At Hyundai, new cars and trucks shift from family look to sexier design

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At top: Hyundai HDC-1 Le-Fil Rouge sedan concept; Hyundai HDC-2

Almost by definition, the 45-year-old buyer of a Hyundai Sonata has different tastes from the recent college graduate getting behind the wheel of an Elantra.

So why make the midsize sedan just a scaled-up version of the compact?

Hyundai Motor Co.’s design team says they shouldn’t anymore.

Continuing a break from the “family look” that the South Korean brand cultivated in previous generations of vehicles, Hyundai will soon start rolling out a design language that gives each model and each segment its own aesthetic. The goal is to better tailor styling to the target customers most likely to buy a nameplate, while injecting more creativity, emotion and sex appeal into the brand’s big and growing lineup.

Early signs of the shift in approach came in the reboot of Hyundai’s crossover lineup, where the new Kona and updated Tucson and Santa Fe share a few design touches but have distinct shapes and proportions. Hyundai’s top designers told Automotive News last year that a family look had been important for Hyundai when it lacked strong brand recognition, but now they’re keen to avoid the Russian doll effect.

The new design language, which Hyundai’s design chiefs Luc Donckerwolke and Sang-Yup Lee began working on two years ago, will appear in two production cars, a sedan and crossover, due by early next year.

The public got its latest preview of the look in the HDC-2 Grandmaster SUV concept unveiled June 7 at the Busan auto show in South Korea.



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That followed the HDC-1 Le-Fil Rouge sedan concept shown in March at the Geneva show.

Donckerwolke: Targeting different demographics

“We’re not going to do clones anymore,” Donckerwolke said in an interview last week ahead of the HDC-2 Grandmaster’s debut.

“When you see two or three models looking the same,” he added, “no matter how well executed they are, all interest is lost.”

Hyundai calls the new design philosophy “Sensual Sportiness,” and the goal is to keep a common sexy, athletic vibe throughout the lineup, while letting each nameplate’s personality shine. The strategy could turn more heads, but it also runs the risk of diluting a brand identity cemented with big help from design.

Brands from Volkswagen and BMW to Mazda and Ford go to great lengths to create a strong family resemblance among their cars so they are recognizable from a distance. Hyundai will have to walk a fine line to differentiate its vehicles from its competitors and from one another.

“It’s about a game of contrasts,” Donckerwolke said.

Light architecture

The pair of HDC concepts — short for Hyundai Design Center — share a focus on four elements: proportion, architecture, styling and technology.

The Le-Fil Rouge and Grandmaster are “fundamentally different in the application of this DNA,” Donckerwolke said. But certain traits tie them together.

One of those is so-called light architecture, which aims to create a seamless, flowing silhouette from the front to the rear with the aid of creative lighting design.

The lighting is functional, illuminating differently when the vehicle is in autonomous and normal modes, Lee said. On the Grandmaster, it stands out as bold, wraparound lighting on the front and rear fascia.

Tweaked proportions are another priority. Hyundai is aiming for long wheelbases, big wheels, teardrop rooflines and short overhangs in the front and rear. The brand’s cascading grille — wide and layered with a “parametric jewel” pattern — helps tie the look across models.

Different strokes

Hyundai says the need for distinctiveness is especially acute in its home market of South Korea, where it has a 40 percent market share, and a streetscape of carbon copy models presents a numbing front for Hyundai’s corporate dominance.

But Donckerwolke and Lee say the strategy also translates overseas, where Hyundai has to better customize looks to differing tastes in markets as diverse as the U.S., China and India.

Donckerwolke dismissed the notion that the new approach would muddle brand identity. “It’s not a patchwork,” he said. “There is an integrated appearance. But you have to start differentiating different models for different customers.”

The current Sonata and Elantra, for example, have an intentional resemblance. But their typical buyers sit in totally different demographics — stages in family life and career, income brackets and ages.

Said Donckerwolke: “It’s an illusion to believe a buyer of a compact has the same taste as the buyer of a midsize sedan.”

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