Where is Hyundai's upscale Genesis brand going, and what is it, anyway?

In a category where excellence is a given, what distinguishes this brand?

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"Genesis is the beginning, where everything sprung from. That's where the light is, and that's where we see ourselves." Manfred Fitzgerald.

A genesis is an origin story, a new start. So when Hyundai had accomplished its original mission of achieving near parity with the top Japanese marques in the middle-class car market and decided to attempt to move upscale into the profitable luxury automotive sector a few years ago, it made some sense that this was the moniker it bestowed to its spinoff brand.

"Genesis is the beginning, where everything sprung from," says Manfred Fitzgerald, the global brand chief. "That's where the light is, and that's where we see ourselves."

But now that genesis has turned to germination. A pair of production sedans have been launched, the G80 and G90 luxo-barges. A smaller, 3 Series-fighting sedan, the G70, was previewed as a concept in last year's New York Auto Show. And now, last week in New York, the brand showed something in the all-important crossover category, the GV80. Powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, it's a look ahead at what Genesis' SUV line could be like, though the fuel-cell element faces hurdles.

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"We have great resources with our brand partners in fuel-cell technology, so when it came to alternative propulsion, this was a natural," says Fitzgerald. "Not just for the US market, but looking at this globally, this is the best technology, but there are a lot of pain points to overcome, especially in terms of infrastructure."

Genesis has promised us a handful more cars by 2020, including a coupe and another crossover. Expansion into additional vehicle realms ought to help flesh things out a bit. Though the brand can't really flesh things out any less. Only Maserati, Alfa Romeo, Smart, and Bentley sold fewer cars so far this year, and two of those brands are a century old and Italian, one is a century old and extremely exclusive, and the other is irrelevant in the United States. Given that company, where does that place Genesis?

After a recent test drive in a G90, we have to say that we're not sure. The styling is acceptable, if a bit derivative and anodyne. The level of delight is quite lackluster. And the ride is cushy, quiet, and competent, but no better than a contemporary Buick. In a category in which excellence and exquisiteness are the point of entry, what does Genesis represent, what is its category-killing feature or component or capability?

"We are known for being audacious. Not for the sake of being different, but out of conviction. And we are a design-focused brand," Fitzgerald says. But he rejects the notion that Genesis is attempting a value play in the luxury category, long a Hyundai strategy. "As an authentic player, value for money should not be your playing card. We want to convince with pure quality."

It's a tough time for luxury brands. Consumers are moving deeper into the realms of engagement and the experiential in their purchases – they want to be made to feel special, and it's increasingly difficult for hard commercial goods to accomplish this. Lexus launched at a moment when German cars were becoming fussy and futzy, and offered refined and no-nonsense Japanese reliability along with mimetic styling.

Genesis launched when the Teutonic Triumvirate of Audi, Benz, and BMW seem unassailable. But perhaps America is just an incremental market for the brand and it is more focused on Asia and the Middle East? In 2016, it sold only 8 percent of its cars here, and the US is the second-largest luxury car market in the world.

"The US is important to us, but it's something that will grow organically. We are not here to hit certain sales number goals, but to establish ourselves and make a difference," Fitzgerald says. "We are not even a year old in the US. We're still trying to get the word out there. That's our challenge right now. Being recognized as a true competitor."

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