How Kia and Hyundai Infiltrated the Luxury Market

Source: Hyundai

Remember the days when a Kia or a Hyundai were considered to be nothing more than knock-off Korean interpretations of Japanese cars? We’re not talking about anything in recent history of course, but instead one should think back to the archaic days of automatic seatbelts, cassette tape players, pop-up headlights, and Miami Vice-themed factory graphics. This was the age of Super Nintendo waging war on Sega Genesis, when Nickelodeon’s Guts could only be overshadowed by Double Dare, and as Pepsi Clear made its bubbly belly-flop into the annals of American soda-pop failures, something began to change in the way we looked at Asian cars.

People began to take Acura seriously, because while it may have been considered a disjointed Honda back in the day, the introduction of the NSX changed everyone’s opinion for the better. Lexus also was becoming a huge hit, as it showed Americans that all of the sophistication and quality one looks for in a German luxury car could be had for a fraction of the price thanks to Japanese engineering. So while Infiniti continued to convince buyers that its line-up was just as reliable as anything else in the Nissan range, Mazda and Subaru primarily stayed out of the luxury line, opting for all-wheel drive versatility and Miata-infused fun instead. Meanwhile Mitsubishi started sending us SUVs, while Isuzu and Suzuki tried desperately to get our attention, but got very little in return.

Source: Hyundai

While Japanese automakers fought amongst themselves, and American manufacturers began to fret over the permanence of this Japanese invasion, no one seemed to notice that Korean commuter cars were starting to catch on. No one was giving Hyundai or Kia the time of day, and why should they? Neither of these brands were hot sellers, they certainly were not a part of the “Japanese invasion,” and there was not a single thing about them that was interesting, exciting, exuberant, or expensive.

But as time progressed it became apparent that this is exactly what these two companies wanted, because while they did have the means to launch luxury models at any time, they opted to play it safe, and build their presence here in the states from the ground up instead. It may have taken a couple of decades to do so, but today there is no denying the fact that Kia and Hyundai played their hands extremely well over the years, and what started off as a handful of compact economy cars has morphed into a full-blown takeover, with everyone from Mercedes-Benz to Honda feeling the heat, as Korean cars have gone from “crap” to “oh snap!”

Source: Kia
Source: Kia

What people need to understand is that while Kia and Hyundai may have started off with humble beginnings, drivers need to get over the predisposition that these are second-class Japanese knock-offs with questionable reliability and very few creature comforts. Sure, at one point it would be fair to assume such a thing, but if you read our review of the Hyundai Genesis, or look over the pictures we took of the $67,000 Kia K900, it becomes apparent that this is no longer the case.

In a article we did back in May, we highlighted seven reasons why Korean cars rock, and in this piece a few key pivotal moments in the history of the two car makers were touched upon, as they distanced themselves from the stigmas of old which have very little correlation to the cars you see today. Playing it conservatively over the years has allowed them to amass both wealth and resources, as both automakers now make the majority of their cars here in America.

While things were indeed going quite well for both firms after the turn of the millennia, it was not until 2004 that things really started to change, when Hyundai shocked the world by tying Honda for initial brand quality in a study conducted by J.D. Power and Associates. Hyundai then placed third in J.D. Power’s 2006 Initial Quality Survey, trailing only Porsche and Lexus, while Kia continued to win awards for its safety, design, and ingenuity in every segment imaginable.

This leads us back to what this entire diatribe is about: If you are nipping at Porsche and Lexus’ heels in J.D. Power’s quality surveys, then there has to be a sprinkling of sophistication in there somewhere. Take Hyundai’s Equus for example. Here is a 429-horsepower V8 luxury sedan, that has an interior that will make anyone say “BM-Who?” thanks to its cooled front and rear seats, rear-seat entertainment system with dual 9.2-inch monitors, and cabin that is bigger than a BMW 750i, a Mercedes-Benz S550, or the Lexus LS 460.

But perhaps the greatest thing about this car is that it carries with it the traditional Korean ace in the hole: an unbeatable price. For $68,750 you can buy a fully-loaded Equus for thousands less than the base version being offered by these other manufacturers, and if you sit in one you will notice that the quality of the materials used rivals those found in its competition. Sure, some people think driving a Korean car is beneath them, and that European is the only way to go for luxury, but these are the same close-minded individuals who are more worried about what other people think than what they want and need in a car. Honestly, if the Oxford fits and it costs a hell of a lot less than the rest, then lace that beauty up and rock it, man.

In closing, it’s notable that both Kia and Hyundai’s move on the luxury market comes without the formation of a separate brand in which to stable these posh chariots. Where other manufacturers have felt the need to create spin-offs like Lincoln, Buick, Lexus, Acura, Infiniti, and Audi, Korean automakers have opted to keep their more prestigious offerings singular in nature, while unashamedly harboring the same base-born nameplate on the rear of the car. Which is a very Korean thing to do, since the risk involved with launching a single luxury model is far less than that of an entire line-up. By keeping a recognizable badge on the back of their cars, these automakers are able to stop onlookers dead in their tracks, so that they may murmur to themselves, “Man, that Kia looks absolutely fantastic!”