Take a good look at that thing above. It's a 2000-something Kia Amanti. Many auto journos and Jalops have called it the worst new car ever sold, and I'd be inclined to agree with them. I cannot think of any other challenger to the title of "worst car sold new in NA in the New Millennium so far" at the very least (other than the mid-90s Stratus/Intrepid that stuck around just prior). You'd think it'd be a perfect summation of the type of image stigma Kia and parent company Hyundai have to overcome, right?
The real answer is this:
Those large, ovoid driving lights; those smaller, almond high-beams; the vaguely pentagonal grille; those bumper inserts.
Or maybe something more like this:
The way the headlights are so subtly recessed (or in the case of the Kia, not-so-subtly); the c-pillar arch; the tailights and trunk design....
Yes. Yes, it's almost as if the Kia is screaming Please don't take us seriously at all, we don't really care about anything and hope to mostly appeal to really stupid people. Also, we soooo sowwwy.
The thought of the Empire of Japan declaring war against the United States of America is preposterous...their ability to make war is limited; their pilots are bucktoothed and near-sighted; their planes imitations of superior European designs, deficient in their bamboo and rice-paper construction.... - Anecdotal
image courtesy brainz.org Also, warning: long-winded history lesson and dumbass personal opinion to follow
The Japanese had to play this game before. After WWII "Made in Japan" might as well mean "substandard crap." And there were a lot of factors that went into that perception: the Japanese had been a brutal enemy during the war that had been thoroughly knocked back to the stone age - and depending on where in Japan exactly, that was literally true (or even worse). The Japanese consumer industry pretty much had to start from scratch in cottage conditions, hand-making things from whatever scrap they could find (seriously, some of the early postwar toys were made from obvious refuse - a fact you can discover for yourself if you were to ever disassemble one and find it's been re-purposed from discarded tins complete with labels still glued on). The propaganda from that war was was still very much fresh in people's mind's too (as seen above). In order to rebuild and compete in the international market (particularly against the Western European powers who, including Germany, were flush with cash to rebuild from the Marshall Plan - and the United States, whose industry remained untouched) they not only had to put out a quality product, but do it at a very low price-point to boot.
Of course Japanese industry changed that image, due to a number of factors. War attrition had meant that civilian shipping was in short supply, and even the vast surplus of American cargo ships that were both a product of and essential to feeding the Arsenal of Freedom were just not enough (or in many, many cases, so hastily and shoddily built that they were simply unsuitable for anything but scrap). Postwar consumer demand meant a need for increasingly large ships, especially oil tankers. The strong shipbuilding tradition of Japan meant it was natural that the Japanese would pick up on this and rebuild their shipping industry to not only swiftly meet this demand, but do so with vessels that were not only larger than the WWII-era surplus fleet but of better quality. The demand the Allied Occupation Forces had for Jeeps and light trucks to do their Occupation thing from '46-'51 - and replace the Jeeps and light trucks that they had abandoned on their retreat to Busan in the first year of the Korean War - meant the Allies re-establishing automotive production lines in Japan.
Of course, the modest Toyota and Mitsubishi "Jeep knock-offs" would be one of the seeds that led to the modern Japanese auto industry - but let's go back to those postwar tin toys, because I find that story more interesting and telling. Yes, they were the products of a small-scale, haphazard cottage industry. Yes, they were made from discarded tins and often didn't even bother to peel the labels off. But you'd never be able to tell that from just looking at it. The stuff on the outside, the important stuff, was where the man-hours and craftsmanship went into. The colors were bright and popped, the toys themselves were durable and depicted subjects relevant to the Jet and Space Age - rocket cars, spaceplanes and so on. The end result is that these trinkets end up in many cases the holy grails of toy collectors. The people who made these things went above and beyond their resources to produce very impressive consumer goods from freakin' literal garbage.
I think that explains the success of the Japanese auto industry in a nutshell. When the confluence of emissions, the energy crisis, and Americans waking up to the flailing quality of domestic cars came together to define the Malaise Era, Mitsubishi, Datsun, and especially Honda and Toyota were well-prepared to show Americans went above and beyond what the raw size and specs of their cars might suggest. To the point where Mazda and Mitsubishi could put up new factories in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where, you know, we dropped atomic bombs on, and crank out world-class cars, and later do the unthinkable - establish more factories right on American soil, with American employees and American management.
Now we have the Chinese trying to break into the American auto market. When the Japanese were in a position to justify higher manufacturing costs, "Made in China" seemed like a better business proposition, even to the Japanese themselves. The Chinese were more than eager to join in on the joys of international mass-manufacture, having gone though being occupied by the Japanese, an even bloodier civil war before and after that occupation, and the biggest impediment, pretty much having no mechanized industry during any of that or for any period in their history, for that matter (despite being one of the most advanced civilizations on Earth for a huge chunk of human history). Enter People's Republic Chairman Mao Zedung's "Cultural Revolution" which was supposed to fix all that and give the People's Republic an industry that would far exceed Japan's - or America's, or any other nation's. What it ended up doing instead was making the Japanese atrocities during the occupation and the bloodshed of the postwar Communist/Nationalist Civil War look like a picnic. According to that handy-dandy source with unquestionable, rock-steady factual quality 100,000 people died in a six-month period with the total death count estimated to be at least half a million. If your great "cultural revolution" that's supposed to kick-start your country into the middle of the 20th century kills hundreds of thousands of your own countrymen instead, needless to say your actual manufacturing goals are going to suffer accordingly.
To be fair, the facepalm-worthy, literally atrocious/crime-against-humanity outcome of the Cultural Revolution isn't the only factor in Chinese manufacturing. I was fortunate enough to attend a public reading by Chinese-American author Gish Jen who is probably the foremost expert on Chinese culture and history in the United States today. If she comes by your town and if you ever really wondered why the Chinese just simply don't give a damn about blatantly copying crap, come hear what she has to say. But that's not really relevant to an already winded, rambling article - what is relevant is that, yes, the Chinese love to build automotive knockoffs, because of 50% having a long history of not being able to do anything else because they screwed their own industry and people over, and 50% having a long history and culturally-ingrained attitude of just not giving a damn.
Now we come back to Korea. You'd think that, with the Japanese having to rebuild and prove what it takes to break into the international market, and the Chinese just not giving a damn and getting international ridicule for it, the Koreans would've learned all the lessons they needed to learn from them and just get the ball rolling right away. Unlike the Chinese, the Koreans do give a damn; they don't have the billion+ captive domestic market they can shovel whatever they want onto. They need the American automotive market if they want to rake in the cash. They also want the Chinese automotive market, and even if the Chinese auto industry doesn't give a damn, the Chinese automotive consumer gives a fuck-ton of damn. Do you like your new Buick Regal? Do you appreciate how much better it is over the old one that was around back in the early 2000s? You have the Chinese automotive consumer giving a damn to thank for that. If the Koreans want to compete in the international automotive market, they have to be taken seriously. That much should be intrinsically obvious.
And the Koreans did indeed attempt to break into the American market with a serious, resolute effort, seemingly having taken in the lessons Toyota and Honda forged. Or at least they pretended to. They even put some serious effort into their "break-out" car including subcontracting their design to people who they knew could do better, at least for now. It was meant to be everything the original Corolla and Civic were: a great little car for less money. Unfortunately the one thing they didn't subcontract was the actual assembly. Korea was still largely a closed automotive market with the government trying to push Hyundai onto its own people, and arguably consequently suffered from Galapagoization where they were free to not care about build quality because, just like the case in Maoist China, they were the only game in town. When they initially tried to push into the international market with the same mindset, they failed miserably.
Ok, so the Koreans learned a lesson the hard way they shouldn't have had to learn the hard way in the first place, but they righted the ship, implemented the famous warranty and ramped up the quality control by orders of magnitude (and I don't think it's a coincidence that it coincides with Hyundai following Toyota and Honda in putting factories on U.S. soil), all the while absorbing the flailing Kia marque and co-strengthening the brands. They went from "good enough," frankly ugly cars appealing to the lower market up to good-quality yet bland cars that appealed to the middle-class market, finally to avant garde-styled good-quality cars to steal market share from competitors.
And yet they still pull a lot of stupid shit.
The Kia Amanti posted above is probably the most egregious example. It came just short of a generation before the NF Sonata and CM Santa Fe that established Hyundai as a credible player. The Sonata and Elantra of that era were starting to win over converts. And yet the Amanti looks like the design process went something like this: Hey, I hear that there's this stereotype in America about how Asians just love to copy things and make inferior knock-offs! Why don't we design our freakin' flagship sedan to conform to that stereotype as closely as possible? It was a car designed and manufactured in an era when Kia/Hyundai should've known better. Even that generation's Sonata's headlights bear more than a passing resemblance to the units used on that era's Merc-Benz C-Class - and yes, they should've known better.
Yes, I know the colors reflect the Korean flag. Yes, I know the "N" not only reflects whatever BS reason Hyundai gives but language limitations as well. That still doesn't excuse Hyundai from knowing better. There are practically endless logo permutations they can use using the same colors (or new colors) and they don't have to restrict themselves to a single letter. After all, Mercedes-Benz has AMG. Cross-strait rivals Toyota, Nissan and Subaru have TRD, NISMO and STi respectively. What this smacks of is Hyundai being so afraid of their own heritage (or being so afraid of a lack of it) that they feel they need to crib from someone else.
And that's the fastest way to ensure nobody takes you seriously. It's the very definition of being a poser. Controlling both the sole Korean automotive marques sold in North America, Hyundai is essentially representing the Republic of Korea - and really, they should have more pride than that.
Playing the copycat card isn't even Hyundai/Kia's biggest problem. Occasionally I'll see an OppoLock post about how awful their Hyundai Sonata is and how it doesn't compare to a Camry or even a Fusion. I'll find threads on /o/ all the time about the awful, cheap knock-offs the Koreans make (in fact these are pretty much the only threads about Hyundai I can find on /o/). I'll read from the magazines all the time about how Hyundai and Kia come so close but at the end just don't get it. My very first OppoLock article addressed Hyundai apparently recessing in quality. In effect, it seems that the management at Hyundai and Kia read all these article about how they were catching up to the Japanese competition - and then stopped, deciding that that was as good enough as they ever needed to be, forever.
Imagine if the Marines had climbed up Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima, planted the flag...and then got orders to pack up, go home, and every American warship steamed back to Pearl Harbor; if the newly appointed President Truman had decided, "yep! Looks like the war's close enough to being over to me! We can all go back home now and just stop." Or if the Japanese decided to rest on their laurels in the early or mid 60s. "Eh, we've rebuilt enough, we're comfortable where we are. It's not like we really need to break into foreign markets and invent things like cheap yet high-quality camcorders or Walkmans or PlayStations." Or if Sorichiro Honda said, "You know what? We don't need something like an Accord. If we keep building Civic hatchbacks forever, we can do good enough. Besides, we still have the powersports division to fall back on, as long as they just keep building Supercubs and don't branch out into things like Goldwings or bikes with crazy letters for names." Or if General Motors decided that they can pretty much freeze automotive development and just coast on what they had been doing for years if not decades - oh wait, that actually happened, with something called the Malaise Era and look what that brought GM.
And that is my biggest automotive grievance. That Hyundai feels like they have some sort of special market exemption that allows them to be as lazy as they want to be and act like Malaise Era GM for the New Millennium. That they can't be bothered to develop automotive heritage on their own, so all these years after the Amanti they still feel the need to crib from elsewhere. That they are the most visible commercial export of the Republic of Korea, and still to this day many people think of Korean consumer products as cheap, inferior knock-offs that must compete on price point because they can't compete on anything else - and that for all the lengths Hyundai has gone so far, in the end they seem rather disinterested in actually finishing off that perception.