Hyundai i40
Hyundai i40, a station wagon version of the Sonata that is not sold in North America. Click image to enlarge

Article and photos by Grant Yoxon

Photo Gallery:
25 years of Hyundai

Canadian auto writers were invited recently to Mosport International Raceway to experience Hyundai’s passenger car line-up for the 2012 model year. We drove to the track in the 2012 Elantra, named recently by the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC) as the Best New Small Car over $21,000. Not only is the new Elantra winning awards, it is closing in on the Honda Civic as Canada’s most popular car.

At Mosport we drove around area roads in the new Accent and the all new Veloster, also 2012 AJAC category winners – Best New Small Car under $21,000 and Best New Sports/Performance Car under $50,000, respectively – while sampling the revamped 2012 Genesis luxury sedan on an acceleration course and having some fun with the V6-powered Genesis coupe on the development track.

The Genesis sedan, the Canadian and North American Car of the Year in 2009 now has a whole lot more power available in a new 5.0-litre V8 that pushes 429 hp and 376 lb.-ft. of torque. The V6 is no slouch either with 333 hp and 291 lb.-ft. of torque. Both have a new slick shifting 8-speed transmission.

Ulsan factory, Ulsan, Korea, Genesis Sedan extended wheelbase
A Genesis extended-wheelbase sedan on the assembly line at Hyundai’s Ulsan factory, in Ulsan, Korea. Click image to enlarge

A few weeks later, I was in Ulsan, Republic of Korea, where Hyundai has what is the world’s largest auto manufacturing facility. There, I watched that new V8 being installed in the 2012 Genesis in a remarkably clean, ultra modern plant. It is one of five separate factories on the 5-million square metre site that builds 5,400 vehicles per day. Here, finished cars are driven out into a large waterfront parking lot fronting a pier where three 50,000-ton ships can dock at once. On this day there are only two, but crews are busy moving hundreds of cars into their holds for delivery to 180 countries around the globe.

It is hard not to be impressed. With factories in Ulsan, Asan and Jeonju Korea, as well as plants in the United States, China, India, Turkey and the Czech Republic, Hyundai builds more than 3.6 million vehicles each year (2010 data) and more are coming with new plants coming online in Russia and Brazil.

It wasn’t always this way.

Established in 1967, following the forced break up of the Hyundai conglomerate, Hyundai Motor Corporation began life as an assembler of the Ford Cortina for the domestic Korean market. In 1974, it began building its own first car, the Pony, using parts sourced from Ford, Mitsubishi and others. In 1976, Hyundai exported its first car to Ecuador. In 1983, Hyundai Auto Canada was established and the first Pony went on sale here in 1984.

Ulsan factory, Ulsan, Korea, Genesis Sedan extended wheelbase
A Genesis extended-wheelbase sedan on the assembly line at Hyundai’s Ulsan factory, in Ulsan, Korea. Click image to enlarge

I must be forgiven for mentioning that word, the product that defined the Hyundai Motor Company in its early years in North America, if only to illustrate how far this company has come in a little more than a quarter of a century in North America. While there are many who work for Hyundai who would rather never hear the word ever again, it must be stated so that we can truly understand the magnitude of the journey Hyundai has taken in such a short time as well as to understand the brand burden Hyundai has been forced to overcome.

With a price of just $6,000, the Pony was a really good deal, if not a great car by North American standards. It was a success for Hyundai from the point of view that it gave the upstart Korean company a beachhead in markets around the world, but it also saddled the company with a brand image as a builder of cheap if undistinguished — even unreliable — cars, that would be hard to shake. By 1987, the Pony was gone, replaced by the arguably much improved Excel. But the damage had been done.

(That is a word I would not use to describe my own experience with a 1986 Excel that served me well through the early ‘90s, but such is the power of anecdotal evidence – others, many others, with or without experience, would disagree.)

Connect with