A word rarely spoken — at least not out loud — by automotive executives is disruptive. Yet that’s the way Manfred Fitzgerald, the global head of Genesis (the brand spun off from Hyundai in 2015), does something that is also automotively unthinkable: praises Tesla’s Elon Musk. He told me he credits Musk for disrupting the auto industry, which he thinks was long overdue.Genesis, of course, is also focused on the luxury end of the market. And so Fitzgerald and his colleagues are fully cognizant that Tesla is, at least in terms of MSRP and numbers of vehicles delivered, doing extremely well among the well-heeled. Tesla, lack of profitability notwithstanding, is managing to siphon off customers who would otherwise be buying a Mercedes or a BMW.
With the launch of the Genesis G80 Sport, the company is listing Mercedes (E Class) and BMW (5-Series) among its intended competitors (also the Audi A6, Lexus GS, and Cadillac CTS). Fitzgerald spent 12 years with Lamborghini, where, as director of brand and design he helped broaden it beyond the maker of a handful of cars for a handful of customers. He says that he and designer extraordinaire Luc Donckerwolke, who has joined him at Genesis, now face the challenge of establishing it as a high-end brand to be taken seriously — and he realizes that what may have worked in the late 19th and early 20th century just isn’t going to cut it.
The GV80 concept — a hydrogen-powered SUV — introduced at the New York Auto Show in April seems to be in line with Fitzgerald’s thinking, primarily because it’s not simply a stylish, imposing SUV, but because with the fuel cell. (And let’s not lose sight of the fact that Hyundai is pursuing the commercial development of that technology.) The GV80 represents, for now at least, something unavailable from the marques Genesis is going up against.
Realize that Elon Musk wasn’t disruptive in terms of design but for taking what pretty much amounted to laptop batteries – attached in a way that seemed to be a short circuit waiting to happen – and transforming the array into what is now the battery system to beat. That is the sort of disruption Genesis undoubtedly needs to create to get a foothold in the market. Perhaps the fuel cell will be such a play.
Then there is the Tesla approach to retail, which isn’t predicated on the franchise system that has long held sway in the U.S. market. Genesis, which needs to establish some sort of network that goes beyond Hyundai showrooms, is probably eyeing some alternative approaches to getting its vehicles in consumers’ garages.
It is interesting to note that one thing available to new Genesis customers is “Genesis Service Valet,” described this way on the Genesis website: “You may never set foot in our service center. Complimentary for 3 years or 36,000 miles, we’ll perform a remote diagnostic check, pick up your vehicle, send a Courtesy Replacement and return your Genesis when it’s ready.”
Fitzgerald notes that visiting dealerships is a chore people have no time for or interest in doing.
That said, there is no way Genesis is going to become the next Tesla. It has its basis in an existing car company; Tesla was non-existent prior to 2003. Musk had the opportunity to make it up as he went along. That’s not something Fitzgerald and his colleagues can do.
But it seems clear that they’re going to try for something different.