Kia and Hyundai avoid 'cloned' look with separate organizations

  • 29-May-2013 12:28 EDT

Kia Cadenza has Euro look with "tiger nose" grille.

Hyundai and Kia are divisions of one Korean car company and share several front-drive platforms. That's not unusual, as most makers do use a couple of platforms from which to derive separate models, but typically they are for a luxury series. Both product lines, however, have managed to draw large numbers of U.S. customers to models in the same low- to medium-priced class without facing the clone/lookalike issue that has afflicted so many manufacturers. The approach that was taken by the corporate parent was not a low-cost one, but it apparently has worked.

Although both brands have access to the same “parts bin,” including the platforms and powertrains, the U.S. divisions are located in different cities with separate teams for product planning, design/styling, telematics, and marketing. So it’s not surprising the decisions are different. As Kia Motors America's Orth Hedrick, VP Product Planning, put it: “If we do the same thing, it’s pure coincidence. Nothing in my job description says "make sure we are different from Hyundai.”

The only time he and his Hyundai Motor America counterpart Michael O’Brien are even in the same meeting room is to listen to an annual, jointly sponsored market segmentation analysis presentation by Maritz Research, Hedrick said. But that’s just basic information, and each brand takes it down a separate path.

Although both brands start with subcompacts (Kia Rio and Hyundai Accent), the Hyundai line does get higher priced extensions—the rear-drive Genesis and Equus sedans. The Kia line presently ends with the newly introduced Cadenza, built on the same platform as the Hyundai Azera, but more extensively equipped and priced at $35,000-41,000, some $3000 higher than Azera.

Different styling, telematics

There is just one design chief for the two brands—Peter Schreyer, who developed the Kia Euro look with the “tiger nose.” But with different design teams in different locations, and Hyundai’s very different fluidic sculpture design theme, the exteriors share no sheet metal. The same applies to everything from door handles to engine covers.

“Everything the driver sees and touches is different,” Hedrick said.

Inside, the component everyone sees—the dashboard—is a major point of differentiation. The Kia dashboard look is horizontal; the Hyundai puts a focus on the vertical center stack.

Although the different styling across all shared-platform models of the two brands has been a major factor in neither being tagged as a clone, it's just for openers.

At a time when telematics is an important differentiator, each brand has gone its own way. Kia’s Uvo is, like Ford’s Sync, based on a Microsoft automotive platform and uses the driver’s smartphone. It recently was enhanced to provide eServices, a group of apps that include Parking Minder, the acclaimed parking location reminder (see “Why do you need an onboard telematics modem when the driver carries one,” Hedrick asked, noting a survey that shows 80% of drivers will have a smartphone by next year.

Hyundai’s approach is to use an embedded modem with its full-service Blue Link telematics ( Why not use the smartphone as Kia and Ford? The answer from Hyundai Motor America’s President John Krafcik: “We believe that every car will be connected in the future, and not just by the user’s cell phone. There is huge value and utility in the car being ‘addressable’ by the owner and the manufacturer, even when the cell phone is not in the car. We chose to embrace that opportunity with Blue Link.”

The embedded modem adds cost, but the ability of the manufacturer to address the car through the cloud has been found by Hyundai to be a way to identify off-the-assembly-line issues and eventually perform cloud-based vehicle inspections and diagnostics (

Powertrain decisions differ

Although they both have access to the same powertrains, except for the Sonata and Optima the choices have been different. The Elantra sedan, coupe, and GT offer only the 1.8-L four-cylinder. That's also the base engine on the Forte sedan and coupe, but Kia also offers the 2.0-L four, and a third, soon-to-come is a 2.0-L turbo. Krafcik's comment: “The Hyundai brand places great priority on simplicity in our product offerings.” Only one Hyundai product (Sonata with naturally aspirated 2.4-L, 2.0-L turbo, and the 2.4-L hybrid system) has more than two powerplant offerings.

The front-drive suspensions are the same, and one team is responsible for tuning ride and handling for both brands. But the ride/handling, and even driveability characteristics, are specifically calibrated according to a menu of preferences for which each brand asks. The Kia products are aimed at the handling end vs. the more compliant ride of Hyundai's competitive models in the same size class. The driveability feel is calibrated in response to brand requests, and final decisions on such things as tip-in feel are made by each brand’s product planners, Hedrick said.

The midsize SUVs, Kia Sorento and Hyundai Santa Fe Sport, are another example of product planning teams with different approaches. Although (for some production) both come down the same assembly line in West Point, GA, the Sorento offers both the 2.4-L four and 3.3-L V6. The Santa Fe Sport has a choice of the 2.4-L four and 2.0-L turbo four.

The three-seat row Santa Fe, which is on a stretched wheelbase and at 193.1 in (4905 mm) is 8.5 in (216 mm) longer overall than the Sport, uses only the 3.3-L V6. The standard Sorento interior is reconfigured to fit in a third row.

Each brand has a low-priced "halo" car, the tall box Soul for Kia, the three-door sporty coupe Veloster for Hyundai. The rear-drive Genesis sporty coupe also fits into the halo category.

All this differentiation certainly adds to cost, but Hyundai total U.S. sales top 700,000 with Kia at about 550,000,and the brands claim their analyses of buyers show no real signs of cannibalizing. The Korean management seems to have decided the investment is worth it.

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