(car) Impressions after a week in S. Korea
(Score: 1, Normal)
Just came back from a very nice trip in Korea, and felt like sharing a bit on the experience.
Actually, this was my second trip in the country, the first one being 6 years ago short after my first visit to Japan.
Now, I won't be long on the trip in general, but just give my impressions on what I saw in terms of cars/bikes and how it'd changed over time. Now, keep in mind that I live in Japan, which may be the only place left on earth where Korean cars aren't sold (at all).
During my stay we rented a small car (Accent), got inside countless taxis (all of them Sonatas of different generations), and also a couple of scooters.
So enough preliminary explanations, in short, I was pretty much impressed with the evolution of Korean cars.
I still remember when I drove my first Hyundai, it was the first generation of Accent that came to Europe, and coming from an 5th gen Honda Accord (I was 12 years old and still learning how to drive with my father in Spain) that "thing" I may not have been able to call it a "car" (except for it had 4 wheels and a sedan shape).
Then I drove a few of the following generations, but overall those cars remained really cheaply made cars for those that could not afford anything else.
The first call into something that was "changing" came with the past-gen Sonata, which was brand new in SK back in late 2005, but still kind of a Accord/Camry rip-off and coming one gen late, or nearly catching up.
And then the new Sonata, of which I've heard so much in this forum, truly a game changer for SK. Well, I actually don't like it much, but when you go there and see all generations together, alongside the new Accent, Elantra ("Avante" in Korea), and Grandeur (top of the line Hyundai, not sure if available elsewhere)... then it becomes clear that Hyundai has made a quantum leap, stopped making "cheaper versions of Japanese cars" and found their own pretty much distinctive brand identity. That alone is no lame feature but actually, I must admit I love the looks of the Accent/Elantra. I do feel though Hyundai still hasn't found the way of translating their design language to larger cars like the Sonata, which may be the reason why their luxury brand Genesis (Equus in Korea) still feels pretty much derivative.
Now, the looks were great, but what impressed me most was driving our small Accent around Korean roads. Sure in Korea it comes loaded up with leather seats/surfaces, etc., but really, that little thing fit/finish & road manners were impressive for being "the bottom line" of any brand. Sure I still felt it lacking in ergonomics (but that happens to me in nearly any non-Honda car), but the car was really well made, nothing "cheap" in there (for what it is); it actually felt better than the Subaru Imprezza I drove a few days before on my regular 700km trip across Japan. Where I felt it lacking coming from Japanese Hondas was obviously the drivetrain, but not so much in terms of refinement (this thing was really smooth) but specially fuel economy (it also didn't really like to be revved, but that's the case of most cars out there). According to Korean standards that car was classified among the country's most efficient ones (1/5) yet still rated at 37mpg, which is about what I got driving on country roads & freeways below 110kmph (68mph). Sure the 4AT didn't help, and sure I did miss my Japanese Honda CVTs and typical 45+ mpg in similar conditions.
Then comes Kia, which is also really making nice cars, and amazingly enough also has a very distinctive brand identity while leaning towards Audi (and it does seem as if Hyundai in Korea wants to turn Kia into Hyundai's Audi). I don't know how they are called abroad, but interestingly in Korea they follow the typical "number series" but adding +2 to anything BMW does. So your 3-series sized Kia is a K5, 5 series a K7, and right when I was there Hyundai-Kia introduced the K9 (7-series size). My understanding is that in SK Kia's are the cars that successful people buy with their own money, whereas Hyundais are more like the "official car" (filling all the taxis, fleets, company cars, etc.). Was impressed to see features such as glass-roofs pretty common in sedans (and obviously LED taillights, and neon-style DRLs).
What else but Hyundai Group in terms of cars available? Well, it is also the first country I've ever been where I saw not a single Toyota. Really, no joke, not a single one. Then you see quite a few Nissans, which are wisefully marketed as "Renault Samsung Motors", as well as Daewoo/Chevrolets, but I'd say Hyundai group dominates about 80-90% of the cake. Honda? Surprisingly you can see some, few, but some, making it the best-selling Japanese brand in the country. Finally, as nearly everywhere else in Asia, BMW has it's own place among luxury buyers.
Roads & Driving? Coming from Japan is like going from Belgium to Spain... I mean, roads are much more open, much less crowded, and people are "more latin", drive like crazy around and have rather limited respect for traffic signs/rules. For me, felt like paradise coming from the Japanese prison !!!
Type of vehicles? Well, I'd say over half of the market are gray-scale sedans (it is nearly impossible to find any "coloured car"), recently being kept company by "gray-scale CUVs", and a tiny minority of small cars that can opt to get some fancy colours. Now coming from Japan that is striking, because in Japan you see cars of crazy colours and nowadays barely any sedans at all. It sure helps understanding why Hyundai is doing such a great job with sedans, because really, that's all there is in their home market to begin with.
It was also my first chance to meet the Veloster in real life and, although I didn't like it much, I must admit again it is an admirable effort to dare doing something fresh and innovative, and I can't help but laud it. Actually, I saw none of them in SK mainland, but many in "Jeju-holiday-island" (guess most of them rental cars), and all of them in some nice bright colours. Now, in Japan or Europe that car may not be "great", but in Korea it really stands out as maybe the only "personal car" around, it really strikes anyone among the legion of grayscale sedans/SUVs, one of a kind. Sure it doesn't keep well with the traditional "Confucian ethos" of SK people, but sure symbol that "things are changing". Just don't underestimate the importance of such car coming from SK.
Finally, I saw barely no motorbikes in the mainland, only scooters in Jeju island; again, great fun driving around.
And well, I don't want to get you more bored about this stuff, but if you have any questions feel free to ask (I'll answer time permitting).
PS: I travelled around the Southern-Central part of the country, far from Seoul, so my views may be limited.
(car) Impressions after a week in S. Korea (Score: 1, Normal)