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MT COTY Watch #1: Why Hyundai/Kia Bothers, Why MT Bothers, and does the car-buying public even care

Illustration for article titled MT COTY Watch #1: Why Hyundai/Kia Bothers, Why MT Bothers, and does the car-buying public even care

Welcome to my new series where I armchair-opine about stuff that's already happened (in a massive, poorly-formatted wall of text) and hopefully can be bothered to finish it all before the end of the calendar year.

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So, it's that time of year again. That's right, Motor Trend's Car of the Year award. Among certain enthusiast circles (particularly Jalops) it's become somewhat infamous and, well, there's a reason for that. Still, despite the never-ending doom and gloom about print media, people do pay attention. Perhaps because of the infamy, in fact, enthusiasts pay attention more than ever to what MT has to say about the winners, the aforementioned Passat and the 2013 winner (Tesla S). But what about the losers?

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Take Hyundai/Kia for example. I've previous written that, based on their SOTY entry, they really don't even seem to give a damn. Let's review previous COTY entries:

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  • 2014 COTY Entry (Kia Forte): Three steering settings, none great
  • 2013 COTY Entry (Hyundai Azera): lackluster steering feel
  • 2012 COTY Entry (Hyundai Accent): numb steering
  • 2011 COTY Entry (Kia Optima): artificial steering

Hmmm. I wonder if there are any other patterns emerging:

  • (On the Hyundai Equus for the 2011 COTY): "About two generations away from true luxury."
  • (On Hyundai and Kia entries in general for the 2012 COTY): "Hyundai and Kia keep getting better, more interesting, and closer to our COTY ideal."
  • (On the Hyundai Azera for the 2013 COTY): "Not the progression the previous Azera was, which shows that the better you get, the harder you have to try."
  • (On the Kia Forte for the 2013 COTY): "These sharp little Kia Fortes muscled their way into the finals by rivaling our perennial compact favorite Mazda3 for segment supremacy."
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So, after four models years we're still stuck with the same exact message: "Hyundai/Kia are almost there, really, almost, almost there, they just need to try a little harder, just a little harder and they'll be there" or "now they're so good they need to try extra hard, but just a little, little extra harder and they'll be there" with the obligatory "oh yeah, the steering doesn't make me feel like I'm driving Formula-1."

The underlying, unspoken question being, "after how many model years will MT finally realize Hyundai and Kia have hit the developmental wall?" Or more accurately, "when will they realize Hyundai and Kia just aren't that interested in playing along?"

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Of course Hyundai and Kia will keep getting invited - MT does in fact use their test track for COTY after all, so obviously the Koreans aren't offended by their lack of perceived competitiveness. But this strange dance that plays out between MT and Hyundai/Kia every year - "yeah, they make great cars that represent a great value but it doesn't drive like a RR Phantom I can track every weekend" - reveals the underlying dichotomy between Jalop (or at least people who like to think of themselves as Jalops - author included) and the actual, mass car-buying public.

Yeah, this fundamentally gets into the debate between "car" culture verses "commuting" culture. MT COTY tries to chase after an ideal - yes, value is accounted for, but it's value measured against a specific "fun to drive" (or lesser, a technological) ideal which is how you end up with everything from subcompacts to six-figure luxo barges winning from year to year (though it still leaves the Passat a mystery).

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Running down through previous COTY Winners:

  • 2011 Chevy Volt: dealers can't move 'em
  • 2012 VW Passat: sold no more than half as many Sonatas, Accords and Camrys sold
  • 2013 Tesla S: it's an electric Aston Martin with a price figure to match, you do the math
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Time has yet to tell about the 2014 CTS, but we do know it's a great car. A great, expensive car, but all it really needs to do is outsell the BMW, Audi and Mercedes competition. Will it? Maybe. Is it the wrong kind of benchmark? Maybe.

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But it's quite likely that the vast majority of CTS buyers won't even be aware of the COTY results outside of the massive in-dealership advertising. Certainly, the Sonata and Optima buyers (and Accord, and Camry, and Fusion buyers) aren't particularly persuaded. The car manufacturers themselves don't even seem very persuaded.

So my final question is: how loud is the enthusiasts' voice in the auto market, really? Besides the obvious Toyobaru. Or the Mustang. Or the Camaro. Or the Genesis Coupe. Or the WRX. Or the...oh.

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Maybe the real final question is: is COTY failing because it's trying to look for everything in one thing?

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