Today Korea, tomorrow the world


Korea genuinely expects reunification soon, while its biggest car maker Hyundai plans dominance of the world car market within five years. Dave Moore says you can bet on one of those premises.

Rolls of barbed wire line the Han River just north of Seoul, where little square camouflaged and armed lookout posts monitor its turgid grey depths for midget submarines and insurgents from the north. Metres away, concrete freeways direct millions of South Koreans, mostly Hyundai- bourne, to more important things like making a life in one of the world's fastest moving economies.


It's mostly exemplified by its automotive industry, celebrated last week by the 2005 Seoul Motor Show.


Figures tell us the show had 38 car makers on display: more than 200 models from almost a dozen countries. But it was Korean cars that dominated, just as they do in the snarled up traffic that led to the Kintex convention centre in Goyang, north of Seoul.

Every Korean brand had something new to show, from SsangYong's stunning 4x4 concept cars and its new stretched Chairman limousine, to the sublime, ready to go S3X light SUV from GM Daewoo, which will reach New Zealand next year with a Holden badge in its snout.


Samsung, yet to enter the New Zealand market, showed its version of the Maxima, from Nissan, with subtle styling elements that make it much better looking than the car on which it is based. Renault's partnership with Samsung means that the Korean company's products are almost all based on Nissans, vehicles that have been under the French concern's wing for almost six years.

Other partnerships included a Daewoo-Tata syndication that could see the Indian vehicle-maker introducing a range of cars and trucks to the Korean market.

But the big impact at the Kintex exhibition was largely made by Hyundai, which along with its Kia sibling, displayed a range of models that would not have looked out of place at the Paris or Geneva salons.


One of the stars of Hyundai's firmament was its recently-introduced Sonata model, which will reach New Zealand this month (there's a preview of it in Saturday's Drive). However, even that delightfully styled Accord/Camry competitor was upstaged by the Hyundai Grandeur which is such a sea-change in terms of styling when compared with its predecessors that it could well take a meaningful chunk out of Falcon and Commodore sales.


The Grandeur, suffixed the TG model, will have six-cylinder engines from 3.3 to 3.8-litres, with five-speed automatic transmissions and a sizeable five-seat luxury interior, clothed in as sexy a three-window profile as you'll see anywhere. To be known as the Azera in the US market, it might be advisable for Hyundai to consider the label for New Zealand, to try and distance the car from its awkward predecessor, which exemplified some of the negative points of Korean car styling. The old Grandeur XG looked as if the designers of its front, back and sides had never actually met. The smart new model, like the Sonata, looks sufficiently cohesive enough to have been designed by people of much closer social connection.

Under-the-skin technology was also to the forefront on the combined Hyundai/ Kia display, with Hybrid and fuel cell versions of Sportage and Tucson and a hybrid variant of the delightful wee Getz (Click in Korea) supermini, which is said to be "ready for sale". Hyundai's Getz was also shown in spaceframe aluminium form, while the Kia Cerato was displayed in a hot, high-performance version, which could do some good work as a hero model for the once-troubled brand.

As part of a helping hand for its then newly-purchased side-kick, Hyundai effectively sacrificed two major model changes and instead passed on to Kia designs for intended Terracan 4x4 and Accent replacements, which have found their way to New Zealand as the respective Sorento and Cerato models.


Just last month, Kia's Sportage II ?a platform sharing exercise with Hyundai's Tucson ?arrived in New Zealand, and with further hard-point packages and parts collections also likely for the brands' synergies, Kia's future appears to be as robustly secure as its parent's.

So confident is the Hyundai company that it has gone on record as saying it aims to be world No. 1 for quality in three years ?upstaging Japanese maker Toyota, and has ambitions of being what it calls "the industry best maker" by 2010.

Hyundai's thrust for top-tier positioning on the world's car making table is not to be dismissed. The company has just announced a 14 per cent rise in net income, largely from export sales, and is gearing up to start production in a new $US1 billion plant in Alabama. Hyundai's sales show the steepest growth curve for a major car maker since Henry Ford's model T got into the swing of things 90-odd years ago. In 1998, the Hyundai chart showed 850,000 sales for 16th place ranking among the world's car makers. In just five years, that had grown to 3,050,000 units for 7th spot. The 2004 figure is due soon and expected to place Hyundai in 6th position, so a No. 1 spot by the end of the decade on 5.9 million sales does not look out of the question at all.


But quality is very much the catch-cry at Hyundai, with the premise that if you build them well enough, then sales will accrue automatically. With a jump in satisfaction from its customers illustrated by a J. D. Power consumer survey charge from 10th to second place, it would appear that Hyundai is well on the way to achieving its quality ambitions, having outplaced on a marque-by-marque basis, cars from Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Toyota in the process.


For it to achieve its "world best" ambitions, the Hyundai/Kia juggernaut will be helped by ailing members of the top-10 car cartels currently placed above it. General Motors, DaimlerChrysler and Ford sales are easing in the US and elsewhere, while other former hard- chargers like VW and Fiat could be on the wane. This makes Hyundai's confidence about its future much easier to understand, certainly easier to understand than Korea's confidence about imminent North-South reunification.

The Korean car maker will probably achieve its place in the automotive market hierarchy, dragging the other Korean car makers along with it, and it will happen long before any wire comes down on the sad shores of the Han River.


- Source 04, 2005) -