Behold the Koreans

Kia Soul. From Miki216. All other images from Kia and Hyundai.

I’ll pick you up late at night after work
I said “Lady, step inside my Hyundai”
I’m gonna take up to Glendale
—Beck, Debra (1996)

It takes about a generation for cars to change. Tin Lizzies that served first-generation drivers were too old-fashioned for the young buyers of Chevrolets in the 1920s. A couple of generations ago New York City’s taxi was the Checker, for the past generation it has been the American sedan, and in another decade it will be a bespoke minivan. This kind of change happens to car brands as well. Cadillac descended from the pinnacle of luxury marques into the depths of the welfare queen’s ghetto. But brands can ascend as well. So it has been for Toyota—you paid what for a Land Cruiser?—and now the Koreans, the Hyundai Kia Automotive group, are ascendant.

When the Hyundai Excel debuted in the US in 1986, it was a Korean copy of a Japanese hatchback, and it underwhelmed critics. Autoweek called it a “tremendous tool for transportation” (faint praise) while the New York Times labeled the car an “unremarkable economobile.” The only superlative it earned was “Worst Car Overall,” based on real-world crash data from the Highway Loss Data Institute. An absurdly low price was the selling point, and it worked absurdly well: nearly 170,000 units sold the first year, a number that surprised even the company. Commentators at the time speculated that the Koreans benefited from a belief that they too had the Asian “quality gene.”

But that initial boom spelled trouble: it meant that a good portion of 170,000 families would have bad experiences with a car that went through a series of safety recalls and proved unreliable. The company set about fixing the quality problems by improving its manufacturing standards and offering an industry-leading ten-year, 100,000-mile warranty. This strategy kept them in the game while others from the era, like the Yugo, retreated. Still, a good warranty will only keep you clinging to the bottom rung of the ladder. The cars remained unremarkable transportation appliances, good enough for the fringes of urban society, but not for the freeway or the cul-de-sac. Anyone who learned to drive in the past two decades cannot help but hear Beck smarm, “Lady, step inside my Hyundai.”

Even as they built a reputation for quality and value in the 1990s, the Korean companies designed vehicles that seemed like rounder copies of Japanese and American models. It was as if they couldn’t quite match the crispness and quality of mixing curves and corners. Their cars and light trucks were a bit too bulbous here, with a few too many curves there, like fingerpainted copies of the great masters. To get off the bottom rung, to escape ridicule, the Koreans needed some better designs.

The first breakout product was the Kia Soul, which began life in 2005 as sketches by American designer Mike Torpey. Torpey looks more like a Yeshiva student than the designer of a global product for hipsters, and his choice of a boar (that’s just a hairy pig, right?) carrying a backpack as his model would seem to augur poorly for the car. Yet somehow the crazy design by this bewhiskered visionary worked beautifully. The most striking feature is the tapering windows that seem to wrap continuously around the front of the car like sporty sunglasses. The wheel wells are sharply delineated with fenders that are at once muscly and elfin. The Soul was brought to market in the 2009 model year as a competitor to the Scion xB, Nissan Cube, and the somewhat larger and heavier Honda Element. These mostly B-class cars are marketed to the Gen Y demographic as lifestyle vehicles.

Following the Soul’s styling ethos, Kia debuted a new concept car at this year’s Detroit Auto Show. The KV7 is the company’s vision of what comes after the minivan. The minivan segment has fallen rapidly with the rise of three-row SUVs and crossovers in the last decade, and all the automakers are looking for what soccer moms will want next. That Kia is offering its own vision of that future rather than churning out also-rans speaks to the evolution of the Korean position in the North American market. The KV7 is about nine inches shorter than popular minivans but with a longer wheelbase and, hence, a spryer stance. It’s doubtful that a production model will feature the concept’s gull-wing rear doors, but we can hope.

Hyundai is supposed to be the grown-up brand in the family, marketing sedans and other sensible machines, but given the need to grow new customers, it too is after the young. Concept cars are usually to production cars what runway couture is to JC Penney, but the 2012 Veloster, which debuted at this year’s Detroit auto show, at least held on to its overall look and third door from the 2007 concept model. The asymmetrical car features a passenger-side door that opens normally (unlike all other vehicles with this architecture, which feature carriage doors for the rear). It’s a softer, rounder version of the Soul, complete with the wraparound glass. Gone is the white acrylic of the concept, but only the Warhol types will miss it. Even more important to today’s buyers, the car has a full suite of electronic gizmos, including Hyundai’s Bluelink system, designed to compete with GM’s Onstar.

Meanwhile, for the older set, Hyundai has decided to bring the “aspirational” Equus luxury sedan to the US market at a price that starts around $60,000. Hyundai wants the car to achieve what the Lexus brand has done for Toyota: let it park in the country clubs alongside the big Benzes and BMW 5 Series. That’s a tall order even for this Lexus lookalike. The brand itself might not be quite ready: the Hyundai logo appears on the trunk, but the hood is ornamented instead with a low-key version of the Rolls Royce Spirit of Ecstasy silver wings. Inside are all of the perqs, including serious massaging machinery in the rear seats. Rather than reinvent the tablet, Hyundai offers a free iPad with the car, complete with apps that link to the dealership and show off the car’s many features. Early reviews suggest the Equus is still a few churns short of the buttery leather interior of the Lexus and well short of the German and Jaguar stretched models, but you have to begin somewhere, and one third off base price isn’t a bad place to start.

With the new models from Kia and Hyundai, every segment of the American car market gets just a little bit more crowded: the Koreans are moving out of the bargain basement and up to the main floors. Leaving the cellar open can only invite more competition from the Chinese, who have thus far failed to make it in first-world automotive markets. (It’s worth noting that Hyundai builds many of its cars in China.) Domestic automakers might not like the added competition, but they have only themselves to blame.

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