It must have been some bad Korean…

I should start off noting that I have ungraded my feelings towards Korean cars  from hate to dislike, which technically is a massive improvement, but still very far from love.  New factors have emerged that fight to change my mindset. Increased reliability has been one of the factors in this change, which still, is not saying a whole lot. They’re very unlikely to catch up with most Japanese cars… ever. However, going off recent surveys, they’re putting up a heck of a fight. Consumer Reports named the Hyundai Elantra  the small car top pick! Do you realize what it had to beat? The Corolla! The Mazda 3! The Civic! The Civic!!! Honda has remained one of the only companies to keep up its high reliability ratings while still remaining stylish, practical and dynamic. This infuriates and confuses me by shaking to pieces my long-standing view toward what, for decades, had been complete rubbish of an automobile.

However, I can still take some comfort in disliking Korean cars, no matter how very little sense this would be for anyone else. But before you call me a car racist or badge snob, let me try to explain myself.

First of all, reliability by itself means nothing to a car fanatic like myself. Case in point, British and Italian cars. My personal favorites come from the 50’s and go into the 70’s: E-Type Jags, MGs, Triumphs, Fiats and my personal favorite, Alfa Romeos. They were gorgeous cars with sparkling personalities and lust provoking curves. Their engines screamed and bellowed like singers in an opera. They begged to be grabbed by the scruff of the neck and tossed into curves. You see, back then, car manufactures trusted your ability to drive, even if it could potentially lead to your death. There were no airbags, traction control or ABS; the only safety feature you could get was just a simple lap belt to keep your body from being thrown thru the windshield. Suspensions were not designed with a bit of understeer to alert you of too much speed into a corner. Instead, you could kick the tail out and rotate the car toward the inside of the curve (and maybe in the process not take out a fence and some utility poles).

So, these cars were a total hoot to drive, even if technically, they were no quicker than today’s average family sedan. However, they were a complete nightmare to maintain. Electrical systems regularly failed, especially the infamous Lucus systems in the British cars. Even if you did manage to replace all the electrics, the cars would soon disintegrate into a rusty pile of dust. Oil would leak out as fast as you could pour it in and cams and valves would frequently shatter (more so with the complex duel cam Italian engines). Even so, I would love to own one. Whether it was an E-Type, TR6, MGB or an Alfa GTA, the 10 minutes in which the car managed to run right would be 10 minutes in Heaven. Try that in a Kia.

Of course my feelings are far from being limited to German, British or Italian cars. There is still a parking spot in my heart for the ’70 Challenger. And there’s plenty of room left for any number of other 60’s to 70’s muscle cars. Regardless, these cars can be forgiven for dropping parts all over the place or bursting into flames. They’re more than an appliance for transporting people from point A to point B. They have what a Korean car could only dream of… a personality. These cars talk to you and you want to talk to them. They pull at your heart-strings and make you want to drive for miles and miles for no other reason but to have fun. Most cars sold today can take you from one place to another in some degree of comfort and without the huge risk of breaking down. Then again, my dishwasher can wash dishes just as well. It’s what I ask of it. Yet, I’ve never been giddy to get home and give the ol’ Whirlpool a …uh, whirl. It’s never given me goose bumps. I’ve never admired the glimmer of its paint in the sun nor have I drooled to the sound its motor working away on the dishes.

You can see where I’m getting at. If I want an appliance, I’ll go to Sears. When I want a car, you’ll find me at whatever nearest dealerships that sells Lotuses, Shelby Mustangs or Corvette Z06’s. Okay, maybe my selection would need to be more realistic: Mitsubishi Evos, Subaru STIs, Mazda 3’s, Honda Si’s,VW GTI’s or maybe (and that’s a big maybe) even a Chevy Cobalt SS…used… very used. In any case, each is capable of lighting up the tires and your soul. And yes, I realize I included what is basically a Cavalier but, come on, it can spank 60 mph in the 6 second range and covers the ¼ in around 14 seconds. It’s worth mentioning.

Still, the difference between these cars and the ones typically pushed out of Korean factories, aside from an immense difference in horsepower, is that they all have their own personality: the Evo being a tactical killer, the STI is the deadly oddball, the 3 is the tried and true athlete, the Si is the hyperactive samurai, the GTI  is the original hot hatch and Cobalt SS is the underdog trying to live up to its muscle car badge (it does have the speed, even if power is sent to the wrong end). Partially as a result, their respective manufacturers each also have their own personalities. Try this with most Hyuandais and Kias (both part of the same company since merging in ’98) and you’ll get: the vacuum cleaner, some weird species of fish or (the most likely) the car that looks like it’s copying a 90’s Japanese car. It’s true. Take a look at their new cars and you’ll see. The Consumer Report’s top pick,  the Hyundai Elantra, looks like a cross between the last generation Civic and Corolla. The Sonata and Azera (both rather handsome cars) shamelessly copies the last generation Accord. The popular Kia Sodona/ Hyundai Entourage mimic the Nissan Quest. The Spectra 5… think of the old Mazda Protégé 5. Most of their SUVs …most of Toyota’s SUVs.

Honestly, I can’t say this has necessarily had bad effects. As I said before, The Sonata and Azera aren’t bad looking cars. Neither is the Tiburon, though it took a few generations to look right. When it was first introduced it bared a strong resemblance to its competitor the Toyota Paseo (itself being a rather bland car). The second generation Tib suffered a wild makeover in an attempt look like the late ‘90s Celica with it’s four round headlights. Unfortunately, it was a horrible looking creature. It failed to capture the sporty simplicity of the Celica at that time and instead ended up as a busy mess. However, the current Tiberon is a different story. The body is uncluttered, free-flowing and rather easy on the eyes.. It’s not that bad of a sports coupe with its little V6 tooting through dual exhaust. Still, it was never considered competition to the sport compacts I mentioned earlier. However, this doesn’t keep teens from performing a Fast and Furious job on them. Huge wings, fart mufflers and backwards caps do little to help this little car or the street cred of the dorks driving them because both the car and driver are posers. Neither have personalities of their own. Take a look at the Tiburon on Hyundai’s website. You’ll probably notice that it looks a lot like the last generation Celica. The headlights flow down the fenders and sharpen into a similar looking snout. The narrow windows are pitched into the flexed out rear quarter panels, giving the Tiburon that “cat ready to pounce” look. It has a very strong resemblance to the departed Celica, except for the rear end which looks more like a Neon SRT 4.

I believe this lack of personality, this knock-off mentality was a turnoff to the tuner crowd and the feelings can apply to the Korean “high-end” luxury car too. When the Hyundai Genesis was introduced to us last year during the Super Bowl, it was a rather surprising departure from what regularly came out of Korea. No one expected a rear drive platform with a powerful V8 to come from Korea. There really weren’t too many affordable rear drive sedans available. There’s the Dodge Charger. Though not a bad car, it is still an old, recycled, Mercedes platform with Chrysler parts on top. GM was still working on their rear drive platform from Austria to put under their Pontiac G8 and Ford’s only affordable rear drive is the slowly dying Crown Vic. Hyundai had an opportunity to stick their foot into the doorway of a small but competitive market. And they were coming armed with a 4.6 liter V8 producing 385hp.

So here we are, a spanking new rear-drive, independent suspension sedan with a powerful V8 to take on the luxury cars of Japan and, shall we say, Germany. May have potential, right? Some may say yeah, I say no. They managed to completely ruin it by blatantly copying the styling of another car. I can only imagine the Genesis’ design team meeting, “We have this new V8 rear drive platform and we need to design a body for it. So to be safe and keep from wasting time or money, we’ll just copy someone else’s design. Any ideas? Why yes, the Mercedes Benz S-Class is a good-looking car. All agreed? Get the tracing paper, draw up a quick design and send it up for approval. Just make sure to leave off the Mercedes hood ornament and alter the grille design a little. Actually, let’s just take a grille off one of our Kias and use that.” Why would they do that? Why would people want to buy what is basically a cheap knock-off of the real thing. Reminds me of the kit cars from the 70’s and 80’s. People wanted to give the impression that they could afford cars like the Lamborghini Countach or Ferrari Testarossa. They thought people wouldn’t notice the Fiero interior or the blat of a cheap GM multiport V6 (or worse, a VW Beetle flat four). China actually has a large market for manufacturing cheap copies of BMWs and Mercedes Benzes (do a search online, it’s fairly interesting). It would seem that Korea does too.

All of this comes together to form what may be the most damning reason for my dislike of Korean cars… image. Let’s face it, since Hyundai’s introduction to the US in the mid 80’s, it represented a class of automotive cheapness only challenged by the moped. While Hyundai has gradually grown up market, Kia has taken its place low on the totem pole. However, this is not a lonely place for Kia. Suzuki is also in the business of making cheap, generic washing machines…oops, I mean cars that share the same image. And like Kia, their dealerships use gaudy, brightly colored signs, balloons and flags to grab your attention. Each one could be confused for the strip club next door if it weren’t for the huge, purple inflatable gorilla on the roof. Then again, local strip clubs may use those too… I don’t know. Anyway, their marketing scheme seems geared towards attracting the simplest of people. Their television commercials use announcers that scream at you to the backdrop of explosions, bright animations and bouncing letters and numbers promising the best deals of a lifetime. They can put you in a new car no matter your credit or income. So being distracted by shiny lights and loud noises, the credit challenged who can’t afford a new car will find themselves with an $8,000 car and a $26,000 loan.

So now, these nasty little cars are everywhere, slowly hogging the left lane of interstates and highways, blocking the fast food lines and filling up the kind of neighborhoods in which the local PD are “pretty familiar with”. Of course (now pay attention), this image is undeserved to the few who simply wanted a cheap car and managed to buy one without being fooled into such a scheme. I do understand these people do exist. However, I would recommend scrapping off those manufacture’s emblems and dealership decals.

So I guess I explained it all. Korean cars are cheap, bland, emotionless cars bought by people who are mostly (that means not all) simpletons with bad credit, live in bad neighborhoods and wouldn’t know a thing about cars… even if they received a scholarship and spent two years enrolled in a mechanics course. This has been my view for a many, many years and will not ever, ever change. Well… it wasn’t supposed to. I’ve always had fun stereotyping people according to what kind of car they drove (especially Lexus drivers, but that’s another topic for another day). Besides, I know too many people who drive Korean cars who aren’t idiots for doing so, though many regret their automotive purchase. However, the worst part about my turn around …and please, I’m going to need an hour to repeatedly ram my head against the wall before admitting… I may have been wrong (bang, bang, bang) about my personal impression of them. I’m angered and disappointed at myself. What could have case this shift in my little automotive world?

When I first heard of this rear drive sports coupe being spun from the Genesis sedan platform, I immediately wrote it off as the next Korean failure. However, I was wrong (oh the disappointment!). I kinda like the Hyundai Genesis Coupe. I really wanted to dislike this car because it was obvious that Hyundai, again, put little effort into creating a design that was distinctive to their company. The coupe was introduced during this year’s Super Bowl, a year after they introduced the Genesis Sedan. The Coupe sped around the track with Smashing Pumpkins playing in the background and huge clouds of smoke bellowing from the rear tires as the Coupe drifted through turn after turn. Despite how “dynamic” they were trying to make the car look, it was not shocking to look at for the first time. It was uninteresting. I’ve already seen an Infinity G37 coupe. I’ve already seen Lexus’ IF sedan. Hyundai took both designs and, disappointingly, managed to make what could have been an exciting looking sports car look hopelessly generic. I believe a gear head like myself would have trouble recognizing it until I got close enough to see the badge. Yet, I’m able to overlook this because this may actually be a proper sports car!

The Coupe is rear drive with all independent suspension. The base engine is a turbocharged 2.0 liter 16 valve I-4 loosely based on the same one found in the Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart…not a bad start. This should be a playground for the import turners who could easily coax over 300 horses from the little engine. As it stands, Motor Trend was able to get the base Coupe to 60 in 6.8 seconds but was only able to get through the ¼ mile in 15.2 seconds at 90.3 (must have ran out of steam after an 1/8 of a mile). However, if you want to keep from falling asleep, you’ll need the 24 valve 3.8 liter V6. This engine will allow the Korean coupe (Track edition) to clobber 60 in 5.5 seconds and whip the ¼ in 14 flat and over 100 mph (Motor Trend again). A Korean coupe!!! Of more importance to me, the handling; with the Track package, the Coupe was able to achieve 0.91g of grip. Not bad. Supposedly, the Track version will be ideal for those wanting to try their hand in SCCA Autocross races. Sounds promising for people like myself who have been trying to do this for years.  In fact, I bought an old GTI with such intentions, didn’t work out. Maybe next time.

Needless to say, the Coupe will have competition with the more obvious ones coming from Nissan: the G37 and the 370 Z. Both cars are more capable on the track but cost much more. By the time you load up a Coupe with options, including the 3.8 V6 and Track package, you’ll just be up to par with only a base Z. The G37, of course, cost much more. The only other competitor (price wise) is the Ford Mustang. The 6 cylinder Stang prices out around the base Coupe and offers similar acceleration times. But its engine, borrowed from the Ford Ranger/Explorer, feels and sounds like a truck engine. Add to it an archaic solid rear axle, and you have a car that handles as well as an Amish horse cart. However, put a check mark in the box next the GT package and everything changes. Years ago, the Korean would have been able to leave the Mustang behind in the curves. Now that Ford has had a few years to tweak the current platform, the refreshed 2010 Stang GT betters the Coupe with lateral g’s in the mid .9s (.95g avg according to Motor Trend) and obviously blows it away on the straights with its V8 power. Even more unfortunate for the Coupe, a Mustang GT can be bought for nearly the same price as a V6 Coupe with the Track package. Also, the Mustang has enough personality and heritage to make the Coupe as interesting as a clothes dryer.

However, Ford will not be the only American causing trouble for the Korean, the Chevy Camaro is coming and will, thankfully, be nothing like its predecessors. Historically, America has put out cars that were devastatingly fast in a straight line but pathetically slow when we encountered those funny little things we call curves. This is no longer the case as America’s newest pony cars have shown. But unlike the Mustang, the Camero returns with independent rear suspension, an update that should have been done to both cars nearly a decade ago. So obviously the Camaro will be a force to recon with at the track. To make matters worse for the Korean, the Camaro starts off with a high-tech 300 hp+ V6 at the price of a base Coupe (after a year of horrific price gouging). When the Coupe reaches it’s fully loaded V6 Track spec, the Camaro matches it with a powerful V8. Honestly, it would be hard to justify the Coupe when you can get a modern rendition of an American pony car that betters the Coupe in price and performance. Plus (and I mean a big plus) the Camaro has style and personality. There is nothing like cruising the streets in an American muscle car with a burbling soundtrack that resonate through the tail pipes. With this being said, the Camaro will be the way to go.

Never the less, Hyundai wasn’t alone in causing my self loathing. Horribly, I found that Kia had grabbed my attention with their introduction of the Kia Soul. Unlike the Coupe, the Soul shows that a Korean company is capable of originality. We know that the idea of a hip box on wheels is nothing new; Scion has had their box out for years. I just recently started seeing these Souls on the road and their presence is nothing like any other Kia ever built. Like the Scions, there will be an endless supply of accessories to personalize your ride. Even without these, the car is original, modern and funky. The overall shape is not as hard on the eyes as one would expect, despite the weird shapes that cut throughout the car at different tangents. From the front, rear and sides, I struggle to find any thing wrong with its style. It has the personality I thought would never be found in a Kia. The same goes for the interior, the color coded accents are a little bright for my taste but it’s well designed and well laid out. I need to take a moment to gather what I am saying……Yes, apparently it’s true…I like this car. But like the Hyundai Coupe, the Kia Soul has its competitors too. As mentioned, the Scion xB has been around since 2004. The newest version is bigger and more powerful but it’s styling was toned down a little thus losing the edginess that first made it popular. Despite this, it’s already got street cred and the dependability of its Toyota-based platform. Then there is the Nissan Cube. This weird little car has enjoyed immense success in Europe and Japan and is now ready to do battle in the U.S. This is a car I respect for its unique personality and brave styling. Its makes the Soul look like…well, a Kia. I know people will either love the Cube or hate it, that what makes a car like this so appealing.

Okay, I may seem as if I just dismissed these cars for there competitors, but the competition is tough. However, I believe these Koreans cars will get a decent punch or two in because they may just be good cars. Now will I ever consider buying one of these cars. No, I’m just not ready to…yet. But I think under the right conditions, I could enjoy driving them. The Coupe has a lot of potential with it being based on a platform that carries a V8 luxury car. Slap that V8 into the Coupe and give me a mountain road to take on. Hand me the Soul, mount a rack on the top for surf boards and I can see me and three friends spending a weekend at the beach. Of course, this all in theory. These cars still have an undeserved reputation of bland cheapness and bad taste that haunt the badges they so proudly wear. Still, I have yet to have driven any of these cars and would take any offers to do so. But be patient with me… I’ll probably be fighting the urge to wear a paper sack over my head.

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6 Responses to “It must have been some bad Korean…”

  1. Barbara Says:

    Have you ever considered adding more videos to your blog posts to keep the readers more entertained? I mean I just read through the entire article of yours and it was quite good but since I’m more of a visual learner,I found that to be more helpful well let me know how it turns out. This is good…thanks for sharing

    • AutomotiveNation Says:

      Thanks for your comment. I’m planning on including video in my next blog. I participated in an autocross race and won. I’m planning on writing about the experience and including video of my runs. Unfortunately, I’ve been slacking off on my blog because of college. Hopefully I can get back on track. Thanks again. I still new to blogging and any suggestions are helpful.

      Nick

  2. Juan Lytle Says:

    Hello, recently discovered this blog but I have to say that it looks awesome. I fully agree with your post. Have a great day, keep up the nice work and I will definitely come back.

  3. Robert Khamo Says:

    I truly enjoy this blog.

    • AutomotiveNation Says:

      Thank for you your comment. I have several more articles I want to write, but I’ve majorly slacked off with this blog. I’m taking a writing class right now and it is taking up a lot of my time…poor excuse I know. But thanks again and any suggestions are extremely helpful.

      Nick

    • AutomotiveNation Says:

      Thank for you your comment. I have several more articles I want to write (hopefully soon), but I’ve majorly slacked off with this blog. I’m taking a writing class right now and it is taking up a lot of my time…poor excuse I know. But thanks again and any suggestions are extremely helpful.

      Nick

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