Opinion: K-Pop and Korean Car Design

Hyundai Grandeur. Image screenshot from “Napal Baji” music video

A while back, a friend and I attended a K-Pop concert. I could never imagine watching several Korean boy bands in succession strut their stuff on stage. And buying a pricey ticket for it too, and later illegally jumped seats with my friend for a better view.

My passion for cars is only rivaled by her obsession for all things K-Pop. She was mouthing most all of the songs, their Hangul lyrics beyond my comprehension. Without knowing a whit of Korean, I instead was drawn to their impeccable choreography and the concert’s stage design.

Then PSY started performing. Fine, he isn’t as young or as spry as the younger boy bands. He was sweating profusely from his dance numbers. What floored me were his grasp of English and his humble demeanor.

What also fascinated me was his performance of his song “Napal Baji”. It kinda sounds Bollywood-ish, but Google says it’s Korean for bell-bottom pants. Garish as it seemed, the 70’s fashion item kinda suited the flamboyant PSY as he shimmied and flapped their folds in front of a crowd that rather liked the boy bands more.

If you check out the music video, you will see PSY fooling around with a first-gen Hyundai Grandeur. (And blowing it up. Twice.) That staid, boxy car with a toothy grille and various ostentatious trim really suits the video.

The Grandeur is very representative of Korean car design of the late 80’s/early 90’s. Korean cars of the era were merely licence-built Japanese designs. The 80’s was a decade of boxiness, made fashionable by cars like the Giugiaro-penned Volkswagen Golf. We didn’t get too many 80’s cars due to the political situation of the time. But, we had the Mitsubishi Lancer A170 “boxtype”, a good specimen of the era.

The Hyundai Grandeur was based on the Mitsubishi Debonair, both blessed with appropriate nameplates and were as hideous as they were plush. Both were available in their respective countries at around the same time. The senior management people must have been drawn to them like flies to feces, especially in Korea where they weren’t spoiled for choice.

Basically, Korean car design was weighed down by two things. One, it was derivative of Japanese and European designs. Two, the tastes of its designers were probably nascent and were merely content with what they got from their technical partners.

Hyundai shook things up bit by bit. They developed their own engine designs, and yes, they penned their own cars. Just look at the 1st-gen Hyundai Coupe. I liked how it looked, though there would be nicer looking cars at the time. But you got to agree that it sure had a daring, stunning body.

A design language was starting to form within Hyundai. It made very curvy cars, more voluptuous than the Japanese, at least in the PH. Vans were boring until the Starex came in via gray market. The Elantra that we have has an ass bigger than JLo and had a “grille-less” front schnoz that was better looking than the EG Civic sedan’s.

Beyond those cars, Hyundai tended to make generic looking cars. Also, it absorbed Kia in 2002, and the combined company tended to make the two brands look the same. Case in point: the 1st-gen Kia Picanto looks like a shrunken Hyundai Starex.

See what I mean?

They purloined Peter Schreyer from Audi to make Kia cars look different. Now new Kias tend to have more European lines, have straight creases, and have that sporty flavor to them. The upcoming Kia Rio looks like it could have been made in Ingolstadt instead of Hwaseong. Pity Kias don’t sell well in the PH.

Hyundai has embraced the “fluidic sculpture” design language, where curves and lines like confetti abound, looking distinctive and sometimes gorgeous. The Accent is still a looker after several years in the market. But best reflective of “fluidic sculpture” is the Sonata. I am running out of superlatives to describe it. Just look at it.

Korean cars, at least from Hyundai and Kia, have gone away from their derivative and bland looks into a distinctive style of their own. In contrast to new cars from Japan, in my opinion they seem to be better on the eyes.

Mike Kojima from MotoIQ says that Japanese car styling has gone to pot. I like Mazda’s new cars and their Kodo style and their jinba ittai philosophy. But besides Mazda, who else? We are left with Civics that are the size of Accords, Vioses that have a Kabuki mask for a front end, and Lancers that are going extinct.

Japan as a carmaking nation has likely gone back to its lurid past. It’s great that the Koreans don’t have to grab at their scraps anymore. A person of PSY’s mold may find the new Japanese offerings matching their napal bajis. But not this kid. I’m still square, daddy-o. I’m gonna take the Potentia out. If it ever runs.

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