Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd., after spending the last decade or so chasing the competition, finally is putting its own stamp on design.
"Ten, 15 years ago, we were spending all of our energy trying to catch up to the other auto makers," says Casey Hyun, creative design manager-Hyundai Design Centre and lead designer for the new '11 Sonata. "Let's be honest. It is what it is.
"But we also are trying to find our own identity. It's almost like being a teenager trying to find out who you really are and what you're made out of," he tells Ward's in an interview in Namyang, South Korea.
Hyundai is among the youngest of the world's top auto makers, established in 1967.
Previous Hyundai designers have said the Korean auto maker's newbie status in the industry made it necessary to "borrow" some styling cues, as the company didn't have a history of vehicle design to provide it inspiration.
Plus, vehicle styling wasn't a priority for the auto maker until relatively recently, officials admit.
But Hyun believes Hyundai has turned the corner and now is pursuing its "fluidic sculpture" styling with precision. The new design language can be seen on the '11 Sonata sedan and upcoming Elantra compact car.
However, the swooping lines of the new Sonata may not be exactly replicated on future models.
"I don't think it's going to (be) carried through identically, like BMW (AG does)," Hyun says of the German auto maker's sedans. "That's their way of doing it. It's not to criticize it. It's something they know works for them. They're using it to their advantage, and a lot of people do agree with it.
"We have to find our own way within a family look, (using) the design language of fluidic sculpture, where we'll try to cater to 4.5 million people with 4.5 million cars on the street."
Hyun, who received his master's degree in transportation design from the U.K.'s Coventry University, says for the upcoming launch of the hybrid-electric Sonata, Hyundai decided to tweak the grille from the version shown at April's New York auto show.
Instead of a glossy-black floating horizontal bar separating the upper and lower grilles, Hyundai designers switched to a matte-black bar that connects to the sheet metal. The bar serves no real functional purpose, but serves as a design "holding theme" and bolsters the crash-worthiness of the hybrid's front-end.
Hyun says customers may prefers the look of the Sonata Hybrid to the non-hybrid model's generous use of chrome, which he says can be divisive. "When I was studying, chrome was a unique American style," he says, noting his U.K.-classmates would comment, "They like the bright stuff, don't they?"
And then along came the Volkswagen Passat "with the chrome grille, the chrome front. And we're thinking maybe the Europeans go the same way."
Since then, the use of chrome for vehicle exteriors has increased globally, he notes. "A lot of manufacturers are using chrome as a dominating detail piece."
Despite its status as a hybrid, the upcoming Sonata HEV does not boast any green materials in its interior. But Hyun says Hyundai is striving to increase the eco-friendliness of its cabins, as well as its vehicles.
"Hyundai is slightly behind some of the other companies in regards to green vehicles, but we do realize it is very important," he says. "You will definitely see vehicles (that) are much more environmentally friendly in the future."