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A Korean Sports Sedan That Demands to Be Taken Seriously

Genesis G70Photo: James Lipman / jameslipman.comGenesis G70Photo: James Lipman / jameslipman.com
Genesis G70James Lipman

Whatever your perceptions of the Genesis G70—and chances are you don’t have any whatsoever—on the racetrack it certainly feels like the performance car that Genesis is pitching to consumers as a comparable alternative to the likes of the BMW 3 Series and Mercedes C-Class. The rear-wheel drive, 3.3-liter variant of the G70 packs a full 365 horsepower—certainly nothing to scoff at in a mid-size sport sedan—and goes into tight curves confidently and with control. A short wheelbase and active suspension make it more fun in the corners than it should be. When the track straightens out for a long stretch, hitting 115 miles per hour is a breeze.

It’s a surprisingly pleasurable car to drive, perhaps made that much more surprising because unlike the storied German sedans with which it’s meant to compete, many consumers (particularly in the U.S.) are completely unfamiliar with the Genesis brand. Though its predecessors (the larger, somewhat less-athletic Genesis G80 and G90) have been around for a few years, Hyundai Motor Company spun out its Genesis brand as a stand-alone entity just three years ago. Further muddying the brand identity, the car now known as the Genesis G80 launched in 2008 as the Hyundai Genesis (the Genesis G90 is likewise the rebranded descendant of the Hyundai Equus, first launched in 1999).

That makes the G70 the first real ground-up effort from the new stand-alone Genesis, and Genesis the first new premium automotive brand to spin out of a major global automaker in three decades. At a time when SUV- and truck-hungry consumers are less and less inclined to purchase sedans—in August, car sales made up less than 30 percent of all auto sales for the first time in history—Genesis is launching into the premium automobile space with three of them. Though the G70’s $35,000 starting price should give competitors pause, it’s unclear whether producing a truly exceptional car—and the G70 certainly is that—will be enough to stop a consumer from buying a Mercedes or BMW and lure them into one of Genesis’s newly-minted showrooms.

“They’ve got to establish the brand, and that’s going to be an uphill battle,” Autotrader Senior Analyst Michelle Krebs says. “The reviews on the car are terrific, but there’s this whole brand imaging thing, and consumers pay for the brand image. So they have a challenge.”

Genesis began charging up that hill in earnest with a huge G70 launch event in Seoul last year that included a performance by Gwen Stefani. The launch was a huge success from a brand awareness perspective in Korea, says Genesis Global Head of Brand Manfred Fitzgerald. But in the U.S., where the first G70s arrived in dealerships earlier this month, “awareness level is still in the single-digit figures.”

To boost its brand visibility in the U.S., Genesis has taken some traditional measures. The company is opening up a flashy new brand center in New York City and is now the official sponsor of every Monday Night Football halftime show in the regular NFL season. At the New York Auto Show in March the company stole the spotlight by unveiling its Essentia concept vehicle to much acclaim. It has also hosted various media events, including a driving experience in which the company invited dozens of automotive writers (including the author) to the Club Motorsports closed course in New Hampshire to test the G70’s limits on the track—where, it’s worth reiterating, it performed admirably.

James Lipman
James Lipman

Genesis is also taking measures to define the G70 in particular as an authentic driver’s vehicle rather than just another premium sedan with a plush interior and a brand-name speaker system. For instance, the 2.0-liter version comes in a rear-wheel drive option with a proper manual transmission, a configuration difficult to find in a premium sedan these days but one that a cohort of auto aficionados will truly appreciate.

The company won’t make any serious money off its manual G70, a Genesis executive told me during the media drive, but Genesis wants serious drivers to know that it has them in mind. Hence the horsepower-heavy 3.3-liter V6 engine, various drive modes with optional traction control (enabling rubber-smoking launch control and a “drift mode”), and touches like Brembo brakes—the kinds of things that should go a long way toward positioning the G70 alongside its German and Japanese-designed competitors in consumers’ minds.

All of that attention to customer needs and wants hasn’t translated into blockbuster sales, however. According to numbers supplied by Autotrader’s Krebs, Genesis sold just 615 cars in North America in July, another 613 in August, and a dismal 419 vehicles in September—paltry numbers that can only partially be explained away by the fact that Genesis is still building out its U.S. dealership network and doesn’t yet have a huge inventory of new G70s to sell (major marketing activities like the Monday Night Football sponsorship had yet to make an impact as well).

Those numbers by no means indicate that Genesis won’t sell in the U.S., but they’re indicative of the high bar Genesis will have to get over to take market share from entrenched brands like BMW, Mercedes, and Lexus, all of which benefit from extensive legacies and legions of brand-loyal customers. “They’ve got to get cars out on the road and they’ve got to get more advertising out,” she says. Moreover, Genesis has to improve the lineup beyond three sedans, she says. The company is still at least a year away from introducing its first crossover, and the market for luxury/premium crossovers is as intensely competitive as any segment of the market.

Fitzgerald casts Genesis lack of a legacy as a positive—a blank slate that will allow Genesis to build a truly 21st century luxury car brand and take it in whatever direction both the company and customers desire. Will that be enough to stop buyers from walking into a BMW dealership to order a 3 Series? Fitzgerald thinks it will be—at least eventually. “Creating awareness will take time, but we have the patience,” he says. “We’re in this for the long run.”