What is it that comes to mind when you think Hyundai?  India’s second largest car maker. Originally from Korea.  Had a huge hit in the Santro and the Accent.  Failed badly with the Getz,  Elantra, the Sonata Embera, the Terracan and the Tucson.  Tasted moderate success with the previous generation Verna.  Again tasted success with the i10, then with the i20, then with the new Fluidic Verna and now with Fluidic Eon.  Oh, it has also tasted reasonable success with the Santa Fe SUV.  That Hyundai is the second largest car maker in India tells us the story, but it conceals more than it reveals.  Time to look at the revelations and to start revealing all that is concealed behind that innocuous statement that Hyundai is India’s second largest car manufacturer.

Hyundai Eon at the 11th Auto Expo 2012

To say that India is after South Korea the most important car market for Hyundai is simply stating the obvious.  But this too is a seemingly innocuous statement that does conceals more than it reveals.  As is my habit, I need to rewind a bit before I can get to the present and then fast forward into the future.  Since Hyundai came to India just about fifteen years, its history is easy to map.  But it is slightly more difficult to profile the company.  So let me start with a bold and provocative statement.  Hyundai as a company is doing better than Maruti Suzuki, so what if the latter is number one and the former is number two.  Let me illustrate this point a little clearly for all those who are shocked.  Maruti Suzuki has been around for more than twice the amount of time that Hyundai has been around, yet it is only known for its inexpensive, cheerful and reliable little cars which cost less than Rs. 6 lakh.  The 800 was huge, as was the original Zen, the 1000, erm, okay not bad and the Esteem, yeah, that one was good.  The Esteem was primarily the Maruti 1000 with a 1300cc engine.  But it did well in the absence of competition.  When the competition came from the Daewoo Cielo, the Hyundai Accent, the Opel Corsa it just did not do well anymore.  It was sought to be replaced by the Baleno, a great car that people refused to buy.  The estate version the Baleno Altura must have sold less ten numbers.  Then came the SX4, a competent car but no hot seller.  The biggest selling three box in the times of competition has to be the Swift Dzire.

Now look at Hyundai.  This was company that reinvented itself from the word go.  I know that sounds illogical but let me explain.  When Hyundai wanted to come into India like all other international players it scouted around for partners.  Most Indian partners had been taken and the ones that were there were not worth it.  So Hyundai took the bold step of entering the Indian market on its own steam. A different kind of beginning from anything that existed prior to it.  Like all the other international companies who thought that the C segment was where the action would be Hyundai too decided that it would launch a three box car.  That is when one gentleman by the name of B.V. Subbu intervened and changed the face of Hyundai and India’s automobile landscape.  It was Subbu who persuaded Hyundai to take a relook at its strategy.  He convinced them that it made business sense to hit the small hatchback market where most of the volumes lay.  Hyundai heard him and changed strategy.  It rummaged through its portfolio and found that it had a hatchback called the Atoz (there is some controversy about the Atoz, with some saying that it was Atos but those who claim that it was Atoz claim that it was meant to be A to Z.  I will not dwell on this since I have nothing much to add by the way of credibility to it).

1998 Hyundai Atoz


Irrespective of the spelling of the name of the car, the one thing that was very certain was that the Atoz was neither a looker nor was it a big seller.  It was obvious that Hyundai could not just bring a car which was not doing well in the international market.  After extensive research and customer clinics, Hyundai decided to modify the Atoz and make it more palatable to customers.  Thus its first product for India was a made for India car and they named it Santro (please don’t ask what that is supposed to mean, I only know a story that says that it was a name thrown up by a computer which scrambled the letters of the English alphabet; I cannot vouch for the veracity of this story though and if there is anything more to the name, Hyundai made sure that we did not get to know of it sufficiently).  When the Santro was revealed to the auto journalists in India, they all gaped in disgust.  They said it was horrible looking, they called its front grille toothsy and ugly, passed snide remarks about the Korean sense of aesthetics and rounded it all of with a doomsday prediction.  But the Santro confounded the critics.  It sold in good numbers, in fact in great numbers.  In doing so it beat back competition from the Daewoo Matiz which was designed by star designer Georgetto Giugiaro and his company Italdesign.  It helped that Daewoo was dying so it could not really fight back.  But the Santro also beat competition from the Tata Indica, designed by IDeA of Italy who also designed the A 178 platform vehicles from Fiat – the Palio, Siena and the Adventure.  This in addition to severely threatening the established Zen from Maruti which finally caved in.

Santro Rear

So what was it that Hyundai did right with the Santro?  Well it was not one thing but a combination of many.  The Santro was a tall car (B.V. Subbu and Co lost no time in trademarking it as the Tall Boy) and that meant ingress and egress was easy even for the aged and the physically challenged.  For most Indians the rear seat of the Ambassador represented the most comfortable perch on the face of the earth and the rear seat of Santro was/is like a throne.  It had good space, though it too was a mono volume like the better looking Matiz, it had a two box profile.  It came with an engine that came with a three valve head and compared itself to what Mercedes Benz was offering as engine tech on its high end cars.  Then there was the master stroke.  All models came with air conditioning as standard and for Indians who always associated air conditioning with opulence it came as a pleasant surprise that a humble inexpensive little car was offering air conditioning as standard across all variants.  Cleverly Hyundai also refused to put in a sound system in the car.  They said tastes of customers varied and therefore they left it to the individuals purchasing the car to choose their own stereo systems.  This also helped in keeping the price down a little.  And when India decided to introduce pollution norms, Hyundai started the practice of badging its cars “Euro II”.

Accent Santro Xing1

Marketing counts for a lot but not for everything.  The Santro was a sound product and Hyundai wasted no time in expanding its service network, an important variable if it had to succeed.  Perhaps Hyundai again achieved in this space what Maruti achieved in half the time.  Hyundai scrapped the Atoz internationally and replaced it with the Santro and where the Atoz did not sell the Santro did.  One can say without fear of contradiction that Hyundai learnt and perfected the art of making a good small car in India, a fact seldom acknowledged by anyone writing about Hyundai.  Hyundai has learnt invaluable lessons in India that stood it in good stead in getting recognition internationally as well.  The next car that Hyundai introduced in India came pretty quickly after the Santro since the original plan was to start with the Accent anyway.  The Accent was advertised as the $120 million car (referring to its development costs) and its understated yet elegant design made us Indians take to it like fish to water.  It still sells more than a dozen years after its original introduction and with very little changes to the body except the grille.  The Santro too sells in substantial numbers with a couple of facelifts that saw it transform from the Santro the Santro Zip and the Santro Xing.  Engines were suitably altered to meet pollution norms.

Hyundai Sonata EF

What followed after the Accent was the original EF Sonata, a car that unashamedly borrowed styling cues from the C Class Mercedes Benz (front) and Jaguar cars (back).  It was flashy, but we Indians love flashy things and it sold reasonably well but Hyundai replaced it with the Embera when they decided to bring the Sonata range in line with the international line up.  The car was good but unexciting.  Hyundai also introduced the Elantra and the car did not do too well at the hustings thanks to indifferent styling. There was a big lesson here for Hyundai to learn.  It found that things such as elegance and premium styling do not matter to the humble hatch buyer maybe, but they certainly do when it comes to forking out larger amounts of money.

TerracanHyundai Tucson

This Hyundai saw with the SUVs such as Terracan and the smaller Tucson as well.  Even though Hyundai was still working with these model names in its own domestic market and some other markets it made sure that these names stayed away from India.  Hyundai was sure that it did not want to go the Maruti Suzuki way, where people will queue up to by the small cars but not even bother about the bigger ones.  Maruti still cannot sell the Grand Vitara and the Kizashi despite their being good cars.

One can safely say that the first decade of the 21st Century was one where Hyundai became a good student and dedicated itself to the study of design and design language.  The first product to emerge from this study was the i10 and Hyundai started using the i followed by a numeral to proclaim that it now understand design better than it did in the past.  The i30 big hatch was technically the first car to carry the i nomenclature but it was the i10 that typified the change in design direction.  Design cues from the i10 went into the replacement of the Getz which began life looking like a VW and ended looking like a Peugeot.  The i20 evolved out of the i10 and it was more fluid and in fact has the face which went on to inaugurate the fluidic architecture on the i45 or the Sonata.  With the Sonata or the i45 Hyundai boldly announced to the world that it was not a wannabe company trying to ape European manufacturers, a trait that even its expensive Genesis sedan had.  Now I do not need to tell the rest of the story.  The Verna (Accent in some markets) incorporated the design language that is now unique to Hyundai and is globally acceptable.  To announce its intentions clearly Hyundai gave the i10 a fluidic face and also launched the Eon with the same design language.

I30 I20

New Hyundai Sonata at the 11th Auto Expo 2012

New Hyundai Sonata at the 11th Auto Expo 2012 : Rear

At the Auto Expo 2012, one found Hyundai strutting with a new confidence.  It showed off the existing range of cars including the very recently launched Eon and the Verna.  More importantly it launched the fluidic Sonata and also showed the new Elantra also sporting a fluidic design.  More importantly Hyundai announced that it will be bringing the new Elantra into India later in the year.  The response of the people at the Auto Expo indicates that this car is likely to be a winner as well.

Hyundai Elantra at the 11th Auto Expo 2012 : Front

Hyundai Elantra at the 11th Auto Expo 2012 : Rear

In all this Hyundai has been helped by the fact that it has a diesel engine at its disposal and that makes the task of selling cars that much more easier in Europe and India where diesel is the preferred fuel but for different reasons.  The Santa Fe will also get fluidic architecture in the near future as will the i20 which is already found testing with its front and rear camouflaged.  But make no mistake it was the original i20 which spawned the fluidic design language.  In its second iteration it will have a face and a derriere which will bring it in line with the rest of the Hyundai range.  Now you can see why Hyundai is better than Maruti Suzuki.  Even Suzuki has not found acceptance internationally as a seller of big cars, something that Hyundai has found.  If the success of the Verna is anything and it should be something since it sells more than the Honda City, the VW Vento, the Skoda Rapid and the Maruti Suzuki SX4, and if the response at the Expo to the Sonata and the Elantra are taken into consideration, then it seems unlikely that Hyundai will be stuck with the label of small car maker.

Hyundai Verna at the 11th Auto Expo 2012 : Front

Over the years Hyundai has been working on its engine tech and design language and with the Expo it is now clear that Hyundai is also looking at clever packaging of MPVs to take its case forward.  At the Expo Hyundai had the World Premiere of the HND7 MPV called the Hexaspace.  It is still very much in concept form but it the production cues are there and it is going to hit the market sooner than later.  It has an innovative zig zag seating which makes it possible to seat a large number of people in comfort and it is of a monocoque construction.  Expect it to handle like a car.  It will give the Innova some sleepless nights since it is more “Innova”tive than the Toyota.  Already Toyota has said that the manufacturer that it fears most is Hyundai and it seems as if their fears are likely to come true.

Hyundai Hexa Space Concept at the 11th Auto Expo 2012 : Side Interior

Hyundai Hexa Space Concept at the 11th Auto Expo 2012 : Logo

Hyundai Hexa Space Concept at the 11th Auto Expo 2012 : Side

I suppose you now know why I said statements like “Hyundai is the second largest car maker in India” and “India is an important market for Hyundai” conceal more than they reveal.  From the global launch of the Santro to the global launch of the i10 and Eon in India to the World Premiere of the Hexaspace at the Indian Auto Expo you can easily deduce where Hyundai has become what it has.  It is also of great importance that India is the manufacturing hub of small cars including the i20.  Hyundai’s only other R&D facility outside of Korea is in Hyderabad, India.  Now there is not much left to your imagination right?

Hyundai Hexa Space Concept at the 11th Auto Expo 2012 : Front