By Warren Brown
Special to the Washington Post
Sunday, May 2, 2010; F01
PHILADELPHIA Let us speak of things often unspoken -- and, when spoken, carefully whispered -- in the politically correct world of automobiles.
This has to do with ethnic and national pride, lingering anger over past wrongs done by one side or another, and, from a historical perspective, the kind of raw hatred that long has proved fertile ground for war and death and centuries of political conflict.
Specifically, it has to do with Japanese colonial rule of Korea, in which Koreans were brutally treated as inferiors, from 1910 through 1945.
Understanding that history, retold in whispered conversations, often over dinner and drinks after an automobile show or conference, is the best way to understand what is happening today between Japanese and South Korean automobile manufacturers.
The underlying truth: There is a war going on. The once-slighted Koreans are determined to win it.
In the logic of the Asian Car Conflict, neither the Europeans nor the North Americans are Korea's enemies. Be it hubris or not, the Koreans believe they easily could beat the Car Companies of the West, many of them weighted down by costly labor contracts and, by Korean standards, a still too-slow, too-timid approach toward automotive development and design.
What the Korean car executives will say on the record is that their primary targets are the Japanese car companies -- Toyota, Honda, Nissan and the rest. On the record, they will explain their target priorities in seemingly logical terms of global market positioning. Japan's Toyota, for example, is the world's top car company in measurements of sales and market share.
Off the record, after more than a few bottles of beer and glasses of wine, something else comes out, as it did in a Hyundai new-vehicle presentation here and on the West Coast. A paraphrased summation of those passionately expressed comments, words that will never be spoken publicly, amounts to this: We're going to show the Japanese that we can build cars better than them. This time, we're going to beat them. We are going to be No. 1.
It's substantially more than bluster. Anyone doubting that should look at Hyundai's steady rise in vehicle quality, sales and global prominence over the past decade. If doubt somehow still remains, take a careful look at this week's subject automobile, the 2011 Hyundai Sonata Limited.
In terms of exterior and interior styling, overall safety, efficient road performance, and the level and quality of standard amenities offered, it beats the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Nissan Altima. It could very well eclipse sales of the Chevrolet Malibu and block continued sales growth of the Ford Fusion.
The 2011 Sonata is, simply stated, one heck of a fine, fuel-efficient, attractively priced automobile. It will take sales from somebody, if not everybody.
Even the Sonata's paint job is special. We're talking 14 coats, including an electromagnetic primer process that draws paint into the deepest crevices of the automobile. The final paint product over that beautifully sculpted body looks like a clear sheet of water being blown backward by the wind.
I drove the new Sonata from Philadelphia to Northern Virginia, where I picked up my wife, Mary Anne, and continued deep into Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.
Mary Anne has a way of "feeling" cars before she actually pays attention to them.
"Lexus?" she asked.
"No," I said.
"Infiniti?" she queried.
"Unh-unh," I mumbled.
"What?" she demanded.
"Hyundai," I said.
"Like, what? You mean Hyundai Genesis?" she asked, referring to Hyundai's luxury model.
"I mean Hyundai Sonata," I said, at which, the car's cabin fell silent.
A shock of another sort silenced conversation when we stopped at a Virginia gas station after having driven nearly 350 miles since my leaving Philadelphia.
"You must've filled up on your way home from Philadelphia," Mary Anne said.
"I didn't," I said.
"You're lying," she said.
"I'm not," I countered.
"What kind of engine?"
"Four cylinders, 198 horsepower."
"Daannggg!" she exclaimed, her native Texas drawl rising to the fore.
Brown is a special correspondent.