Hyundai stays ahead by staying true to itself

Warren Brown
Columnist September 14, 2013

There is something about Hyundai that is distinctly Hyundai, even here at what arguably is the world’s largest automobile display, the 65th edition of the Frankfurt International Motor Show.

The Germans and other Europeans, of course, take up most of the space, occupying entire halls with huge multibillion-dollar exhibitions in the cases of BMW and Mercedes-Benz. You’d expect that. This is their home turf, and they are determined not to forfeit an inch of it without a fight.

Warren Brown is a columnist who writes about autos for The Washington Post. View Archive

But stroll over to Hall 10 and you’ll see that the Europeans are in for a tough contest for home market share, largely because of what is being offered here and abroad by South Korean automobile manufacturer Hyundai Motor.

I went to the Hyundai podium to work out a personal conundrum. Back home in the United States I had fallen in love with the 2013 Hyundai Azera, which was odd considering that I had a decidedly unloving relationship with the Azera’s sister car, the Kia Cadenza.

Hyundai is Kia’s corporate parent. As such, Hyundai tries — but fails — at that perennial parental task of loving all its children equally.

The Azera and Cadenza are full-size, front-wheel-drive family sedans that use the same 3.3-liter gasoline-powered V-6 engine. Both run well on regular-grade fuel. Both do violence to traditional notions of luxury by offering very much for relatively little.

But the Azera won my heart. Now I know why.

The Azera is more Hyundai, exclusively and distinctively Hyundai, than the Cadenza is Kia. The “fluidic sculpture,” first displayed here by Hyundai in 2009, marks everything Azera and Hyundai inside and out.

The Azera and its Hyundai siblings all seem to shimmer with movement, like wind-blown waves. You either love them or hate them. But you have no doubts about what and, to personify, “who” they are. That they also come “loaded” with so much standard content, at prices easily competitive with those of rivals, tilts my heart in favor of “love.”

The Cadenza, by comparison, is that child who eschews most family values in favor of running with the crowd, imitating everything and everyone else. It is a South Korean who is more interested in being all things European — a motorized work of confused identity. It borders on phony — well-made, well-equipped, reasonably priced phony, but phony nonetheless. I felt nothing after driving nearly 1,000 miles in the Cadenza in the United States. I felt nothing but awe after a similar stateside journey in the Hyundai Azera.

The difference in emotion has everything to do with beauty and authenticity.

The designers of the Azera set out to render something different — a car discernibly, easily recognizable as Hyundai. They took a chance with the “fluidic sculpture” approach, daring to offend in their attempt to tantalize. They did both. But that’s okay. They produced an original.

Kia’s designers, by comparison, seem to have held up a European template in their design of the Cadenza — a little Mercedes-Benz here, a bit of BMW there, an occasional dab of Volkswagen and Volvo. It is imitation well done, but so well done it obliterates anything Kia.

Kia, of course, is gambling that it all may not matter. The Cadenza offers so much at a base price starting under $40,000, it might be a bargain too attractive to resist. We’ll see.

But what I saw here confirmed what I feel about the Azera. Crowds were gathered around a proposed new Hyundai offering for Europe, the compact, “fluidic sculpture” rendition of the Hyundai i10, a small urban car designed and engineered to challenge Volkswagen, Audi, Renault, et al., in their home market.

A scribe from the Irish Times remarked that Hyundai was being “cheeky” but that it was the kind of cheekiness that has made the South Korean manufacturer a formidable contender in the global motoring arena.

I agreed with the Irish journalist’s assessment of cheekiness but added, thinking of the Azera: “Cheeky and arrogant enough to be original at prices competitors find hard to match.”

It is a winning combination. It should be shared with Kia.

Comments
Show Comments
Most Read