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Monday, October 19, 2009

Why America Should Pay More Attention to Korean Cars

The Koreans have arrived! (This is is a good thing, and Hyundai deserves some respect.)

By Dan Neil

[more from this author]


A3 Design

The hippest dead Moravian economist of the moment is a guy named Joseph Schumpeter, who popularized the phrase "creative destruction." In part, the phrase refers to the process whereby hugely successful corporations get soft, bloated, and uncompetitive and then get their butts kicked by young, lean, and agile companies. Capitalism. It's a beautiful thing.

Like Toyota in the 1960s, Seoul-based Hyundai's start in the U. S. market in the late 1980s was spectacularly inauspicious, led by the trembling econobox Excel, which mechanics knew as a veritable crap grenade. But year after year, model redesign after redesign, on an escalating trajectory, Hyundais and Kias (which Hyundai owns) got better, precisely according to Schumpeter's formula. In the 1990s, the company doubled down on quality by offering a then-unprecedented ten-year/100,000-mile warranty. In 2005, Hyundai launched the fourth-generation Sonata, a beautifully fettled, impossible-to-ignore rival to the Toyota Camry at about a 15 percent discount. Four years later, the Hyundai Genesis sedan was crowned the 2009 North American Car of the Year.

Still, Americans have not yet accepted Korea as an automaking powerhouse — a recent survey found only 16 percent of Americans would consider a Korean-made vehicle — even though Hyundai sold 400,000 cars in America last year and is now the fifth-largest carmaker in the world, the fastest growing, and one of the most profitable.

Quietly and behind the scenes, this lack of recognition royally pisses off Korean auto executives. Actually, when you review the company's hyperaggressive product plans for the next few years, it's hard not to see the infected edge of a grudge at work. Hyundai wants respect. And not just in one segment of the industry — in every segment.

Hyundai Equus

For a company that was once known for its shimmying tragic shitboxes, Hyundai's upcoming 2011 Equus (pictured above) — a syrup-smooth, Demerol-quiet rear-drive luxury sedan on par with the Lexus LS 460 — is an audacious statement. It's not simply a case of proving Hyundai has the technology chops — in the global marketplace, high-tech is easy to come by — but that the brand has the vertical elasticity to accommodate a car costing between $60,000 and $80,000. Can you imagine parking a Hyundai Equus next to a Lexus at the club? Hyundai is betting you can.

kia soul

Kia Soul

With luck as much as prescience, Toyota's Scion division (founded in 2002) rolled into a larger cultural narrative of cool things from Japan, including manga, Hello Kitty, and schoolgirls' striped kneesocks. If there is ever a K-chic equivalent, it'll start with the Soul.

The Soul rocks a box shape, an awesome sound system, good gas mileage, and a selection of Life Savers colors. It also offers stereo speakers that throb with red LED lights, if that should appeal to you (so gr8). With a maxed-out price just north of $19,000, the Soul is aimed at hip, frenetic downloaders who are still living with their parents or in the dorm. Mom and Dad will like the fact that the Soul is supersafe, well kitted, and actually not bad to drive — as lively a car as ever resembled personal-hygiene packaging.

hyundai genesis coupe

Hyundai Genesis Coupe

Right now a kid wearing a Hyundai hat would be as shunned as if his hat read Avis; Hyundai has to go after racer boys. And so it has with the Genesis coupe, a 306 hp, 3.8-liter, V-6-powered rear-wheel-drive sports coupe. A gift to the sport-compact crowd, the Genesis coupe "Track" package comes out of the box fast and furious, with 19-inch alloy wheels, gummy performance tires, Brembo brakes, and a limited-slip differential, a bit of gearing in the rear that makes power-sliding around corners easy and epic fun.

It's also a screaming value: A fully loaded V-6 Genesis coupe — leather, navi, Xenon headlights — comes in at less than $30,000. Point being, one day that Hyundai hat won't look so lame.

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