Kia and Hyundai aren’t just going to be competitors, they’re going to be segment leaders.
It's a tough task introducing a new brand. Successfully growing a mass-market brand is even harder, which is why many manufacturers start with a bang and quickly fizzle out in a blaze of mediocrity. In the US, it's even more difficult to establish a brand. We're a large population with an established car culture and trends that favor certain styles of vehicle specific to our market. It's why established global brands such as Renault and Suzuki have struggled in the States, though Peugeot is making a comeback.
Some have managed the feat – establishing themselves to an extent where they've stuck around and grown substantially. The likes of Lexus and Infiniti spring to mind as examples born for the US market that have succeeded in penetrating a tricky market. But they both had the substantial backing of their parent brands, Toyota and Nissan – arguably dominant forces in the global automotive climate whose deep pockets have no doubt benefitted their respective subsidiaries. So knowing the financial backing and support structures required to establish a brand, not to mention the initial quality of the product required, who would've thought 15 years ago that Hyundai and Kia would be where they are today?
Back in the late 90s and early noughties, Hyundai and Kia were seen in the same light as then GM-owned subsidiary, Daewoo. All three South Korean brands were perceived as the Chinese are now – they made budget cars for budget markets, and the engineering, workmanship, and overall product impression was cheap and nasty. But in and amongst the dirt, there was a diamond or two. The first generation Hyundai Coupe, or Tiburon as it was known to some – was a sportier adaptation of the early Elantra sedan. Whereas the Elantra was poorly engineered and built though, the Coupe turned a few heads – combining striking styling with half decent powertrains into what was a relatively fun coupe to drive.
Another gem that arrived from the Korean twins was the Hyundai Tucson which actually shared a platform with the second generation Hyundai Coupe. It also shared underpinnings with the second generation Kia Sportage – a model that needed to be good if it were to redress the wrongs of the first Sportage. The first one had been a nightmare model, with safety issues and no less than two recalls due to rear wheels dismounting while driving. Between them, these models were far from luxurious; but they had visual appeal as well as mass market appeal as lifestyle soft-roaders with an affordable price tag rather than the hardcore off-roader vibe struck by the likes of Jeep.
They proved to be vastly more reliable than many of Hyundai and Kia's previous offerings. But just a single half decent vehicle between the two of them would not see them survive, and at the time it was all too easy to think they'd never survive past 2010. But where Daewoo ended up fully absorbed into Chevrolet, Hyundai and Kia grew from strength to strength. With their next model cycle, they offered stronger product with better build quality and more features. By the engineering standards of the day, their products were no marvels, but they were fairly reliable and built to last at least as long as any other mainstream rival.
They also invested heavily in technology development, with Hyundai finding decent success with hydrogen development, even offering the Tucson Fuel Cell in the US, when other manufacturers were still focusing on regular combustion engine development. The developmental leap Hyundai and Kia took between 2000 and 2010 was a massive one. By investing heavily in the US market, they were able to brave the initial storm and find themselves in a stable position in the local market. Spurred on by this, they decided if they were to succeed, they couldn't just try and emulate the mainstream rivals like Ford – they knew they needed to aim higher.
The method they chose was one that closely followed a European school of thought – they'd 'democratize' technology, making advanced tech readily available in run of the mill cars on a mass scale. The more the tech was made available, the cheaper it was to develop and produce. Very soon we started seeing Hyundais and Kias with power adjustable seats and auto dimming rear view mirrors, cruise control and heated seats too – items usually reserved for the options lists of BMW and Mercedes-Benz. But alongside the technology, they also decided if they wanted to be successful, they needed to look the part.
They went after the best of the best to ensure the task was a success, poaching Peter Schreyer – the man famous for cars such as the Mk1 Audi TT and Mk4 VW Golf. Starting in 2006, Schreyer radically established Kia's brand identity with the 'Tiger Nose' design – and it was under his influence that every model design was improved to the point that Kia now offered cars that looked great and were jam-packed with 'premium' technology. Hyundai had simultaneously hired Thomas Burkle from BMW – the man responsible for the E46 3 Series – to develop its 'Fluidic Sculpture' design language. It wasn't long before people started buying more; and not content with the advances they'd made already, the Korean twin brands pushed harder.
Both marketing luxury models with high quality materials and loads of tech. Their engineering departments were all the while being bolstered by clever hires, such as the 2015 appointment of Dr. Albert Biermann – who at the time had been the vice president of BMW's M Division with 30 years' experience at the German firm. It's been from then that we've seen Hyundai and Kia establish themselves as more than just secondary brands to mainstream rivals. You can now take any model from across the range and it'll be competitive against the established mainstream.
Where other brands have merely 'kept up' with each other with each passing generation, Kia and Hyundai have played catchup and are now on a level playing field, and in some cases, on the verge of being class leaders. We now have rear-wheel drive executive sedans worthy of high praise in the form of the Kia Stinger, and Hyundai's Veloster N promises to be a competent and thrilling rival to the iconic hot hatch, the Golf GTI. And on the front of alternative mobility, they're still pursuing hydrogen vehicles, while the new Hyundai Kona features a greater range than even a Chevy Bolt. There once was a time when Kia and Hyundai were lowly budget brands, subservient to the rest of the market.
But now, they're challenging for top honors amongst the executive elite, and they don't seem intent on stopping anytime soon. Hyundai and Kia have achieved in a brief 15 year span what many manufacturers struggle decades to achieve, and if their rate of progression in that span is anything to go by, then we're in for a very interesting future indeed. With both brands now having engineering to rival some of the best, technologies on par with the rest of the premium squadron of manufacturers, and style deserving of a neck snap or two just to catch another glimpse, they've grown into composite brands with a big future ahead.
If we take their recent progression, their current standing, and their future product plans into account, we'd place the smart money on the fact that in the 5-10 years, Kia and Hyundai aren't just going to be competitors in the general fray, but they're going to be segment leaders, innovators, and benchmarks for brands that until now have been perceived as untouchable. The likes of BMW, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz should underestimate the Korean twins at their own peril – and so should you as a discerning car buyer.