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By Design: Genesis GV80

Pleasingly plump

Athletic Elegance is the design language for Hyundai Group's Genesis GV80 concept car. Or so said the company's image wranglers in an overblown press release issued during April's New York auto show. Maybe so, but the slightly to greatly inflated convex surfaces of the hydrogen fuel-cell SUV are more on the zaftig side. Which is a polite, graceful way of saying "a little fat but in an attractive way," like one of Renoir's 19th century nudes. It seems, though, that phrase properly evokes 1956 and '60 Olympian Wilma Rudolph, whose innate athletic elegance has stuck in my mind for more than six decades.

In fact, the GV80's gently puffy surfaces might make you think of hydrogen-filled dirigibles, those great sleek creatures of the sky whose era ended with the accidental destruction of the Hindenburg 80 years ago. Despite the visual reference to lighter-than-air vehicles, this one comes across as really big and heavy looking. I see virtually no athleticism in the GV80, but there is at least a tiny bit of formal elegance in certain details and one big element of imaginative innovation. That's the double grille—a nicely proportioned, five-sided, normal-sized one superposed on the Audi/Lexus-style (i.e., excessive) main inlet area. It's a nice piece of design work that visually reduces the massive front end into two sections, the upper part of which is reasonable and "normal." The lower section is a bit convoluted, with a trio of drooping, looping lines, one defining the bottom of the unobtrusive secondary grille, the second carrying a similar curve out of the front corner scoops, and the last one deriving from the standing winglets at the end of the lower bumper section.

As much as I like the double-grille solution, I find the parallel, slitted headlamp openings a little too thin for the large front end. They tend to make the whole seem even larger and more massive than it is. The matter of lamp proportions is a delicate one. The ill-fated Renault Vel Satis was a big car with headlamps so oversized that its down-the-road graphics told you it was a small car, which was no doubt one of the contributing factors in its relative failure in the market. We all have long-established expectations for the proportions of different kinds of cars, and when something is out of sync with those expectations, the result is not good. There was an Acura coupe long ago that had tiny round circles punched into the front-end sheetmetal. The resulting pig-eyed look did nothing for what was a pretty nice little car, eventually restyled to be more conventional.

The war between convention and innovation has been going on for a long time in the minds of product planners. The conflict between "let's have something completely new" and "make it more like a BMW 3 Series" has now become one between "new" and "more like a Porsche Cayenne." Looks like we know which faction won inside the halls of Genesis.

1. This line implies some kind of structure beneath a thin membrane, recalling BMW's flexible membrane-skinned GINA concept executed long ago. It's placed awkwardly, clashing with the long line above it.

2. This long, arched undercut washes out completely on the front fender above the headlamp slits.

3. Perforating pillars is a nice idea, one Volvo had long ago in the interest of safety and better visibility for drivers. The proliferation of 3D printing makes it feasible for production now. Just do it.

4. The Rounded roof is kind of a bland blob. Charisma-free surface design at its most ordinary.

5. A suggestion of a fender form again, this time at least running parallel to several curves farther inboard, unlike the rear crease, which aligns with nothing.

6. The wide bright band above the grille was great on Vignale Ferraris in the 1950s but not so much today.

7. This grille's proportions are very nice. It manages to hide in plain sight the overly large grilles being used by many competitors and is actually unobtrusively present here.

8. The principal grille shape is agreeable, classical even, but it has no instantly recognizable make identity

9. It is hard to fathom why this little blip is present unless there's a compelling reason to find the exact center of the body

10. The stacked headlamp slits are not a bad idea, but in the front's overall graphic composition they seem to be about two-thirds as tall as they ought to be fortheir acceptable width.

11. These big ducts appear to allow air to flow through to the outlets on the body sides, but in fact there are some huge tires in the way, and the direct air stream does not touch the brake discs either.

12. The old Volvo A-pillar idea again, this time on the spokes of the 23-inch wheels to "reduce weight and cool the large brake system." OK, then.

13. The inner door handles are as slim as those on the outside but not quite as unobtrusive. These are easy to find, a major virtue in interior design as far as I'm concerned. The straightforward digital instrument cluster is well placed, clear, and legible.

14. The straightforward digital instrument cluster is well placed, clear, and legible.

15. This bright metal loop looks a lot like an airplane's yoke—or a very old car's horn ring.

16. A row of switches like this always looks neat but is almost always an ergonomic disaster until the owner of a car truly learns which is which, and even then they're still difficult to find at night. The shift selector looks as though it would feel good to the touch.

17. The shift selector looks as though it would feel good to the touch.

18. This wide screen provides information for the driver, but its right-hand extremity can be controlled by the front passenger, using capacitive touch switches in the metal bands built into in the front of the console.

19. It's nice to see the small sensor replacing huge mirrors. It will happen someday, but a lot of legislation will have to be thrashed out in several hundred legal jurisdictions. Someday.

20. Door handles tucked into the undercut "parabolic line that establishes the confident side profile" are nice. But where do these effulgent phrases come from? Confident profile?

21. This shiny triangle is, frankly, silly. I see the lower line leading to the backlight visor, but it would be more sensible to black out the triangle beneath the transparency.

22. These lamp slits are more agreeable than those in front, but taillights do not carry the identity authority we convey to frontal "eyes," so their weakness is less important.

23. Ah, yes, the little trapezoidal winglet seen on Formula 1 cars (and all too often on sedans) now finds a place on a huge SUV.

24. The same is true for the little slots across the bottom of the rear corner holes and for those holes themselves. Just decoration?

25. Below this strong horizontal line, the sills turn under enough to seriously lighten the body sides' visual mass.

26. This texture is a bit puzzling. It can't be for a runningboard because it's on a slant, yet it seems to be below the actual door opening.

27. A series of little outlets in the framing lips around the lower tail surface seem gratuitous, with no clear necessity for being.