LAS VEGAS – Not that long ago, Hyundai was known in the U.S. mostly for low prices and strong warranty protection.
Then the Korean automaker started building better-looking cars and improving quality. It hired German Audi designer Peter Schreyer to add allure to sister brand Kia cars, then Hyundais and luxury Genesis models. In 2015, it brought in BMW M Engineering vice president Albert Biermann to develop chassis dynamics for Kia, then Hyundai and Genesis.
The surprising Kia Stinger, the 2019 North American Car of the Year Genesis G70 and the new Hyundai performance brand i30 N and Veloster N are among the fruits of his work. Hyundai’s motorsport presence also has expanded since Biermann’s arrival, and he was recently promoted to run all R&D and testing – including crash, durability and electrification – for the company.
Wards caught up with Biermann in January at CES here.
WARDS: When you came from BMW M, was part of your mission to make Hyundais, Kias and Genesis vehicles more like German cars?
BIERMANN: I think that happened accidentally because I am German (laughs). The starting point was clearly to focus on high-performance cars, but when they got to know me a little better and what other things I did before in my career, we started talking about running the whole test division, because I did a lot of those things before. If you drive a G70 or a Stinger, it feels maybe a little bit German, and that’s not a bad thing. With those cars, I took a little more leadership than with others because I had a clear idea of how those cars should drive.
WARDS: Is it challenging to differentiate the three brands, to make Hyundais not just look but also feel different from Kia and Genesis cars?
BIERMANN: Yes, because our Hyundai and Kia sales and marketing people all want the same things. So, this is an endless challenge, though Genesis is easier. In my early days in Europe, I had good alignment with Kia, who had a clear idea of where they wanted to go, what they wanted to stand for. And they could accept some degradation in ride comfort, so we followed that path to more sporty. In the U.S., we need more comfortable, and everybody wants everything, so it is not so easy.
WARDS: Ideally if you are blindfolded in a Stinger, it should feel different from a G70, even with the same powertrain. Can you tell one from the other without the visual?
BIERMANN: Yes, it does feel different. Genesis and Kia are different stories, though the Stinger reaches a little into the Genesis area, and Kia goes fishing a bit in Genesis’ area with the K9. But with the GT and the longer wheelbase, we’ve found good ways to differentiate the Stinger, while the G70 is a little more sporty and agile. I think we have found good spots for both cars.
WARDS: Are you responsible for autonomous vehicle development as well?
BIERMANN: Yes, that is part of R&D, and of course we’re working on autonomous. We have our own autonomous driving center and have given it more organizational strength, and we have partnerships with Smart City applications.
WARDS: How is AV development going, and what are the toughest challenges?
BIERMANN: AV development is very challenging. The validation is time-consuming and needs tons of resources, which is why many companies find partnerships. We have been talking with many companies for quite some time but decided to go our own way, yet we still talk with other companies. Probably the biggest challenge is finding a validation procedure that is affordable and won’t take too much resources. And you can’t do just one approach. You need different approaches in every region of the world because regulations are different, traffic situations and patterns are different. Of course, some OEMs will pick areas that come easy first and make the big storytelling, and everyone will cheer and tell them how great they are. But how many customers will they reach? We are a mainstream brand, we need to bring the benefits of autonomous driving to a wide range of customers on a global scale, not just focus on some halo project to say we are leading.