Friday, November 20, 2009
There is nothing like a crash to get the juices flowing
There is thing nothing like a good crash to get the juices flowing first thing in the morning. Standing on a second-floor observation deck at the sprawling Hyundai Kia Motors just outside Seoul, the coat-and-tie trade delegation strained against the glass for the best view as the facility supervisor counted down in Korean – three, two and one. A moment later a silver Hyundai Sonata speeding at 40 mph appeared and then slammed into a steel block in the center of the warehouse. BAM! Ten cameras positioned around the impact zone each captured the collision at 1,000 frames per second as the 13 members of the visiting Irvine trade delegation gawked at the Sonata’s crumpled front end while a half-dozen technicians inspected the damage down below.
The crash test facility is part of the 840-acre Hyundai-Kia RD Center in Namyang, a sparkling testament to Korea’s rise as one of the world powers when it comes to automobile manufacturing and, more recently, design. Home to 10,000 engineers, this center is at the core of an ambitious strategy to link similar design incubators for Hyundai-Kia in India, Germany, Michigan and Irvine, the North American headquarters for the automaker. Thanks to John Yoon, vice president of human resources and general counsel for Kia Motors America, a private two-hour tour revealed a company racing 24/7 to one-day challenge Toyota’s supremacy as the world’s biggest auto producer. Hyundai-Kia moved into No. 4 behind Toyota, General Motors and Volkswagen, and the mission is to jump into the top three with sales worldwide of 6.3 million cars and trucks by the end of 2012. My two cents: Don’t bet against them.
On a gray, cold Friday morning, it was easy to feel the competitive heat that is driving this auto giant. Toyota, GM and others around the world must be looking often in their rear-view mirror.
“We simply want to be the best,” said Ryan (he didn’t make me try to pronounce his real name), a young Korean test-drive specialist who was riding shotgun as I punched the accelerator in a candy-apple red Kia Soul at the Namyang test track. Cars are tested on 71 different road surfaces at the proving grounds. “Hyundai has always been good, but now it is the quality we want to change,” he added. “We are getting there quickly.” Minutes later, I was in the front passenger seat of a sleek Hyundai four-door sedan speeding at 130 mph through the 40-degree banked turn. When the driver casually removed his hands from the steering wheel, the chatter from the back seat between The Irvine Co.’s Dan Young and Starpointe Ventures’ Patrick Strader stopped cold. “See how well this handles?” the driver asked, grinning. My response choking the armrests with both hands and staring straight head: “How long have you been doing this?” He said 25 years; it was his anniversary with Kia Motors, where he started in 1984 as a rookie test driver. Good to know as I looked out the passenger window at the asphalt just a few feet from the glass.
Cameras and even cell phones were not permitted at the Hyundai-Kia facility. The multi-trillion dollar auto business is serious stuff, and secrecy is an ever-present part of the landscape. Even the location of the Namyang facility south of Seoul is set off the main highway in a rural area. “This company wants to be taken seriously, and they have committed the resources to make that happen,” said Yoon, who was born in Korea, is Harvard educated and now calls Orange County home. “It’s a remarkable business story.”