2019 Genesis Essentia Concept design interview

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One of the biggest stunners of the New York Auto Show came from an unlikely stand — that of Genesis, Hyundai’s nascent luxury spinoff. The Genesis Essentia Concept was described as a multi-motor EV with a 0-60 time of 3 seconds and enough silicon to pass the Turing test, but that’s not what made it special. It stood out because it’s downright gorgeous, a proper show car seemingly plucked from the golden age of pre-OPEC oil embargo dream machines.

’s press release claims the “elevates and reimagines the ‘Athletic Elegance’ paradigm,” which sounds like some hard-core marketing nonsense. There’s a lot more to the car than what buzzwords can convey, though, so we tracked down its designers, Luc Donckerwolke and Sangyup Lee, to get their insights.

Both men are Bentley veterans and know a thing or two about luxury brands. And, despite their insistence that a good luxury design should speak for itself, we made them talk about what makes the Essentia unique, how it will inform future Genesis road cars, and what Genesis DNA even means.

Lee, vice president of Genesis design who previously worked at Porsche, Pininfarina, and GM where he designed the fifth-gen Camaro, started off with a dose of brutal honesty and a wry grin. “The world of premium cars can exist just fine without Genesis,” he declared.

As such, the designers were given a seemingly impossible task. How does one justify Genesis’s existence in a luxury market crowded by Germans, Japanese, Americans, and Brits? The brand is just two and a half years old, and not only does it lack history, but even its country of origin is not typically associated with Old World richness.

“When you see Burberry, you think London. When you see Chanel, you think Paris,” Lee continued. “What comes to mind when you think Seoul?”

Thus, the challenge became designing a car that not only defined Genesis, but an entire culture.

“It’s a luxury brand that is not aggressive or arrogant,” explained Genesis design chief Donckerwolke, a Belgian who headed Lamborghini’s design department and ushered in its angular era by penning the Murciélago. “It matches the Korean attitude of being humble and the country’s reputation for high tech goods.”

Traditional Korean art and design also prizes minimalism. “There’s a beauty of emptiness,” Donckerwolke noted. “Koreans are expert in orchestrating white spaces and not overpowering with too much clutter.”

Lee offered a specific example. “Take calligraphy. In traditional Korean brushwork, the white spaces in between are more important than the lettering itself.”

With these principles delineated, the Essentia began to take shape. It had to “transport the identity of the brand,” Donckerwolke asserted. “A coupe was part of the original Genesis lineup,” he told us, and from there a GT was the obvious choice.

One thing he was adamant about, however, was that it must have no ornamentation as a “characteristic of the brand.” Finished in Stardust Gray Metallic with Midas metal copper highlights, the resulting show car is far removed from the “‘Bahn brute” formula.

Its simple lines evoke the grandest tourers of the 1960s. Sensational butterfly doors flank a bubble-top canopy with sweeps of curved glass. The windshield extends far ahead of the cowl in one continuous expanse. Of course, as an EV there’s no engine to view, but components of what appear to be racing-type pushrod suspension can be glimpsed beneath the glass.

Despite its fantastical looks, the Essentia exhibits several ideas that will see production, some as early as next year, Donckerwolke revealed. More than just cues, these are tenets that will be used to shape upcoming Genesis road cars.

The first thing Donckerwolke pointed out was the Essentia’s short front and rear overhangs, which add to the dramatic shape but also serve a performance function by pushing the wheels out to the corners for better handling. Moreover, most of the mass is at the back. It was important that the car look “as if it’s sitting on its rear wheels to enhance the rear-wheel-drive configuration,” he asserted. Expect both of these attributes to appear on future Genesis cars.

An EV doesn’t need front intakes, but the Essentia has a “Genesis Crest” grille anyway. The shape will appear on production cars, but on the it doesn’t provide internal flow. Instead, it diverts air through vents that exit aft of the front wheels and over what are actually pontoon fenders rising just above the glass “hood.” These fenders are separate from the cockpit, and Donckerwolke says the air passing through provides additional downforce.

Another future production feature is the “parabolic line,” which creates the beltline as it extends from the tops of the fenders rearward, arcing across the deck in — you guessed it — a perfect parabola. From the side, it keeps the beltline flat. Donckerwolke and Lee are both decidedly “anti-wedge,” referring to the way beltlines of most modern cars rise towards the rear, reducing visibility and creating a need for large wheels or busy character lines to offset the ensuing slab-sidedness.

One of the most striking features of the Essentia are the quad headlamps, slivers of light that will serve as another Genesis trademark. Similar lights were introduced on the 2017 GV80 concept SUV, but now they’re taken to a new level. Extending past the front wheels and into the fenders, they cleverly double as side repeaters and negate the need for a cheesy artificial vent.

“Slim lights are difficult because it’s hard to get them bright enough with the given surface area,” Lee revealed, “But this will be a Genesis signature, driven by tech.” He alluded to the fact that South Korea has become a world leader in LED technology, adding to the cultural DNA of the car.

Lee then invited us to sit in the car, and opened the butterfly doors to expose a cross-hatch pattern along the jambs. Donckerwolke explained that “this is what designers call a ‘gray zone,’ an area that traditionally hasn’t been designed. In most cars, this interface between the inner and outer skin is just sheetmetal. We wanted it to be part of the structure, yet have no material where it’s not needed.”

Lee added that the intention was for air to flow through the body of the car, in order to provide cooling and downforce. On the Essentia, that aspect wasn’t fully implemented — it is a concept, after all — so if you look closely, the openings don’t completely pass through.

That doesn’t take anything away from the beauty of the cabin, though. Sitting beneath its glass canopy feels instantly nostalgic and futuristic all at once. Suddenly, gliding along the French Riviera beneath a Jetsonian bubble of serenity seems like it should be a life goal. Pencil-thin pillars and a truly panoramic top provide a convertible-like sensation of openness and a natural-feeling visibility. Donckerwolke explained: “The cabin had to have a panoramic feel. It couldn’t be claustrophobic.”

The two front seats appear thin and airy, upholstered in Cognac leather with chevron quilting, something Donckerwolke said “you could take and put in your living room, like an Eames chair.”

The front buckets definitely stand out. The Essentia is a 2+2, but the rear seats are subtly blended into the background with Oxford blue velvet, matching the carpet and center tunnel (there is no transmission, but the batteries are housed in the spine to keep the floor low to the ground).

Before the driver is a unique “floating” instrument pod and an unbroken screen sweeping across the dash. “We wanted to integrate the screens into the architecture,” Lee told us, adding, “And as you know, Korea is famous for its curved screen technology.”

The mottled material beneath is recycled carbon fiber, a callback to the Essentia’s composite monocoque. A thin single vent stretching across the edge of the dash will be another Genesis trademark. “We won’t have vents in the traditional sense,” Donckerwolke said. “It will be like this, or we’ll have ambient air.”

From the cockpit, the arcs of the fenders look even more impressive. Lee pointed out that the hood, detached from the pontoon fenders, sits lower than the center of the steering wheel. Indeed, it seems to disappear into the road like that of a mid-engined sports car.

If there’s one recurring theme in the Essentia, it’s reduction. Over and over again, Donckerwolke and Lee referred to a resistance to exaggerating features, calling it a “discipline of reduction.”

“The last five percent is so important,” Lee asserted. “Making a sports car sporty is not difficult, but making it elegant is. Most cars are getting busier, but as a luxury brand we must stand the test of time rather than being trendy.”

“We spent so much time taking away,” Donckerwolke recounted. “We don’t want to create designs that will trap us. We don’t want to create heritage artificially. The lack of DNA is not a challenge, but an opportunity.”

“At Bentley, we had a Bentley bible we had to memorize,” Lee revealed. “There was a hundred years of legacy in it. Each time you created a design, the first thing you had to ask was, ‘Is this Bentley enough?'” Gesturing toward the Essentia, he continued. “Genesis has a Bible too, but at the moment, it’s empty.”

The fact that the Essentia is unlikely to be built is almost tragic. Even if it did — Genesis boss Manfred Fitzgerald told Motor Trend he’s “pushing for it” — many of its more outrageous aspects probably won’t be possible to produce.

However, if Donckerwolke and Lee’s vision can translate successfully into production cars, it has the potential to transform the brand. Take Mazda’s Kodo design language, which launched on the 2010 Shinari concept. It took nearly a decade, but it has grown Mazda from a marque with middle-of-the-road designs to one that exhibits beauty across the board.

Genesis hopes the Essentia will bring about a change as well, knowing full well that it will take time. “Continuity is important,” Lee said. “Evolving rather than changing. But ten years from now, people will look back at the Essentia and see how Genesis design started.”

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