Apr 5, 2009
When I think about John Heaney’s argument applied to the automotive industry, there’s fertile ground for ripping certain brands to shreds. The market is littered with the humourously devalued remains of cars that have tried to punch well above their weight (VW Phaeton anyone?) yet still product teams chase the top end of the market in the head-long rush for fatter margins.
The most recent budget upstart wanting their slice of the premium pie is Hyundai with the unbelievably priced Equus. The 70-odd thousand Euro saloon is designed to sit atop the Huyundai range and consolidate the company’s upmarket ambitions (remembering that Hyundai has the critically acclaimed Genesis sitting just beneath).
But we can’t talk about the Equus and Genesis without taking a brief wander through the other vehicles in Hyundai’s range.
From the i20 up there’s not a single model that would sell on an authentically premium message. The closest you get – and it’s a long way off – is the Grandeur. The only person that this baroque monstrosity will tempt out of their German exec is Reg, the mini-cab driver who’s looking to offload his 20 year old, 6 owner E-Class.
I’m not saying that brands can’t create a more high-value proposition by appealing to the market’s more sybaritic side, but there is a limit to how far you can go. For me the Equus is writing premium cheques that the Hyundai brand can’t cash.
Let’s not forget that this is the company that made it’s name on the back of the Pony, Excel and Accent. These were cars that majored on dirt-cheap, reliable and thoroughly uninspired transport for those that didn’t care about what they drove, as long as it got them where they were going. It’s hardly the basis on which to quickly build a premium car empire. Surely the long, bloody wars fought by Acura, Lexus and Inifniti should be warning enough as to how long and hard the road to luxury superstardom will be.
The frustrating thing for me, as a design strategist, is that Hyundai has produced some fabulous concepts over the years that were focussed on creating a unique, innovation-led image that was much more in tune with the brand’s Korean heritage. Call it creating the K-Factor if you will (you heard it here first…).
When you think of Korea and Korean products, you don’t think of traditional luxury, you think of the amazing array of exceptional, high-tech product design from companies like LG and Samsung. The Qarmaq, Helion and Veloster translated some of this Korean cool into automotive form and gave a taster of what the brand’s designers could achieve given the freedom. The Equus shows what happens when the board wants a new limo, to horrifying effect.
In looking back to Heaney’s argument, Hyundai has neither the history, consistency or authenticity to make the Equus work outside of Korea.
It’s funny to think that the Korean brand to watch over the next couple of years is Hyundai’s budget sidekick, Kia. By being left out of the premium party they are free to develop their own, unique product identity that’s true to it’s affordable, Korean roots. If they can keep the creative juices that lead to the Soul flowing, Kia could well emerge as the cheaper Volkswagen, offering high-value, design-led products at a price point that’s completely in tune with the brand’s history.