How Kia and Hyundai became cool

Once the butt of jokes, the South Korean companies are suddenly the fastest-growing automakers

by Chris Sorensen

South Korean cool

Reuters/Valentin Flauraud

Hyundai’s entry into the North American car market in the 1980s was an inauspicious one. Though low-priced models like the Excel and the Pony attracted frugal buyers, the South Korean company’s name quickly became synonymous with unreliable cars, and even found itself the butt of comedians’ jokes. But these days, Hyundai and its sister brand Kia have become the biggest growth stories in the automotive world—so much so that some are talking about the possibility of South Korea one day rivalling Japan’s industry clout.

“Through the first seven months of 2011, Hyundai and Kia have sold more vehicles to Americans than all European automakers combined, and are growing faster than any other automaker,” wrote Justin Hyde on the popular automotive site Jalop­nik, citing the car company’s steady improvements in quality, design and marketing savvy. Hyundai is also getting a boost from the woes of its Asian competitors, as Toyota struggles to recover from last year’s string of embarrassing recalls and Honda runs into trouble with new product launches (the 2012 Civic was left off Consumer Reports’ latest list of recommended vehicles after being named a “top pick” as recently as 2007, a distinction handed to the Hyundai Elantra this year in the small car category). The earthquake in Japan has also wreaked havoc with both companies’ supply chains. “[Hyundai and Kia] are definitely making good progress because of what’s happened to Toyota and Honda in the past couple of months,” says Jessica Caldwell, a senior analyst with industry website Edmunds.com.

The numbers tell the tale. When counted together, cars sold by Hyundai Kia Automotive Group accounted for a combined 9.9 per cent share of the U.S. market in July, compared to just 7.6 per cent for Honda and 12.3 per cent for Toyota. The two brands also replaced Toyota as the bestselling Asian nameplate in Europe this year.

The question now, Caldwell says, is whether the momentum can be maintained once rivals Honda and Toyota are back firing on all cylinders. Either way, no one is laughing anymore.




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How Kia and Hyundai became cool

  1. Boring story. The author must have been on vacation for last five years.

  2. The company never aimed to become “cool”, they just started making reliable vehicles that aren’t ugly. The coolness just kind of followed naturally from that. My next vehicle is going to be either a Hyundai Sonata or Elantra (depending on my personal finances). I simply do not see a better value out there than these two cars. If I were to get a CUV, I would go with a Hyundai Tuscon or Kia Sportage. 

  3. My Hyundai Sonata is 9 years old…great car!

    • My Chev Cavalier is 8 years old with only 100K and I spent $4000 on maintenance over the past 16 months. Shoulda bought a Hyundai. :)

      • I used to have a Chrysler New Yorker….after the rear view mirror fell on the floor while I was driving, and later the engine caught on fire and had to be replaced….under warranty thank goodness…I swore I’d never buy another American car.

        That’s when I moved to the Hyundai. LOL

    • My younger brother is opting for the new Sonata! If Korean auto is your thing make sure to drop by project Advanced Technology and Design Korea’s blog (www.advancedtechnologykorea.com) for tons of related content that I hope you will find fun and helpful.  Have a good one and happy Thursday from Seoul! ^Amy

      • LOL yup, I’m gonna check out the hybrid Hyundai…and happy Friday to you in Seoul.

  4. Honda’s compact Civic is a huge let-down and not even recommended any longer by Consumer Reports. Hyundai’s Elantra is considered one of the benchmarks (with the Ford Focus).

    Honda and Toyota’s recent design failures are pushing marketshare to the Koreans.  If you compare a Sonata and an Optima to an Accord and a Camry, the Koreans are winning with direct inject engines across their lineup and very generous warranties. The Japanese are sitting on their hands. The Korean’s were once playing catching up with reliability and perception. This is no longer the case. The truth is Korean designs are fresher, engineering has caught up or overtaken the Japanese and the Koreans undercut in price.

     The Koreans have orchestrated nothing less than a spectacular turn-around.

    • Seems like other brands are cheapening out their compact segment while Hyundai goes the opposite way. The most egregious example is the Jetta, which has been totally hollowed out by VW. Somewhat uncharacteristic of the Germans, but they’ve turned what was once a quality product into a cheap bargain-bin car. Independent rear suspension is GONE from new models. The interior has been cheapened. The engine weakened. It’s gone from a solid competitor to being completely outclassed, all so they could trim perhaps $2000 from the asking price. 
      Honda and Toyota have been less conspicuous in this regard. Rather than an outright downgrade, they’ve simply not put much thought or engineeing into their new compacts. Their new compacts are decent, like the old ones. For example, Hyundai is still the only one that offers a six speed auto or six speed standard as STANDARD equipment, not only on the upscale trim levels. Toyota Corolla, by comparison, is still going with it’s clunky old 4 speed auto.

  5. Funny pic! We shared this here @advancedtechkr:twitter  and on the Facebook fan page (facebook.com/advancedtechKOR).  If Korean auto is your thing make sure to drop by project Advanced Technology and Design Korea’s blog (www.advancedtechnologykorea.com) for tons of related content that I hope you will find fun and helpful.  Have a good one and happy Thursday from Seoul!

  6. At the Hyundai and Kia motor show, Volks Wagen CEO came to check out the new models….
    and he was so pissed off that the Volks Wagen couldnt make similar car like Hyundai and Kia…
    because the cars from Hyundai and Kia were times cheaper than Volks Wagens, however Volks Wagen couldnt make those kind of car with that LOW price as Hyundai and Kia did…..

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