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The Hyundai Motor Group, which consists of the automotive brands Hyundai and Kia, has become the 4th largest automotive manufacturer in the world, behind GM, Toyota, and Volkswagen, and is the second largest automotive manufacturer in Asia, behind Toyota. This is especially remarkable for an automotive company that has taken so long to get into the automotive game.
Hyundai's name derives from a Korean chaebol (a business conglomeration, literally a "wealth clan") called the Hyundai Group. The conglomerate was formally established as Hyundai Togun in 1947 by Chung Ju-yung. Chung had been a bit of an entrepreneur, previously owning a rice shop in Seoul that was later shutdown by an interim Japanese government for rationing, as well as an auto repair shop that helped pave the way for the Hyundai Auto Service to be established in 1946. Hyundai Togun focused primarily on construction, so the name was changed to Hyundai Construction in 1950. Following the Korean War, Hyundai became one of the go-to companies for post-war reconstruction. It worked on many projects—including the first Han River Bridge—and by 1960 became one of South Korea's leading construction companies.
While Hyundai Construction (eventually renamed Hyundai Construction and Engineering) expanded into a variety of different fields, arguably one of their best ventures was into the automotive industry, where they would go on to become South Korea's leading domestic automobile producer. In 1967, the Hyundai Motor Company was established as a subsidiary of Hyundai Construction in an agreement with Ford to assemble the Ford Cortina (and later a few trucks) in South Korea.
Hyundai's Own Advancements
It wasn't until 1975 that Hyundai released a car of its own design. Known as the Pony, it was a rear-wheel drive subcompact car that offered a 1.2L four-cylinder engine with 55 horsepower and a 1.4L four-cylinder engine with 68 horsepower. The Pony went on to be the first mass-produced car in South Korea. It was also Hyundai's only offering, but 302,000 were exported all over the world to countries ranging from Ecuador to Canada. In 1984 it become one of the most popular cars in the Canadian market, but eager US exports were halted upon failure to reach US emission standards.
Hyundai did finally break into the US in 1986, although the Pony was marketed under a different name. The Hyundai Excel, as it was known, entered a growing subcompact class that predominantly consisted of foreign make cars. It was the perfect niche to get Hyundai started overseas, as most manufactures neglected the entry-level market in favor of bigger, faster, plush cars. Nearly half of Hyundai's 300,000 exports sold in the US. The Excel came with options for both manual and automatic transmissions, as well as rear-wheel drive and a four-cylinder engine. It was praised for its economical features and low price tag, but reliability problems rapidly marred Hyundai's reputation.
Two years later, the Sonata was introduced to push Hyundai into the midsize market, but sales did not meet expectations. This may have been due to their established reputation at the time, or it may have been due to the Sonata's appearance. Its second generation, major redesign came at the behest of US buyers that changed it to a more conformist, aerodynamic style, which helped keep the Sonata and Hyundai relevant. Now one of Hyundai's more popular models, the Sonata has gone through a wave of redesigns since its inception.
Perhaps one of its bigger and more rewarding ventures was the quest for independence. In the early ‘90s, Hyundai decided to focus on manufacturing its own engine and transmission systems. Because it was part of such a large conglomerate, expertise in multiple fields was readily accessible to make the process a bit easier. These lead to creations such as the Alpha engine, and would give Hyundai a bit more control over its public perception by learning how to build quality vehicles with its own technology. Apart from that, it was also a trendsetter with the electric car, offering an all-electric version of the Sonata in 1991.
A New Vision
Towards the end of the ‘90s, Hyundai made some key investments and introduced policies that would help bolster their market share in the US and back home, as well as establish a stronger reputation in the eyes of US consumers. Unfortunately, the onslaught of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis left many Korean chaebols in turmoil and debt, and in order to help restore the weak economy, the Korean government released restructuring programs. This caused the Hyundai Group to spin off many of its subsidiaries into independent businesses. While the Hyundai Motor Company remained, it wouldn't last for long. A year later, in 1998, the Hyundai Motor Company purchased a 51% share in South Korean rival Kia Motors. When the Hyundai Motor Company separated from the Hyundai Group in 2000, it established the holding company Hyundai Motor Group for the two auto companies. Also, that same year, Hyundai offered a new plan, promising consumers a ten year, 100,000 mile warranty. This helped improve their reputation with US consumers.
Right before the turn of the millennium, Hyundai pushed for a hybrid vehicle in 1999, eventually planning on releasing a Kia Rio and Accent version. The Accent was revealed in 2005 at the Gungzhou International Automobile Exhibition. Hyundai has been very experimental with some vehicles, trying out technology in cars such as a plug-in hybrid, the all-electric BlueOn, and the Tuscon Fuel Cell.
Since the 2000s, Hyundai has worked on improving car quality which in turn has helped improve their image. Many of their newer vehicles feature a conventional style with an upscale, contemporary feel accompanied by good performance. The fact that they established their first assembly plant in the US in 2002 might have helped out a bit. Vehicles like the Tuscon, Sonata, Accent, Elantra, and Santa Fe have all helped Hyundai grow and flourish in several markets, further defining them as a strong competitor in the US today.