Five cars that put South Korea on the map

By David Linklater

Hyundai's coupe definitely helped get the flagging brand noticed. Photo / Supplied
Hyundai's coupe definitely helped get the flagging brand noticed. Photo / Supplied

So when was that watershed moment when South Korea started making cars that truly competed on the global stage? We motoring writers have celebrated many new models over the years as doing just that, but the reality is that it didn't happen with just one car or just one company. It was a journey of highlights and lowlights - and looking back, everybody has their own opinions on which models were most significant.

I certainly do, so here are my five favourite Korean cars. They're all significant in their own ways.

HYUNDAI PONY

(1975-88)While the real progress in terms of Korean quality and dynamics has occurred in the past two decades, you cannot ignore the Pony.

It might have been cobbled together from old Mitsubishi and Ford bits, but it was Korea's first attempt at a mass-produced mainstream model suitable for export. The hatchback body was penned by Italdesign and much of the car was developed by ex-British Leyland people.

Hyundai New Zealand was one of first to take the Pony. It owns a cheerful example in bright yellow, which is occasionally displayed at head office in Auckland. Magnificent.

SSANGYONG MUSSO (1993-2005

)Before the Mercedes-Benz ML and BMW X5, there was the SsangYong Musso. True, it was hideous-looking and rode on a traditional ladder-frame chassis, but it did anticipate the coming spirit of high-performance crossover vehicles.

This was largely thanks to a 5 per cent shareholding in the company by Mercedes-Benz, which allowed the Korean maker to use some of its more familiar powertrain technology.

The Musso with the Three-Pointed Star's 3.2-litre straight-six engine was, for a very short time, the fastest-accelerating off-roader on the market. It was hilarious.

On the downside, the diesel version was laughably slow and SsangYong eventually turned the model into a ute. Musso means rhinoceros in Korean, you know.

HYUNDAI COUPE/TIBURON (1996-2001)

I reckon the Coupe was the first car Kia Soul from Hyundai that had truly international appeal. Even the notoriously parochial Europeans loved it.

It looked outrageous on the outside and was a particularly entertaining drive, if not terribly sophisticated: the chassis was nimble but nervous and could be steered quite effectively with the throttle, like an old-school hot hatch. Remarkable for a car that was based on the humble Elantra.

Hyundai ruined it in 1999 with a droopy-looking facelift, although the company did recover its sense of humour for the next-generation model in 2002, which picked up styling cues from the Ferrari 456.

HYUNDAI i30 (2007-11)

An unassuming-looking little car, but the i30 did much to embed Hyundai in the mainstream by being well-engineered and good to drive.

It was designed at Hyundai's Russelsheim facility in Germany, with the intention of taking on the might of the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus. The critical reception in Europe suggested that the company largely succeeded.

The all-new i30 launched this year is a vastly improved car in every respect, of course.

But it doesn't represent the massive leap forward of the original.

KIA SOUL (2008-)

No really, I like the Soul.

An utterly conventional car underneath that quirky sheet metal, but it shows that Kia can take the toolbox provided by parent company Hyundai, then go and create something a little left-of-centre without falling into the trap of making a novelty car that appeals only to the highly idiosyncratic. That takes careful judgment and, in places, restraint - the sign of a mature carmaker.

A Korean car, although not penned there: Soul is the product of Kia's Californian design centre.

- NZ Herald

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