Are Hyundai and Kia too similar?

Kia and Hyundai are growing, and fast, but the platforms are shared and now even the designs are converging, Paul Horrell wonders if they’re just too similar.

Australians are among the hungriest buyers in the world for the cars and SUVs of the Hyundai-Kia empire. But stop for a minute. Do we need both? If you’d chosen a Kia and you were forced to drive the Hyundai equivalent, would you honestly be all that aggrieved?

Most of the time they look a bit different but feel the same. Their models in the same market sector have the same engines and range of equipment. More than that, there’s little practical difference in their chassis setup or their interiors. Nothing, probably, that couldn’t be covered in an option pack.

Over the past decade, at least you could say they sometimes looked different. You wouldn’t confuse a Sportage with a Tucson.

But now even the design is converging again. The upcoming Hyundai i30 is more conventional-looking than the current one. From most angles, it takes a long hard stare to distinguish it from a Cerato. Not a good state of affairs when they come from two different brands.

As Hyundai and Kia get more similar, they’ll be aiming for the same sort of people as each other. I’m struggling to see how they can avoid cannibalising each other.

The new Mini Countryman is pretty much the same under the skin as the BMW X1. They’re made by the same corporation. But they look so different from one another that they live in completely different places in peoples’ minds.

An X1 buyer would never consider a Countryman and vice versa. That’s sensible brand management. By making the Mini, BMW has increased its chances of a sale.

I’ve been talking with a man who had a part in devising the new Hyundai and Kia design strategy. He explains that’s it’s not just about ‘one is rounded, the other has edges’. Oh no, Kia is about looking man-made and technical. Hyundai is organic and natural.

He sees I’m not finding this helpful, so he offers a summary. Kia is a billiard ball. Hyundai a round pebble, its edges and irregularities smoothed away by the rush of water across thousands of years.

Therefore, he says, it’s possible for both to be almost the same shape, but to evoke entirely different sensations in the viewer.

My eyes are beginning to glaze over.

A colleague of mine once asked a similar question. As a shorthand for distinguishing the differing brand propositions, he got the answer, “Well, one sponsors tennis, the other sponsors soccer.”

Hyundai and Kia both reject the idea one brand sits above the other. The sticker prices are very close. It’s not about one being better than the other, just that they’re different, they tell us. Like a parent says to their kids. Apparently Kia is more sporting, Hyundai more premium. Huh? Not that I can see.

And anyway, if Kia is the sporting one, how come it’s Hyundai that’s in the World Rally Championship? How come it’s Hyundai that has the new N sub-brand for hot versions.

Years ago someone asked the VW Group’s then-chief Ferdinand Piech why it was he built so many apparently similar cars. This was in the era of the first Skoda Octavia, Seat Leon, VW Golf Mk4 and Audi A3 Mk1. He replied that you’d catch more fish if you put four rods over the water than just one.

Yet over the years since then the VW group learned to make its cars more different. I’m no angler, but it strikes me the best strategy is to use four fishing rods some way apart down the river bank. Not to line them all up side by side.

The VW Group has learned that works for cars too. Hyundai Kia could use the lesson.

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6 years ago

Makes you wonder why one offers a 5 year warranty and the other 7years.

Paul Horrell

Paul Horrell

Paul's working life has been paced out in cars. He began road-testing when the VW Golf was in its second generation. It's now in its eighth. He covers much more than the tyre-smoking part of the road-test landscape. He roots around in the financial machinations of the car corporations and the apparent voodoo of the technologies. Then he clarifies those complications so his general readers – too busy to lodge their heads up the industry's nether regions – get the fast track on what matters and what doesn't. A freelance writer living in London, he usually gets around the city by bicycle, which adds to his (sometimes justified) reputation as a bit green and a bit of a lefty. He's a member of Europe's Car of the Year jury.