Hyundai Motor was once known for humdrum styling, but the Korean automaker's audacious Fluidic Sculpture design language has been a big part of the company's ascent in the United States.
For example, exotic surface treatment helped make styling the second-most influential reason, after the warranty, why consumers bought the Sonata, according to a J.D. Power and Associates study.
There's also the swoopy Elantra, the athletic new Veloster sports coupe, and the understated though elegant Genesis sedan.
But vehicle designs aren't always received the same way in every market. In the more conservative Korean market, for example, some consumers have resisted the U.S.-designed Sonata's exterior styling.
"There are some people who are very critical of our [design] activities" in Korea, says Cho Won Hong, chief marketing officer for Hyundai Motor. "However, we believe we should continue to apply this design identity. This is the direction that we'll continue to have."
Thomas Buerkle, chief designer of Hyundai's European Design Center, says that the Sonata was a "revolution" for Hyundai, and that Korean consumers are starting to embrace the design language after initial resistance. He says the Elantra that followed the Sonata has been well received in Korea.
"Fluidic sculpture was something radically new in the market, and the customer has to follow, so it takes some time," he says.
Hyundai wants to retain the family look of Fluidic Sculpture, which emphasizes flowing lines, while also giving each vehicle a distinct character. That means sticking with the current formula but leaving designers plenty of room to maneuver.
"For the first time, Hyundai has its own brand design language...and it's still young," Buerkle says. "This language will stay as our roof, but under this roof we can have many different cars."
The language is a framework for designers. Buerkle says the designers can give each new or redesigned vehicle a unique personality and prevent the company's vehicles from looking too similar.
"We don't want to make every car the same," Buerkle says. "This may be different from some other brands, like Audi, where you can almost just grow out the sides and keep the same look."
He says Hyundai wants to innovate with every new product or redesign. The key is to make each new generation substantially different from the one prior, rather than the more subtle changes often taken by other automakers.
"If we compare ourselves to Toyota--and I used to work for Toyota--they call a new car a 'skin change,'" Buerkle says. "It's like an old woman in a new dress. This is why it wears out quickly. If the design is truly innovative, it will stay fresh longer."
Hyundai's studios in Namyang, South Korea; Ruesselsheim, Germany; and Irvine, Calif., compete on global vehicle programs. The Irvine studio did the exterior designs of the Sonata and Elantra but has been without a chief designer since February, when former head Phil Zak left for General Motors.
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Hyundai had hired Zak from General Motors Europe in 2009. Now, back at GM, Zak is director of design for crossover exteriors and accessories at GM's design center in suburban Detroit.
Zak succeeded Joel Piaskowski, now director of exterior design for the Americas at Ford Motor. Under Piaskowski, U.S. designers did the Sonata and Elantra exteriors.
Before leaving Hyundai, Zak presented the Curb concept car in January at the Detroit auto show. The funky compact crossover, designed to target Gen-Y buyers, was the first concept vehicle to be overseen by Zak from start to finish. Hyundai has yet to release a production vehicle influenced by the U.S. design studio under Zak, but the company has said such vehicles are on the way.
(Source: Automotive News)