OPINION. Will Korea ‘s car industry soon overtake Europe’s?

After a spin in the Genesis G80 and with Hyundai’s premium sub-brand continuing its global expansion, David ponders how long it will be before Korea ’s biggest carmaker starts overtaking its European rivals

We cannot display this galleryKorea, your one stop shop for mobile phones and domestic products, surprisingly good barbeque, YouTube music sensations, and uniform haircuts, in the North at least. A few years ago South Korea was the world’s top user of credit cards, the nation with the best internet connectivity, and where most people go for plastic surgery. Those of us with long memories remember that the nation hosted a FIFA World Cup (and eliminated Spain in the quarter-finals), and has collected some obscure world records in the past: the most t-shirts worn at once – or ‘Kwanghee’ – is 252, the biggest seaweed roll on the planet is 1344m long, and then there is Kang Ho Dong, who shook hands with 28,233 people in eight hours. The point is, South Korea is quite interesting. 

When it comes to cars though, there is little of interest to say. In terms of international distribution, there is Hyundai and Kia, which have the same owner, and SsangYong, which steadily makes the news for its cars’ outstanding ugliness. Reasonably cheap, reliable, uninteresting and good for fleets and company cars, up until the new millennium, there really was nothing to get excited about cars from Korea.

Things changed for me around 2006 though, when KIA started sponsoring Rafael Nadal. This meant two things; first, a Korean car company sponsoring a major sports figure was…interesting, if a tad unorthodox; and second, we Spaniards can conquer the sporting world, but still couldn’t get sponsorship from a really good car brand. My interest was peaked…


However, when you take a long look at the evolution of the Korean motoring industry, you’ll find a lot of the established preconceptions have fallen by the wayside. Hyundai for instance is now the second largest car manufacturer in the world, even though, I’ll admit, BIC is the world’s largest ballpoint pen maker but you wouldn’t package them for birthdays. Nevertheless, if you look at the expansion of its line-up, and more importantly, the transformation of each car model over the years, Kia, and particularly Hyundai, is starting to make a lot of sense.

Take the Accent, for instance. Gone are the three-valve per cylinders, which first arrived in 1992. Yes, it is simple, yes it is inexpensive, and yes it is uninteresting. But damn, it seems no accident that while the Toyota Corolla is still strong, the Nissan Sunny has faded into relative obscurity.

Since 1992, Hyundai has, successfully, made its way into the World Rally Championship, has teased an interest in NASCAR, and has a line-up bolstered with SUVs, crossover, mainstream saloons and even a flagship limousine. The company has even managed to create some cult icons, like the Genesis Coupé, an the Veloster (a clear knock on the industry’s door), the development of which is even quicker than its rivals: in terms of production cycles in Europe and the US, there’s traditionally a seven-year gap between generations; in Korea, it’s five. This may be a testament to their robots needing more maintenance or to a very aggressive development policy, but the evidence is there. More generations. Sooner. Better than before. It all adds up. 


Now Hyundai has officially launched its ‘Genesis’ sub-brand, and has set its sights on competing with BMW and Lexus in the premium segment. It’s a long process, with fully branded Genesis showrooms to be rolled out globally, and a forthcoming line-up that will include the 5-Series rivalling G80, the 7-Series rivalling G90, and an as-of-yet unconfirmed SUV. But there’s certainly plenty of potential: pricing is aimed at 20 per cent discount, give or take, over the Germans until brand value is created, and having recently taken a V8-powered G80 for a spin, there’s little that’s ‘uninteresting’ about Hyundai’s current crop of production models. 

The Genesis for instance is a statement in technological prowess, packing everything you can think of shy of Mercedes’ Airscarf. Seat memory, lane-departure alert and correction, collision prevention, auto parking, leather, adaptive cruise-control, 360 cameras: it has it all. Power is sufficient – let’s not get too carried away – and torque is ever-present, while the seating position is outstanding, the outside visibility is pristine, and the ride comfort, though admittedly not be as good as a BMW, is still impressive. Price? A 3.6-litre G80 is yours for $46K, and a fully loaded G90 goes for $87K, saving you at least five figures over a top spec Audi or a Mercedes .

It’s all very promising then, Hyundai’s current line-up being well made, well priced, well equipped, well serviced, reliable, luxurious, and with finance options to boot. But are the cars ready? No.


Hyundai group hired Peter Schreyer, the designer of the Audi TT and the new Volkswagen Beetle in 2006, before he stepped aside in mid-2015 for Luc Donckerwolke, designer of the Lamborghini Gallardo, the Bentley Flying Spur and the Audi A2. However, there is only so much a few key people can do to adapt such a giant to the market they covet. And this is seen in the details.

As much as the overall design and performance of the car, an Audi or Mercedes have a sense of propriety, and a deeper understanding of what’s expected of their respective badges. The G80 for instance has keyless entry, expected of a premium car, but today’s standard is to touch the handle with the keys in your pocket and the car unlocks itself. Not in the Genesis, which requires you to push the button on the door handle. It’s a minute but crucial difference the likes of which Mercedes – pioneers when it comes to driver-assist technology – can do in its sleep by now, something its expanding fanbase is well aware of.

So, Genesis is coming, and it shows a lot of promise. The cars are extraordinary even if they’re not quite up to European standard just yet. But oh my, are they close. BMW and Lexus, you better watch out, because the next premium saloon from the nation that brought us the Boryeong Mud Festival, the world’s largest IKEA store, and Starcraft as a career option, is coming for you.

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