You can’t go to Korea and not be moved.
“Those cars are surprisingly nice!” someone else remarked to me about Hyundai a few years ago. The quality, leading technology and premium features in Hyundai models had become a selling point.
“Kias have become really beautiful cars,” I hear all the time. And it’s true!
I like these brands. Millions of other drivers do, too. But why? It’s easy to understand why some brands hold a dear place in our hearts: the Coca-Cola that your grandmother always had in the refrigerator when you visited; the special surprise of a Twinkie in your lunchbox; the sparkle of Tinkerbell sprinkling fairy dust over Cinderella’s castle means you’re about to smile. A lot. So what is it about Hyundai and sister auto company Kia that holds a dear place in our hearts?
Along with a group of World Car Awards jurors, I had the opportunity to tour Korea as a guest of Kia and Hyundai. We learned about the brands, test drove some new cars (more on that soon!) and gained a sense of the soul of these companies.
Understanding Korea is Understanding Hyundai and Kia
50 years ago Korea was struggling to recover from the war with North Korea and from generations of Japanese rule. 30 years ago the country emerged from military rule to embrace democracy and a free market economy. That’s when modern Korea was born.
And, it’s when the modern era of Hyundai, and a few years later, Kia, was born. The sister companies, which collaborate on design, development and more, like their home country, are focused on becoming world-class entities with solid foundations to ensure a prosperous and comfortable future.
Touring around Seoul, the capital city, and driving across the countryside, you see it: the land is a modern fabric of buildings, roads, bridges, and people. The city is filled with shops, parks, culture, and Olympic heritage. Mini-cities of towers and plazas line the boulevards, while couples, families and friend groups fill the restaurants and shopping malls.
In the countryside, things can feel a little less developed, with modern buildings cheek-by-jowl with pocket farms, coffee shops, and food stands, but the spirit of growth is everywhere: conquering the land, the culture and the economy to build a future.
Entering the Global Market: Hello Hyundai
As Korea was coming into its own with the goal of becoming part of the global marketplace, Hyundai entered the United States, importing its first cars for sale here. That was 30 years ago and the brand was a scrappy upstart built on value: inexpensive to buy and own and all the fun that comes with that.
The brand hit a few bumps in the road, finding that a lack of reliability can hold back success. The company retrenched and soon added reliability to the value proposition, secured by the bold move of adding a 10-year warranty to its cars. It was a good start.
Emerging As as World Class Player
As part of our tour of Korea, we were invited to visit the Hyundai and Kia Design Center and the Research and Development Center in Namyang. While I can’t tell you what I saw during our visit—that’s to be kept under wraps a bit longer—I can tell you the whole day was an eye-opening experience.
Seeing the modern, polished spaces where Hyundai and Kia’s designs are born also made me understand more deeply the DNA of these brands.
This modern era was jumpstarted in 2006 when the next stage of evolution started. Both Kia and Hyundai were anxious to grow up, to become serious about the things that define an automotive industry leader: Design, engineering, quality and innovation, driven by passion and ambition.
Recognizing that a brand’s promise is first sparked by an emotional appeal, Kia decided to revamp its entire look. Peter Schreyer, who had created award-winning designs for Audi, was hired as Kia’s director of design. Soon after, he was running design for Hyundai as well. In a short time both brands took on a new look, a new feel and a new identity: graceful, elegant, world-class.
Building a Team to See the Dream Come Alive
While Peter Schreyer certainly worked magic within Kia and Hyundai, he also needed to build a team and a culture that would ensure the work endures. He lured Albert Bierman away from BMW to help the brands evolve in the performance arena. And then, he snagged Luc Donckerwolke from Bentley (and before that Lamborghini) to lead design for Genesis. Albert is now overseeing research and development for Hyundai and Kia, and Luc is overseeing design.
Integrating Cutting Edge Technology Defines These Brands
Design is where a brand starts, but technology is where it delivers. Hyundai and Kia have been on the forefront of adapting tech in its models, giving its owners an edge on technology. They were the first to integrate smart watches, home voice-activated systems like Alexa and connected systems like Apple Car Play and Android Auto across the full vehicle line and at a value; adding these features don’t add a huge bump in price, only an advantage.
N for Namyang: Sport Tuning, Track Testing and Nurburgring Proven
Adding Albert Bierman to the team gave Hyundai and Kia a pedigree in performance, but to build a reputation they would have to earn it. Albert’s first assignment was to engineer the Kia Stinger. The Stinger debuted as a grand touring sedan that had a double personality; it could howl its way around the best tracks on earth in record time.
The next step was to take that expertise to the competitive track, putting it to work for racing and rally teams. Hyundai’s Veloster leads this charge with the N line: N for Namyang, the home of Hyundai and Kia’s test track. There, Albert and his team have produced a competition quality Veloster N that is as at home on the freeway as it is on Germany’s famed Nurburgring test track.
An Eye on the Future, Of Cars and Of Korea
Our last stop on our tour of Hyundai and Kia’s Korea was a visit to the Mabuk Research and Development Center. There we saw another view of the Hyundai and Kia vision: that of the global citizen, industry collaborator and innovation-driver. We talked about fuel cell technology.
For drivers today, fuel cell cars are still a far-off dream; yes, a car that runs on hydrogen, produces no emissions and can be completely sustainable sounds like a dream but, looking around our traffic-jammed petroleum burning world, not even close to reality.
But the reality of the future and its challenges—including laws in Europe that will eliminate diesel and gas vehicles by 2050—Hyundai and Kia have a sharpened focus. The future isn’t just building cars, but developing global partnerships to build the systems to transition from gas-burning cars to hydrogen fueled transportation. The plan includes rolling out more hydrogen buses and trucks, fostering the development of fueling stations and yes, hydrogen fuel cell passenger cars.
Do You Remember What Air Pollution Looks Like?
One day, Kia and Hyundai hope, you won’t. Touring around Korea it’s a common sight to see people wearing face masks. The air was often thick with pollution. Not everywhere and not every day, and not even because of the cars and industrial plants in Korea, but because pollution is carried by global winds and left for all of us to deal with.
But that doesn’t have to be the case. Hyundai and Kia are part of global consortia determined to develop and implement clean technology so that the winds of the future carry only hope and happiness. And the promise of prosperity for all.
Disclosure: I was Kia’s guest for this tour; travel and accommodations were provided but all opinions are my own.