Behind enemy lines: Genesis G70 Shooting Brake meets Audi, BMW and Mercedes | Top Gear
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Behind enemy lines: Genesis G70 Shooting Brake meets Audi, BMW and Mercedes

The premium market is a tough nut for a new brand like Genesis to crack, but we might be able to help

Published: 31 Mar 2022
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Why do you never see a cinematic superspy mid-journey? It’s always a wheel-smoking departure from a picturesque part of central London and a smash cut to some exotic locale. I’m on a mission – not in an Aston Martin, but a car almost as exclusive, an early version of the new G70 Shooting Brake from Genesis, Hyundai’s posh brand. The South Korean outfit wants to crack Europe with this bespoke new coupefied estate version of a saloon you can already buy. It’s a car that turns heads, but in the way you’d imagine people look at a B-list celebrity in town they can’t quite put their finger on. Is that the kids’ headteacher or the local BBC weatherman?

The mission, which I’ve not so much chosen to accept as I am resigned to see through, is to crack deep into the heart of premium German territory and find out what makes the big boys tick. Audi, BMW, Mercedes – wham, bam, they won’t know what’s hit them. In and out, stealing some of their most carefully held secrets to the benefit of the east Asian interlopers. By which I mean I’m going to look round their museums. Love a good museum, me.

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But before we cut to an establishing shot of Ingolstadt I’ve got a delightful 13 hours on the road trying to infiltrate the centre of the German automotive industrial complex. I get a thumbs up from a fellow in a wobbly Kia Stinger on the autobahn near Cologne, which is a lovely boost for the old self-esteem, but it does force me to consider some of this spy stuff. Doesn’t really feel like I’m sneaking in under the radar.

Photography: Jonny Fleetwood

You never see Bond trying to scrape together 40 cents in small change for the privilege of a wee in a stinking Belgian roadside hellhole, either. Does he get stuck in traffic? Somewhere near Würzburg we’re immersed in a traffic jam that lasts so long my phone reminds me where I’ve parked. Bond’s wife doesn’t prepare him sandwiches before he sets off, more fool him, but even Johnny English gets the drink he wants.

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But hear me out, this was my first coffee of the day after an early start and I don’t drink milk. It literally makes me sick. How am I supposed to know what a macchiato is? It was the only drink on the menu with even a hint of milk-free possibility. Turns out a Black or White Macchiato is one drink, with a bit of chocolate syrup drizzled over the top. The previously friendly middle-aged ladies behind the counter have turned a furious shade of puce. This never happened to the other guy.

It’s an early start the next morning – you have to keep the opposition guessing, catch them unawares. And a solid job we’ve done of that, we’re the only people at the Audi museum apart from the staff, in an impressive collection of buildings at the company’s headquarters that includes a cinema, various restaurants and a dealership where you can order and pick up your new car directly.

The museum is a glassy wedding cake of a building, opened back in December 2000. It features more than 100 exhibits harking back to the company’s beginning back in 1909, arranged over 6,000m2 across three levels. The centrepiece is a magnificent 14-car ‘paternoster’ lift that endlessly circulates some of the firm’s greatest racing hits.

There’s an immediate suspicious interrogation on the way in from a man in a dark suit, and I fear we’ve been busted before we’ve even started, but it turns he is most happy when staring at vaccination QR codes. He stares deep within and unlocks their secrets. Hopefully he won’t do the same to me.

Another thing they don’t tell you at spy school – espionage involves a lot of scurrying. We leg it through the many beautifully arranged displays that on any other day I’d spend hours poring over. Audi was actually founder August Horch’s second attempt at a car company, and he was forced to use a Latin pun on his name to get round a German court’s trademark ruling. But what’s a little legal wrangling between friends? The two companies met again in 1932 when Horch, DKW, Wanderer and Audi formed the Auto Union, symbolised by its logo with the four rings.

They’re all terribly friendly inside the museum. A kindly knowledgeable white haired fellow follows us around the top floor helpfully explaining things. Dammit, we’re supposed to be spying here. But Nuvolari’s Auto Union Type D racer from 1938 is particularly beautiful and the nice man has a frankly quite interesting video we can watch. Gah, onwards.

Curiously, given Audi’s current position of flourishing strength, no one really knew what to do with it until the early Seventies. World War Two left it looking pretty shabby, and Mercedes enjoyed a brief flirtatious period as owner in the early Sixties before Volkswagen swooped in. The 80 and 50 models of 1972 and 1974 cemented Audi’s position as offering posher VWs, before the fateful decision in 1980 to nab Volkswagen’s four-wheel-drive tech that had been developed for military vehicles and repurpose it for something a little more sportlich.

BMW and Mercedes have had their moments in the F1 limelight, but it was always for the hoary marketing truism that when you win on Sunday you sell on Monday. For drivers rallying is somehow more relatable, more evocative. We might get irritated on occasion with the intractable modern logic that premium equals sporty, but it arguably began with the Audi Quattro. And so eventually these days when you think of speedy estates, you think of Audi. And the company has for so long been a segment benchmark in terms of interior quality that it has become a cliché.

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I’m putting together a collection of gift shop tat to remind Genesis what a premium German car is all about. So in the bag goes a bright red Sport Quattro pullback car, and back to the car I stroll. Another strict no-no from the Usborne Guide to Corporate Espionage is leaving your pre-production prototype unlocked with the keys inside while it’s parked inside the corporate headquarters of a rival. I’m not saying that’s what happened, just that it would be frowned upon by people who take this sort of thing seriously.

Chastened, I nestle in the premium ambience of the G70’s red nappa leather. I don’t really know what a premium ambience is, if I’m honest. These days it just means no adverts.

Onwards to the Bavarian Motor Works in Munich, where thanks to a law of 1516 beer is considered food. The BMW factory is easy to find – it’s so big it has a postcode all to itself, but to get there first we’ll need to cross a kilometre or 70 of autobahn, some of which offers Germany’s fabled derestricted speed limits. The Genesis is a capable cruiser, but only the German cars are really tuned into these kinds of speeds. I max out the G70 Shooting Brake at 146mph, foot pinned to the floor. I’d be peering through my fingers if they weren’t soldered to the wheel. It’s all gone quite light, everything whooshes by at warp speed. The corners on the motorway here are likely very sedate when you’re going at a sensible pace, but when you’re driving this fast they’re lethal hairpins. What’s even stranger is how quickly you get used to the speed – we lazily pass up the autobahn slip road in the northern surburbs of Munich, and with the turn-off approaching, I realise I’m still doing 90mph and stand on the brakes. At 50 it feels like you could hop out and walk.

There’s no missing the BMW headquarters when you get there, the main part of the museum (opened in 1973) is a giant dog bowl deep in the shadow of the firm’s famous four-cylinder office HQ. Over the road is BMW Welt, a vast modernist shopping centre slash dealership filled with the latest cars from across the company’s portfolio of brands. Both are full of people, all soaking in the fascination of the joy of driving.

The bowl features a single path spiralling up to the top of the building, inspirational green messaging that details all the magnificent ways in which BMW is changing the future, but down in the basement section is all the historical stuff. Touring car success, family saloon greatest hits, slave labour in World War Two. Hmm, not sure what makes me more uncomfortable – an unflinching look at the company’s controversial past, or the giant grille on the new iX.

I max out at 146, foot pinned to the floor

BMW’s effort is more of a slapdash, whistle-stop highlights reel than Audi’s Gürtel und Hosenträger (belt and braces, that is) approach to the family history. And there’s only 5,000m2 here. Although BMW really is a whippersnapper in this company, it has only been making cars since 1928. Luxury cars have been on the agenda since the beginning, but financial troubles in the late Fifties meant that Mercedes was sniffing around. Seems to be a theme there. Fortunately, the wealthy German industrialist Quandt brothers threw cash at the enterprise and it’s been in the family’s hands since, albeit with 50 per cent of the company publicly floated.

What is particularly interesting here is seeing past 5 Series models stacked on top of each other and a row of 3ers lined up, allowing you to walk through the generations past, perhaps with your magnifying glass and tape measure ready.

BMW has clearly built its reputation through solidly built, nice handling cars, but more than that it has built up a cult around its back catalogue that few carmakers can match. Of course, its drivers have built up a certain reputation over the years, too, which is why I picked up a nifty tin of mints in the museum shop with a mocked up sign on the front saying “BMW drivers only”. There’s a hologram on the back that shuffles through the company’s grilles to guarantee the BMW product’s authenticity, while there’s also a warning that excessive consumption may cause laxative effects. I quite agree.

And so overnight in a top secret location, before a stealthy run through the foggy countryside. I’m constantly checking my mirrors – not for a tail, but for aggressively driven 300mph Skodas, which seem to be everywhere. The premium cars must be more worried about the petrol prices.

We’re out of Bavaria, and into Baden-Württemberg, a German state confected in 1952 because the old ones didn’t fit conveniently into Allied occupation zones. Bavaria might be more glamorous and touristy, but Baden-Württemberg is the automotive powerhouse, with the most people employed in the car industry in Germany (233,000 versus Bavaria’s 208,000).

At least 700 of those have been employed to point people the right way to go in the Mercedes museum, which is a vast 16,500m2 over nine floors, but swallowed up by the expanse of factory on one side and high-rise motorway on the other.

Mercedes has brought a bazooka to this knife fight. This place is huge, it could swallow up the other museums and still leave room for cupholders and a set of golf clubs. And why are those things still the reference point for a premium luggage space? Wouldn’t it be easier all round if we all just agreed to make golf clubs smaller? Alas, captains of industry need to kick back and relax somehow.

 Behind Enemy Lines: Genesis G70 SB

The history of Mercedes is the history of the global motor industry – Karl Benz’s 1886 Patent Motorwagen is the OG modern automobile, and the company’s output traces the development of the car from preserve of rich playboy early adopters to the democratisation of long-distance personal travel.

You realise how many iconic cars the company has built – the 300SL roadster from the Fifties, the S123 estate from the Seventies or the 190E saloon from the Eighties, the endless succession of instantly recognisable racing cars going back more than 70 years.

There’s a 1932 Grosser limo that was used by Kaiser Wilhelm II (the more famous one is curiously missing), a coach that carried the national team about in the World Cup held in Germany in 1974, the G-Wagen-based Popemobile from 1980 and even celebrity Mercs owned by the likes of Nicolas Cage and Princess Diana (not that one).

Mercedes is a cultural phenomenon, ranked by Forbes as the 23rd most valuable brand in the world. All three of these car companies have busted out of the premium market in recent years to steal market share off mass-market brands, but there are few that have the cache of Mercedes. Hence the creepy looking soft toy I find in the gift shop, a plush reminder that even kids are being indoctrinated from the age of three and up. How does Genesis even begin to chip away at that advantage?

Genesis could do worse than look to Silicon Valley

From a motoring enthusiast’s point of view (and with half an eye on that formidable back catalogue) Mercedes might have wandered off into a blobby design purgatory in recent years, but the real concern is that even in a shirt, tie, 15-year-old Primark-sourced trench coat, toting a plastic magnifying glass with a little ladybird stuck on it and trailing a photographer... I still don’t stick out in a German museum.

Audi has an elegant design heritage it’s very proud of, Mercedes has been intensely involved from the actual genesis of the car industry. BMW has created a cult of the propellor badge that people would die for – or at least post lots about on internet forums. Which reminds us of the elephant in the room, the fact that there is an upstart toddling car company out there that has started to make inroads into the premium market and established a fanatical following, even if it can’t seem to compete on sleek design, sporty handling or deep history, not to mention build quality.

Genesis could do worse than looking to Silicon Valley as it enters the ring with these automotive heavyweights. South Korea has a rich seam of technological inspiration the six-year-old car manufacturer can draw from. A tech-obsessed platform underpinning something old school, premium and German-like? Now that would be something. Fortunately for Genesis it seems like there’s something coming that might fit the bill quite nicely. Time to file my report – mission accomplished and all that.

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