The car in that picture, just there. What is it? To a totally untrained eye, it's a big, imposing businessman's express, most probably German. To many Europeans, it's totally forgivable to see the hints of LS in the tail and bet on it being some kind of facelifted Lexus. However, this car is in fact a Hyundai. It's the Equus, the Korean outfit's shock success in North America, where it retails at a base price of $58,000.
For a car this size, and loaded with an obscene amount of kit as standard, the Equus is an undoubted bargain. However, in the luxury saloon marketplace, where one is chauffered, rather than to be so vulgar as to drive oneself, one doesn't do 'bargains.' Yet the Stateside motoring press have lavished praise of the car as being a credible alternative to other cars in the class from Bavaria or the British.
In Europe, a Hyundai with a five figure price needs to come in at under £20k or it gets laughed right out of town. Call it badge snobbery, or discerning tastes, but nevertheless the Korean and Malaysian marques, specifically Hyundai and Kia are largely still seen as cheap, unemotional transport, the stereotypical way from A to B, especially for the more elderly in society. Years of drab superminis with silly names trying to undercut a vastly more desirable Fiesta by a few hundred quid mean that the Far East, Japan aside, simply has no desirability whatsoever as a maker of good cars.
How much do you need an X3?
Defeatist attitudes never achieved anything though, and by slowly plugging away at a market they can dominate, the Koreans are now emerging as a major worldwide force in the automotive industry. Kia have savvily poached ex-Audi design chief Peter Schreyer, and the latest offerings he has penned aren't just unoffensive, they have real flair and originality. The aggressive, dynamic lines evident in the new Sportage, Soul and Optima aren't going to win the Turner Prize in the near future, but the Germans have been dropping the ball lately, with the 5 Series and E-Class, and A8 coming in for particular scrutiny thanks to their frumpy proportions and odd detailing. Next to the premium norm, Kia seems to have much more flair in its new design language, rather than just
I know you got Soul... no it's not a concept
throwing LED running lights at a headlamp until the supposedly subtle Germanic approach ends up resembling a disco ball.
Hyundai meanwhile have also turned out a brace of attractive cars in the past couple of years. The soon to be replaced Coupé still looks fresh, and the new ix35 and Santa Fe are remarkably well-proportioned SUVs for such an infant manufacturer. Unlike the Chinese offerings, the Korean motors have vastly improved build quality, Euro-equal levels of safety, and the killer cominbation of generous trim and low price to create great value for money cars. In a period as families look to downsize and diversify, these cars are very much of their time. The Korean outfits may lack the immense size of the Volkswagen group, but in what they can offer to the customer they are probably more of a People's Car.
I believe however there's just one final obstacle obstructing the expansion and full acceptance of Kia and Hyunda et al into European motoring. They've got basic no frills superminis nailed, their crossovers and saloons are intruiging in the extreme and even the rather unspectacular Cee'd has a starring role as the infamous Reasonably Priced Car on Top Gear.
The most fun you can have in a Kia...so far
What they need is a proper, pucker, halo performance car.
That's not the greedy, juvenile, clichéd petrolhead inside me wailing for another Fast and Furious prop to drool over. It's simply that in Europe, every major nation has a proud history of producing cars, in the past or at present. And plenty of this is built around sports cars.
England make the world best lightweight specials, in Lotus, Ariel, and Caterham, together with fabulous luxury grand tourers from Aston Martin and Jaguar. A history of MG's, Triumphs, TVR's and something called the McLaren F1 are handy too. The French have consistently produced the world's best hot hatches since the 205GTi. Italy is home of the supercar, and the Germans produce arguably the definitve sports coupé, the Porsche 911. If Kia or Hyundai could somehow conjure up a low volume, decently set up sports car, regardless of the badge adorning its no doubt handsome body, they'd be home and dry, in the same way the NSX, Type-R, Evo's and Impreza STI's helped cement Japan's place as a respected source of cars. It's ambitious, and perhaps unfortunate, that many Europeans are so cynical in their opinion of the Korean cars that they need a rear wheel drive, high revving, low slung slap in the face to make them sit up and take note of such a burgeoning talent. Fingers crossed then, for a potentially brilliant halo car to start the surge.