Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Korea Achievement

Everybody on the entire planet by now knows that the Koreans don't make crap cars any more. In fairly recent memory, Seoul went from producing either older cars under license, or based heavily on old, proven, cheap technology, to being able to confidently vie for your money alongside established Western brand names. Today it's even got to the point where some of the latest gear by Kia and Hyundai is the kind of stuff you'd actually almost hanker for. The new Kia Sportage is quite a convincing package, the Hyundai iX35 is in the same ball-park.

It's time now for Hyundai to get a bit brave, start pumping weights, and hit the market where it hurts.

The UK market for sports coupés is a worryingly unbalanced place. The soul Japanese representative of the breed is the Nissan 370Z, which is a fine car in an obvious kind of way, but other than that and, I suppose, the Infiniti G37, most of the competition is German. The Supra died ages ago, the Mazda RX-8 copped it the other day. Toyota even gave up with the front-drive Celica. Nobody, it seems, is really trying any more.

The car in the photos above is a very fine car indeed. It's one of the later, facelifted Hyundai Coupés. When it first came out the fact that the proportions were reminiscent of the Ferrari 456 was something to celebrate, particularly hailing from Korea as it did. It drove well, the caveat being for a front wheel drive, but that was always just a bonus on a car that was chosen on price as well as style. The Coupé has been discontinued for a while now, and its disappearance from the catalogues marked the beginning of a transitional period for Korean cars. In other words, their coming of age. Discovering themselves.

Slightly farther East, the Japanese car industry has long had engineering and reliability cracked, and the great majority of its cars demonstrate this point amply. More recently it has been taking pains to try and muster some of the trappings that make European cars so desirable. It's a difficult thing to quantify, but the Japanese have never managed to replicate the tactility of our switches, the beauty of our steering wheel stitching, the subtlety of our typefaces nor the sense of occasion you feel behind the helm. A Japanese dashboard may be an ergonomic and engineering tour de force, but as an event it barely registers.

The Koreans would be wise to side-step this distraction that the Japanese are caught up in. A Japanese car doesn't need to feel like a European one, we don't choose our cars on that basis. Why not concentrate on giving your cars an identity of their own? Korea, it appears, is doing just that.

America loves Hyundai. In fact, in the '80s Hyundai had a pretty easy time of things Stateside. Selling cut-price, feature-rich cars like the Sonata was piss easy when the domestic competition included such luminaries as the Plymouth Acclaim and Dodge Sundance. Hyundai was quite happy to sit in a slot somewhere sub-Toyota because the money kept rolling in. Today things aren't quite so easy, and they have to be able to demonstrate some kind of unique appeal, and the most prescient example of this to date has been the Genesis Coupé.

As a statement of intent this was pretty bold. A handsome, large-ish sports coupé built on a rear-drive chassis. Here was Hyundai showing that they spoke our language. Hyundai were saying that they had soul, knew that people craved excitement and fulfilment as well as value and reliability. And it was universally agreed to be A Good Car. Certainly better than anyone was expecting it to be.

If it ever arrives here in the UK, the Genesis Coupé is just what our industry needs to shake things up a bit. The 2.0T model will nicely occupy the slot vacated by the Celica, and be as close to a modern day Ford Capri as anyone has so far managed to get. Later, when established, the 3.8 V6 would take the fight right to the front line, attacking that jumped up Datsun and giving the BMW 3 Series and Audi A5 damn good bloody nose, showing them that there's more to life than perfect balance and damped grab-handles. By all accounts the Genesis Coupé seems to know how to live a little, and that's a lesson the Japanese would do well to take heed of.

With the previous Coupé Hyundai showed that, aside from a few slightly crass interior appointments, they could turn an eye to the details. That fake race-style filler cap somehow looks almost at home on the flanks of this white Coupé, the little tiny side gills look no more inappropriate here than they do on a BMW M3. It was a damn good approximation of a proper Japanese or European sporting car.

The Genesis Coupé, when it graces these shores with its presence, will be no such approximation. It will be the real deal and will be keen to make an impact. And if it manages to cause a stir in the market, as I suspect it will, if the Japanese are forced to respond with a raft of new competitors, if Ford suddenly dust off new Capri plans for the Nth time, I can't help but think the world will be all the better for it.