Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Korea Opportunity

In the early 80s, Hyundai won few fans with the original Pony (named after its residual value of fifty quid) but went on to dominate the the bangs-for-your-buck market with the Stellar and Sonata, beloved of mini-cabbers and those in search of a true Cortina replacement. The first time we were exposed to Kia was with the whitewall-equipped Pride, a Mazda 121 rehash and a surprisingly decent machine.

Korea spent many years churning out thoroughly prosaic machinery, sold on a price-point and with the promise of reliability and excellent customer support. These claims were well founded, the technology was well proven through being ancient, and it has to be said that much of their customer base seemed to fall into the elderly, easily satisfied bracket. And now, with the worldwide launch of the new Genesis, Korea has given us a glimpse at their intentions:- They want to take over the world.

There were early indications of all this. A long time ago Hyundai's Scoupe served as a supermarket own-brand alternative to a Calibra or a Corrado, but it failed to make an impression and was awful. Then, a little while later, came the Hyundai Coupé, which managed to do amazing things considering its Elantra underwear. For the first time, people looked beyond the brand name and saw it for what it was, a quite nicely styled and well sorted little coupé that usefully undercut the comparable Celica.

And then we had the last Hyundai Coupé, which was celebrated on its launch for looking eerily reminiscent of a Ferrari 456, and with elegance and attention to detail that marked it as being the first Korean car that compared favourably to its mainstream rivals. It nearly had it all, the looks, a smooth V6 and an attractive price tag.

The last remaining obstacle to overcome was cabin ambience. The Coupé was designed nicely and put together well, but fell apart under close scrutiny. It just didn't have the material integrity and tactile delight that European car buyers have the right to expect. I say European, because things are very different in the US. Korean cars have, for a long while now, been eclipsing the quality of several US-built models. If you drive a Caliber or Avenger you'll be familiar with lunch-box quality interior trim, sharp edges, shiny surfaces and a general lack of thought.

In the new Genesis, Korea has proven that it can do reasonable interior trim if it wants, they just choose not to. Looking at the Hyundai Grandeur at the '07 Tokyo Motorshow suggested it to be at least a rival for Renault and Alfa Romeo, it was just missing any design flair, whatsoever. But Kia know that its solid bank of customers don't expect any more. Adequate, it transpires, is more than enough.

I have just spent a couple of hours with an '05 Kia Sorento, the old model and it thoroughly adhered to traditional Korean thinking, by which I mean to create the impression of a good car as seen through the eyes of those who don't know any better. They've done a good job of it. Squinting slightly, the Sorento looked like a pretty good facsimile of a proper off-roader. All the fashionable dress-up bits were present, chrome bumper bars, privacy glass, chunky alloy wheels. The only thing to mark it as being Korean was its total lack of identity. It was a sort of Freelander - Rav 4 mish-mash.


The interior, too, had all the fripperies one would come to expect on an SUV spec-roster. Electric adjustments abound, a leather-like substance covers the seating surfaces, there is a form of basic, monochrome sat-nav in the single-din sized slot atop the dash. In purely functional terms, all the boxes are ticked. It's only if you've spent time in a full-priced vehicle from the West that you see where the cost savings have been made. Well, everywhere, really. The door panels are one-piece plastic mouldings, brittle to the touch. The controls and displays have no design consistency from one part of the cabin to another and have clearly come from several different suppliers. Even, I kid myself, the smell is somehow more synthetic in the Seoul Machine. But this is a Kia of the old-school. Of late, some of the ones I've seen on the road have been, well, alarmingly progressive.

Imagination, it has been said, is the first step towards a revolution. The Kia Soul is a genuinely interesting car, as is the Cee'd. Someone in Korea with a set of marker pens and a drawing board is genuinely interested in product design, and now they've really excelled themselves with the new Kia Sportage soft-roader. It would appear that the company has listened, and listened hard. The new car is sharp as a tack, with all the latest styling trends not just aped and me-tooed to death, but harnessed and integrated. To be launched by the same company who hawked the Sorento just seven years ago is nothing short of astonishing.

Korea could pretty soon achieve design parity with Japan, if they haven't already. If they can consistently get the mix right, style, substance and proper attention to detail, nobody will be able to stop them. If they can combine it with the reliability and value they made their name with, everyone else could be doomed.