to success quickly. In four, five, six years Lexus was considered a very serious luxury brand."

The LS400 was one of the first Lexus cars to hit the U.S. market. It originally debuted in 1990.
The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

But Genesis cannot expect the same trajectory as Lexus, Kim said. There were fewer players in the luxury market in the late 80s and early 90s. Plus, Lexus sold two models simultaneously, the LS400 and ES 250.

"Back then Toyota was the most trusted of Asian brands. Hyundai is not in that position," Kim said. "Genesis won't become the new Lexus anytime soon."

That won't stop Genesis from trying, at least. In addition to the GV80 and GV70, the marque revealed its first-ever electric vehicle, the Electrified G80, in April. The EV gets an estimated 265 miles of range on a full charge and accelerates from 0 to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds.

Genesis' first EV model, the Electrified G80, made its global debut in Shanghai, China, in April 2021.

More "gorgeous and stunning" products like the electric X Concept are coming soon, Del Rosso promised.

"Our company has been nimble and adaptable," he said. "We don't have the legacy of other brands. We are carving our own niche."

Related Topics