The speedometer was touching 120 km per hour on Sheikh Zayed Road, and I sat behind the wheel of a gutsy Genesis G70 sports sedan owned by Altar Yilmaz.
“This is the best car I’ve ever driven,” he said. After a career with some of the best-known motor brands in the world, that was quite a testimony, and I am sure the 50-year-old general manager of Genesis operations in the Middle East and Africa meant it.
“I’m still unable to find a concise way of communicating my joy and satisfaction at unleashing 370 horsepower through the twin-turbo engine of my G70,” he added.
Yilmaz is a man who loves his product, and is not embarrassed to talk passionately, even poetically, about it.
We had just finished an hour of conversation about the Genesis mark. Owned by Hyundai of South Korea, the brand is a standalone part of the Seoul-based giant’s portfolio.
It represents South Korea’s first foray into the luxury car business, a fiercely competitive market in the Gulf and everywhere else in the world.
“Our brand DNA has three elements: We’re audacious, we’re progressive, and we’re distinctly Korean,” Yilmaz said.
South Korea has not traditionally been associated with luxury. Brands from the country are known for value, efficiency and durability, but Yilmaz believes that it has all the attributes necessary to become a player in the global luxury business.
“Korean culture is very articulate and experienced, combining seemingly paradoxical elements into a synthesis that’s unique and admirable. Combining tradition and modernity in the same object and philosophy is the aim,” he said.
“Because we’re the first, that requires being audacious and progressive. It’s a holistic philosophy and ethos.”
Genesis is the first from South Korea, but not the first Asian car manufacturer to enter the luxury market with a standalone brand.
Toyota did the same with its Lexus division nearly 30 years ago, and the mark has gone on to be a globally recognized player in the upmarket cars business, and a big seller in the Gulf.
“The Lexus/Toyota example is similar, but we want to do it our own way. Any established template may fit us, or it may not. Lexus is an analogy, but it’s not necessarily the path we’ve chosen,” Yilmaz said.
Genesis was launched in 2015 and currently has three models: The G70 that I drove, the midsize G80 sedan and the flagship G90 luxury sedan, which is being relaunched in a 2020 version next year.
“The G90 is our representative in the pinnacle of the luxury motoring world, the premium large sedan market, so its launch is quite significant,” Yilmaz said.
The guiding theme for all the cars currently on offer — and an impending major extension to the range with electric vehicles and SUVs in a couple of years — is what he called “athletic elegance,” which he hopes will distinguish them from others in the fiercely competitive luxury market in the Gulf.
“I like to think that the concept of athletic elegance gives us the full range of tones, like all the keys on a piano,” he said.
Emiratis and affluent expats love their luxury, and marks such as Rolls Royce, Lamborghini, Ferrari and Aston Martin are commonly seen flying along UAE roads or paraded outside five-star hotels.
But the challenges to the UAE economy after the fall in the oil price in 2014 have put pressure on all motor traders.
Sales across the board are down 50 percent since then, and while luxury motor brands are less vulnerable to changing economic circumstances, they too are feeling the pinch as customers delay a purchase or trade down in price terms. “That’s just a fact of life,” said Yilmaz.
So how does a new brand such as Genesis cope in that changing market? “Producing safe, reliable and well-engineered vehicles is a good starting point,” he said, again emphasizing “athletic elegance.”
But he also wants Genesis to “elevate the ownership experience” with packages that are designed to prolong and deepen the tie between the customer and the brand.
“We do that by offering five years of complimentary maintenance and additional services, which respects our customers’ most valuable resource (time), with connected services as well as Genesis Concierge services,” he said.
He illustrated the latter by dialing a number on his mobile and asking a helpful-sounding assistant to find him a restaurant in Madrid for dinner next week, which she promptly did.
Concierge services extend to a whole range of travel, accommodation and leisure experiences at the touch of a phone button.
Connected services mean that a car’s full vehicle history will be recorded via an app and stored in the Hyundai headquarters, much like how an aircraft keeps a full electronic history with its manufacturer via “remote diagnosis.”
Yilmaz said: “The luxury landscape is changing. It has moved beyond exclusivity. Luxury customers are seeking manufacturers and service providers that value their time and their personal preferences.”
The model range currently stands at three cars, but that is set to expand to six by 2021, which will give Genesis the capacity to compete across the full luxury spectrum. Yilmaz flashed up some concept cars on a screen to demonstrate the future range.
There is the Mint, which he calls an “urban” car, and the Essential, a true sports “supercar” complete with butterfly doors. He reeled off the list of awards that the cars have won around the world.
Both are electric powered. “Electric vehicles are firmly in our strategy. The first one will come out in 2021. We’re still working on it, and will announce it when the time is right,” he said.
All manufacturers are going big into the electric space. Volumes of electric vehicles sold grew by as much as 75 percent last year, with big demand in China and Japan, but they still represent a small proportion of global motor sales.
That will change as many counties have said they will ban the gas-guzzling internal combustion engine in the not-too-distant future.
“The writing is on the wall, but the speed and direction will change according to technological and infrastructure developments. But oil will always find a good use,” Yilmaz said.
Genesis currently has nothing in the SUV space, which is the biggest-selling and fastest-growing part of the Middle East market. But that will change.
“Our first SUV, the GV80, will launch in South Korea in the second half of this year, as an essential part of the six-vehicle portfolio,” he said.
The customer focus is on retail buyers, rather than the big fleet operations many of the competitors target, though Yilmaz did not rule out marketing to big fleet luxury operators such as airlines and other corporations.
While Genesis is a fully owned subsidiary of Hyundai and funded by the South Korean giant, it is run by a dedicated and independent team of designers, engineers and marketing executives.
The owners must be encouraged by the performance since 2015. Yilmaz declined to give specific sales numbers, in line with common practice in the highly competitive car industry, but he estimated that the current three-product range is ranked second or third in its market segments in the Middle East.
The brand has been especially successful in Saudi Arabia, the biggest car market in the region that Yilmaz runs. “Saudi buyers are very intelligent in their purchase decisions. They don’t just go for a sales line. They’re discerning,” he said.
“They make a decision to purchase a brand that resonates with their needs and wants, and we have that.”
Hyundai has showrooms across the Kingdom, and plans to launch standalone showrooms for Genesis.
Yilmaz is enthusiastic and eloquent about his job. “Bringing Genesis to the Middle East is very exciting and thrilling. From a management perspective, I can’t think of another location in the world with so much opportunity to learn and develop a true luxury brand,” he said.