Hyundai’s Chief of Design, John Kim. Click image to enlarge

by Paul Williams

Photo Gallery: Hyundai’s Chief of Design, John Kim

It has been a common comment in reviews of Korean vehicles that their manufacturers make a fine vehicle, but the designs are derivative.

Hyundai’s Chief of Design, John Kim, doesn’t entirely disagree, and suggests that in the past, his company may have lacked the confidence to inject Korean design elements – forms and shapes that reflect Korean culture – into the vehicles they produce. He refers to this identity as the “K-Factor.”

He sees his role as changing that for both Hyundai and Kia vehicles, and in the process, further differentiating one manufacturer from the other.

“It’s not a big challenge,” says Mr. Kim, “Because Korean society is rich with history and culture, and we can draw from this in our automotive design.”

Mr. Kim is particularly fond of the rolling hills and mountain peaks that characterize much of the Korean landscape. He explains that these are sights of great familiarity and resonance for Korean people.

The “S” line along the side of the new Elantra is meant to evoke Korea’s rolling hills and mountain ranges. Click image to enlarge

The flowing character line, or “S” line along the side of the 2007 Hyundai Elantra is a direct connection to those mountainous views, he says. As a distinctive part of Korean geography, it connects the vehicle to the people who build the car. The new Santa Fe also uses this flowing line, and although less prominent than the Elantra’s, it confirms the family relationship.

An additional benefit, especially in the case of the Elantra, is that it differentiates the car from its competition.

This “S” line is not a new feature for Hyundai, though. It has been seen on other vehicles, including the first generation Tiburon and Santa Fe, although the outgoing Elantra model reverted to a more conventional, boxy shape, and the Tiburon also acquired a straighter edge for its second generation. Overall, Mr. Kim would like to see the “S” line used in a way that enables consumers to more easily identify Hyundai vehicles at a glance.

The 2007 Elantra’s dashboard gets its gentle curves from Korean architecture. Click image to enlarge

Other distinctive visual cues used by Mr. Kim and his design studio are taken from the characteristic shapes found in Korean architecture. Traditional rooflines, especially, are noted for their gentle curvature, and this is echoed in the new dashboard found in the 2007 Elantra. The front fascia of that car, as well, is informed by the strong rooflines of Korean historic buildings.

Korea is also known for its ceramic ware. Cheongia-style vases, for example, with their soft glazes and graceful curves, are found in most Korean homes and are prized gifts. It’s not hard to see a connection between the design of these wares and the human form. Indeed, many pairs of vases are considered to represent male and female body types.

The “K” Factor. Click image to enlarge

Mr. Kim points to the perfection of these curves as further inspiration for the shapes found in the new Hyundai vehicles. He suggests that the design studio is increasing its emphasis on the small details of vehicle design and functionality, in order to create both pleasing shapes and improved functionality.

Although Hyundai vehicles have been sold in Canada since 1985, it’s really within the last five years that huge improvements in quality and customer satisfaction have been realized. Basically, the company benchmarks its Japanese competitors, especially Toyota and Honda, then tries to match them component-for-component, feature-for-feature This strategy is paying off as each successive generation of Hyundai and Kia vehicles seems to improve exponentially over the retiring models.

Under Mr. Kim’s leadership, look for the design of Hyundai and Kia cars and SUVs to make similar strides as new vehicles are introduced. And look for the K-Factor.

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