South Korea's two largest automotive brands are no longer the same companies they were when they first entered the world stage.

Anyone who visits Seoul after a few years absence is likely going to be in for a shock. What was, not that long ago, a decidedly third-world city is today a thriving, sprawling metropolis increasingly on a par with the world's most modern cities.

So it should come as no surprise, perhaps, that South Korea's two largest automotive brands are no longer the same companies they were when they first entered the world stage more than two decades ago. Gone are the "cheap and cheerful" products – a polite euphemism for entry-level junk – like the original Excel from Hyundai or the Aspire, the subcompact Kia built for former partner Ford, and which critics often derided as the "Perspire" due to its lack of power and amenities.

Kia, the smaller of the two sibling makers, recently confirmed what has long been rumored, revealing plans to introduce its first true luxury sedan. And Kia's ambitions are far from modest, its new K900 takes direct aim at the top of the premium luxury segment, where models like the Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 7 Series live.


Paul EisensteinPaul A. Eisenstein is Publisher of TheDetroitBureau.com and a 30-year veteran of the automotive beat. His editorials bring his unique perspective and deep understanding of the auto world to Autoblog readers on a regular basis.



Hyundai, meanwhile, already has a car in that class, the full-size Equus. But its big news for the year ahead will be the debut of an all-new version of its own first rear-drive luxury car, the Genesis. You can be sure folks will be taking a close look at what Hyundai has in store considering the unexpected hit it delivered with the original Genesis sedan, named North American Car of the Year shortly after its debut.

2015 Hyundai Genesis

For the 2015 model, as seen in the spy photo above, Hyundai is no longer content to go with derivative styling. The "me-too" look of the original Genesis sedan has been replaced with a more distinctive, coupe-like shape – as well as a number of intriguing technologies – that seems determined to tell the world the Korean auto industry is no longer taking a back seat to any of its competitors.

The new model will be a "game-changer," contended Moon Sik Kwon, head of Hyundai Motor Group's R&D Center, located just outside the Korean capital of Seoul, as he pulls the covers off the 2015 model for the first showing to a group of US automotive journalists.

Korean cars "used to be one step above a Yugo," agreed Joe Phillippi.

Korean cars "used to be one step above a Yugo," agreed Joe Phillippi, a long-time automotive analyst and head of AutoTrends Consulting. "They've totally turned the company on its head," he said, referring to the giant conglomerate that now controls both Hyundai and Kia.

That's not to say either of the two marques have walked away from their traditional audiences. But even their most basic models, such as the $15,340 Hyundai Accent and the $14,400 Kia Rio, have recently gone through stylish remakes and offer the sort of performance and features one traditionally wouldn't expect of the econoboxes that once dominated the Korean line-up.

Will models like Accent and Rio remain in the model mix? That's a matter of debate. "Clearly," Phillippi says, "the Koreans have recognized that the Chinese will eventually come in after them – and under them. " So, he says he wouldn't be surprised to eventually see such low-end base models go away – or continue to move more upmarket, along with the rest of the Hyundai and Kia lineups.

Hyundai R&D Chief Kwon confided to me that there is clearly more in the works.

While Korean officials aren't ready to confirm that strategy, they do acknowledge their interest in expanding their premium offerings. Hyundai R&D Chief Kwon confided to me that there is clearly more in the works.

Specifics? Not ready to discuss, though it would appear that there are a number of models covering a wide range of potential luxury segments, including those between the latest Genesis and the big Equus models. How soon, "Not right away," he cautioned, the implication being it would be at least sometime into the second half of the decade before you see that potential flood of high-line products. Clearly, Hyundai wants to be sure the Gen-1 Genesis wasn't a fluke before going all-in.

As for Kia, the maker isn't entirely walking away from its traditional approach, even as it moves upmarket. The K900 may not be an econobox but, Kia officials recently suggested, the strategy is to offer "a (BMW) 7 Series value for a 5 Series price" – language similar to what Hyundai officials expressed when they launched the Genesis and Equus.

One hint of the maker's intent was hiring Peter Schreyer, long associated with highline European marques such as Audi, as its chief designer.

One hint of the maker's intent was hiring Peter Schreyer, long associated with highline European marque Audi, where he was its chief designer. The well-regarded Schreyer has since been promoted into one of the top overall management positions at Kia and, you can bet, he's looking for ways to take on his former employers back in Germany.

Notably, Kia has indicated it has even more ambitious goals for the K900, planning to sell perhaps 5,000 a year, double what was considered successful demand for the Hyundai Equus.

It wasn't all that long ago that Korean cars were the butt of jokes – and the option of choice for only the most credit-challenged and parsimonious motorists. No longer. The reputation of both Hyundai and Kia are still in flux, but they clearly have improved their collective image and are now drawing far more affluent and discriminating buyers. While sales of Korean luxury cars still lag far behind key European, Asian and American brands, few of those competitors are ready to write Hyundai and Kia off anymore – doing so only at their own peril.


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  • 91 Comments
      jimlowe1
      • 10 Months Ago
      Just bought the 2013 Genesis from Carmax...Loaded with all the Premium and Tech options..total for 31K...saved 11K from the rip off dealers....and only 199.99 crapaction fee..as opposed to the 599.00 Rip off to dealers....and WHAT A CAR. I no longer will pay an extra 20K for a Mercedes Badge ...when I can use that cash to go to Europe....3 Times!
      Black Dyanmite
      • 1 Year Ago
      More like how the Koreans are smoking crack. Nobody cares, because the Koreans don't have the guts, the maracas, to do it right...... BD
        NightFlight
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Black Dyanmite
        That's funny, didn't the Equus recently beat your beloved LS460 in a C&D comparo last year?
      Winnie Jenkems
      • 1 Year Ago
      How are the Koreans cracking the luxury market? By building proper RWD luxury sedans. Seriously. It's amazing to me that Hyundai has found success while only having been in this market since the introduction of the Genesis in 2009, yet "luxury" automakers like Acura and Lincoln continue to wallow in mediocrity because they just don't get it. Hyundai actually bothered to invest in a new RWD platform; no surprise it's now beginning to pay dividends for them. Lincoln, take note.
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Winnie Jenkems
        [blocked]
      S40Powered
      • 1 Year Ago
      What a joke. They're so behind no matter what.
        imoore
        • 1 Year Ago
        @S40Powered
        Spend some time with Wall Street Journal, CNBC, Bloomberg, Investment Business Daily, etc. and then reconsider your comment.
      Cool Disco Dan
      • 1 Year Ago
      I love all the Korean car hate on AB. I only assume most of it is ignorant bigotry.
        imoore
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Cool Disco Dan
        And you are correct. Any company that strives to be better than the establishment (if not as competitive as) will always be considered inferior to the rest. Examples: Honda, Tesla, Samsung, Kumho Tires, Chick-Fil-A, Tesla and Wal-Mart. Heck, I'll even toss Vizio in that batch also. Some people love making noise. They have nothing better to do.
      • 1 Year Ago
      [blocked]
        Famsert
        • 1 Year Ago
        Anyone remember the hundreds of luxury Swiss watch automakers that went out of business when the Japanese came on the scene? Yes there are still a decent number out there and maybe even a resurgence of late, but nevertheless the Swiss watch industry has never been the same despite their heritage and history. Heritage and history only count for so much.
          bK
          • 1 Year Ago
          @Famsert
          The japanese brought in "new technology" (quartz) which made swiss watches obsolete, only company that survived were the ones that was willing to change their heritage. Same goes with the motorcycle industry, they brought their ultra reliable motors and slapped the motorcycle industry in the face, thus raising the bar. Hyundai/kia, different story.
        Tina Dang
        • 1 Year Ago
        Exactly.
        bK
        • 1 Year Ago
        The heritage and history doesn't have much part in good craftsmanship. Even a company without heritage can make great cars with they have the passion, look at Testa. The difference is that Hyundai/kia isn't out to make the greatest car, they are out to make easy money, and its very apparent when you drive one of them cars, they're like appliance with alot of "features" And I agree, they will never be MB or BMW, but they will give them a low blow with unbeatable price, unfortunately.
          Bill
          • 1 Year Ago
          @bK
          Meritocracy... I have a dream.... America owns 70 percent of the world's wealth... Korea's car market protected no more... freedom of opinion and choice...
      • 1 Year Ago
      [blocked]
        Db
        • 1 Year Ago
        Indeed... and now both the Japanese, Koreans and the Germans are underestimating the Americans, whose cars are coming back hard, fast and without mercy. GM, Ford, Chrysler and Tesla and making some fantastic vehicles today and that is really exciting. Indeed, the competition in the auto industry is getting fierce and there are so many great cars to choose from, the customer is the true winner in today's car market. Fun times for a car enthusiasts as well as those just looking for basic transportation. And... I have to give the Korean's props. They have come a long way from the days of the dismal first Excel that hit our shores back in the mid-80s. Congrats to their hard work. Now... Having said that, I will never buy an up-market Korean vehicle. Not gonna happen. I'd rather save a bit more for something legit from BMW, Audi or even Cadillac, who are really shaking things up with their new ATS and especially the new CTS. To me, folks who are buying Korean upmarket are like folks who would purchase an over-priced Citizen watch and acting like it is a Rolex. Sure, the Citizen is a nice timepiece, keeps accurate time and looks nice, might even nab it's share of compliments from your neighbors, but it does not have the quality, durability nor the hard-earned integrity of design like the Rolex, and everybody worth their weight in salt knows it and knows the difference. Nope. I'll stick with the real stuff. Thanks.
          ravenosa
          • 1 Year Ago
          @Db
          Nobody cares if the watch is a Timex or a Rolex. People buying certain cars and other material items to compensate for their shortcomings get laughed at. That is all.
          muspod
          • 1 Year Ago
          @Db
          If you are going to stick to the real stuff how does Cadillac and Audi get in and not Hyundai? Don't they call the ats/cts BMW/MB competitors? How is that different than the Koreans or Japanese being competitors?
      Jarod Forney
      • 1 Year Ago
      ....Seoul korea? third world City? since when? I couldn't believe my eyes when i read that, Seoul has always been a leading technological Super City.
        automan
        • 1 Year Ago
        @Jarod Forney
        you are right, it's always been one of top technologically advanced cities in the world.
      • 1 Year Ago
      [blocked]
        Bill
        • 1 Year Ago
        There are tons of auto companies doing that like Lexus and Acura... Lincoln. Anyways... those companies can cater to those kind of companies. Hyundai can cater to customers like me who rather have car companies invest in their cars rather than their showrooms.
          • 1 Year Ago
          @Bill
          [blocked]
          Bill
          • 1 Year Ago
          @Bill
          Auto manufacturers only have so much money they can spend. Personally, I'd rather have a better car and have someone pick up my car for service (Equus) than go to a fancy showroom but car that was less invested in...
        piggybox
        • 1 Year Ago
        That's why Equus is distanced from Hyundai in many ways. It has its own logo and is picked up for service so you don't have to visit the dealer that reminds you it's actually a Hyundai car.
      RGT881
      • 1 Year Ago
      10 years ago I didn't have a single ounce of respect for Hyundai/Kia, however this has all changed within the last 2 years. Those guys are moving at plaid speed and certainly there is no reason to overlook their products. However, I doubt they'll be able to replicate the perfect blend of technology versus driving pleasure in a product such as the new S-Class. That thing is on another stratosphere.
      ponycargt
      • 1 Year Ago
      When the Japanese entered the US luxury market, they had already established themselves as having a very reliable, trusted product. Basic Korean cars have yet to achieve mainstream acceptance to the degree that the Japanese cars did in the late 80s; how can they expect to create cars that will be considered objects of desire for people who seek luxury? It's impressive to see how far the Koreans have come in the past few years, but they are clearly getting ahead of themselves in this case.
        axiomatik
        • 1 Year Ago
        @ponycargt
        Eh, luxury buyers don't really care about reliability, or they wouldn't keep buying unreliable European cars. When you lease a car and turn it in before the warranty expires, reliability is not a high priority.
      FX Gts
      • 1 Year Ago
      Who buy a luxury vehicle from a car company after the CEO was resigned / fired concerning quality control issues ??? I would never buy luxury vehicle in the 60k range from Hyundai/Kia.....but the accent is ok
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