The world’s fifth largest manufacturer (as part of the Hyundai-Kia group) is no longer just benchmarking itself against the Japanese; it has embarked on much grander ambitions to go head to head with the Europeans on looks, feel, drivability and even brand desirability. For years Hyundai was seen as a ‘cheap’ brand that offered reasonably good cars at reasonable prices. Since the launch of the original i30 though, Hyundai has worked extensively to change its image and build up its brand value.
In 2000 the company initiated a quality management program that saw Hyundai focus heavily on improving quality and reliability. In that regard, it was benchmarking the Japanese. Like many Korean companies (and Japanese before them), Hyundai went through a phase where it was a “fast-follower”, which is a nicer way of saying it pretty much copied what the Japanese and Europeans were doing. Now, it’s has reached a stage where it has to innovate on its own.
In some ways, this is similar to the Samsung vs. Apple fight happening in the technology world. Samsung, also a Korean company, has quickly caught up to Apple in the smartphone segment and now finds itself in a position where it has to come up with its own ideas to go further.
The new Hyundai i30 was designed primarily for the European market (which is given away by its ‘i’ name designation – arguably and ironically Apple-inspired). As a result, the Koreans focused much of their benchmarking during the development phase of the new i30 on the Volkswagen Golf, one of the best selling cars in Europe. That may not seem like a big deal, since many other manufacturers use the Golf as a benchmark, but it shows that the likes of Toyota’s Corolla and Honda’s Civic are no longer just what the Koreans are aspiring to beat.
Behind the wheel of Hyundai’s new i30, it’s pretty easy to spot the European ‘inspiration’. The dark interior and simple dash layout is very Volkswagen, as is the overall cabin ambience. The steering feel now available with Hyundai’s flex-steering system, is also, finally, on par with the Golf. Most importantly, there are many signs of originality ranging from the i30's overall design to the air-conditioning vents. This is a good thing in many ways, except that the i30 is likely to be in a similar price bracket as the Golf when in launches in Australia (in the very near future). As a result, it has to be better value for money or just better in general in order to win over new customers. But is it better than a current (soon to be replaced) Golf? It’s hard to say (full review soon).
What is easy to conclude, however, is that Hyundai has quickly worked out that if it wants to become bigger and more successful, it has to be loved. In this regard, it’s working hard to build an emotional connection to its brand (something the Europeans have done so well) and not just by offering more standard kit but also by utilising some clever marketing.
In the USA, for example, the company offers a huge 10-year warranty as well as a guaranteed buy-back scheme for owners who lose their jobs within one year of purchasing (the program seized at the end of March). It may not be much, but the goodwill that the program brought to the brand was invaluable (Hyundai tells us that only about 300 owners ever returned their cars).
Whether or not Hyundai’s new i30 will beat the current Golf on sales volume is a moot point. The next-generation Volkswagen Golf is expected to be unveiled at September’s Paris motor show and when it arrives in Australian dealerships next year, we will know for sure if Hyundai’s effort in competing with the best that Europe has to offer has been a success.