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Since spinning off from Hyundai three years ago, the Genesis brand has been struggling to be seen as a serious contender in the U.S. luxury market with a trio of sedans aimed at more established high-line marques like Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
But the Korean carmaker is signaling a shift in direction with the concept vehicle debuting at this week's New York International Auto Show, which opens to the public Friday.
Dubbed the Genesis Mint, it's a pint-sized, albeit lavishly outfitted, battery-electric city car that could find a niche in crowded urban environments like those in New York, officials said during a media preview.
"As a brand, Genesis embraces progressive design values, and the Mint Concept reinforces this commitment from a previously undiscovered perspective," said Manfred Fitzgerald, executive vice president and global head of the Genesis Brand. "Mint belongs in the city, and we are proud to introduce our evolution of the ideal city car in New York."
Genesis clearly needs to expand its horizons. While its current lineup, the compact G70, midsize G80 and full-size G90, have all won solid reviews, they are going up against some of the luxury market's toughest competitors, like the BMW 3-Series, Audi A6 and Mercedes-Benz S-Class. Posing even more of a challenge, the U.S. market is rapidly moving from sedans and coupes to SUVs and CUVs.
Complicating matters, Genesis is in the midst of a major shake-up of its distribution system, pulling out of Hyundai showrooms to set up its own dealer network, a process going slower than expected, senior brand officials have told CNBC.
Whatever the reason, Genesis has stopped reporting monthly sales, but its 2018 numbers weren't promising, plunging by more than half from the 20,594 vehicles it sold in the U.S. in 2017 to just 10,312 last year — and that despite the addition of the G70 sport sedan.
Despite weak numbers, "I don't think they're in big trouble," said auto analyst Stephanie Brinley, of IHS Markit, though she does think Genesis "made a few missteps."
What's critical, she said, is that the brand expand its lineup as quickly as possible, preferably by moving next into the utility vehicle segment. Genesis revealed a concept hinting at what could be its first crossover model at the New York auto show in 2017, and a production version is believed to be about a year away.
The automaker is intent on showing it wants to do more than just follow the pack, however, racing to play catch-up with the extensive lineup of sedans and utility vehicles offered by its key European and Japanese competitors.
It unveiled the radical sports car concept, the Essentia, at the 2018 New York show, and the Mint takes it into a new direction.
Senior company officials told CNBC they are working on an all-new battery-electric platform that will be used for several future products.
While Genesis is revealing only a few details about the Mint Concept, its exterior footprint appears roughly in line with that of the Smart fortwo — which itself will only be offered with a battery-electric driveline going forward.
But the Genesis city car concept adopts a more slow-slung and sporty shape with a coupe-like roofline and the sort of wheels one would find on a high-performance sports car.
"The Mint Concept disconnects the physical dimensions of the vehicle from its positioning as a premium product, calquing the city car of the past to today," said Luc Donckerwolke, the global design chief for parent Hyundai Motor Group. "The Mint Concept is a designer's Occam's razor that challenged us to visualize a scaled-down interpretation of our signature aesthetic."
The precise size of the battery pack and drive system hasn't been revealed, but Genesis says the Mint is meant to yield about 200 miles of range and could be back on the road quickly using the latest Level 3 charging stations.
Like the Tesla Model 3, the Genesis concept's battery pack would be mounted in a skateboard-like platform allowing product developers to reclaim space normally used for an engine compartment to provide a roomier cabin and a bigger cargo compartment.
"The interior of the Mint Concept offers ample space to stash temporary items that are essential for day-to-day life, with focus on portability and accessibility," the automaker said in a statement.
Brinley questions whether Mint is more than just a concept however, noting that there's relatively minimal demand for two-seat city cars — as the anemic sales of the Smart fortwo demonstrates. Nonetheless, she believes the show car "gives them a chance to telegraph that they'll be in the electric vehicle market, and explores a new design language."
It also signals that the brand has made "a long-term commitment," Brinley added, and won't be deterred by its current, weak sales.