It’s amazing what cars you don’t know exist overseas until you end up traveling and falling in love with another country’s domestic cars. Last week, while visiting the Hankook Tire development and manufacturing facilities around Seoul, South Korea, I had the opportunity to see many Korean-market vehicles not currently sold in the U.S. Some have a shot seeing light in North America, but many more will stay forbidden fruit to the Western World. Nevertheless, here’s a quick list of highlights seen from the trip that would make welcome additions to the North American market.
Hyundai Grandeur (Azera)
The past two generations of Hyundai’s full-sized front-driver were known as the XG and Azera in the U.S. Yet, this Avalon-sized premium sedan has always gone by “Grandeur” in its Korean home market. Powered by a choice of a 2.4-liter four-cylinder engine with 200 horsepower from the Sonata, a 3.0-liter V-6 with 270 horsepower, or a range-topping 305-horsepower 3.8-liter V-6, the Grandeur offers plenty of power to get moving — more, in fact, than the Avalon and non-turbocharged Ford Taurus. Additionally, the Grandeur offers adaptive cruise control and parking assistance. This is one Korean market car that we’ll definitely see soon, as the next-generation Hyundai Azera is unveiled at the Los Angeles auto show next month.
Kia Cadenza K7
Much like the Grandeur is to Azera, the Kia Cadenza K7 is the Korean-market replacement for what we knew as the (mostly unloved) Kia Amanti. Unlike the car it replaces, which was bulbous and derivative of the past Mercedes-Benz and Jaguar designs, the Cadenza K7 is sleek. It eschews a cobbled-together look for one that rivals most European cars for style and sophistication with LED running lamps that look like they came straight from a concept car. Designed by Peter Schreyer of Audi TT fame, the Cadenza K7 adopts the style of its smaller stablemate, the Optima (known as the K5 in Korea), and molds it into a larger, more mature package, powerful and luxurious. Most Cadenza K7 models come equipped with a 3.5-liter V-6 engine with 290 horsepower in addition to a range of smaller engines unique to Kia.
There’s a good reason the Ssangyong Chairman looks a lot like a Mercedes-Benz S-Class. It’s actually based off the early-2000s S-Class. Powered by a pair of inline-sixes that Mercedes-Benz all but abandoned in the 1990s in addition to a top-range 302-horsepower V-8 also shared with the last-generation W220-series S-Class, the Chairman looks and drives as you’d expect a flagship luxury sedan to. The coolest feature, besides telling your butler to go to the garage and fetch a car called the Chairman, is a flip-fold front passenger seat that moves forward like a minivan’s to maximize rear-seat space. The Chairman adheres to a credence of quality similar to that of the Mercedes-Benz on which it’s based as Korea’s only home-market competitor to the Hyundai Equus.
Said one person on the trip: “I used to have a bongo back in the 1970s, but I gave that up a long time ago.” While maybe this isn’t the same kind of Bongo, I found it just as trippy — but in a good way. Powered by a 2.9-liter diesel engine with either 126 or 133 horsepower, the Bongo is Korea’s carryall. Whether optioned as a pickup truck, box van, or 11-passenger people hauler, the Bongo’s versatility sets it apart from most vehicles on the market, working the role of both a Ford F-150 and Econoline on its home soil. The trippiest thing about it, though? Dually trucks and box vans have 15-inch front wheels and two 13-inch rear wheels per side.
Hyundai and Kia buses
They’re everywhere in Seoul. But what makes Hyundai and Kia’s vans cool isn’t the fact that they’re narrow enough to navigate the tight urban streets (with just three seats per row instead of four like in most North American buses) or the fact that they have velour drapes for every window. Comfortable seats with BMW-quality leatherette and cupholders for every seat don’t do it, either. No, what makes them cool is the fact that almost every bus on the market comes equipped with a five- or six-speed manual transmission. Because bus drivers didn’t have enough to worry about as it is.
Bonus: Porsche 959
As we visited a Hankook T-Station (think Firestone Car Care Center for Korea), we noticed this Porsche 959 shrouded in a coat of dirt sitting in a back corner. As we went to check it out, one of the journalists in our group stuck his hand into the wheel well. “Yup, it’s fiberglass,” he said, signifying it as a replica, which was relieving. No half-million-dollar car should ever be so dirty.
Despite the fact that it is neither Korean nor a real Porsche 959, the car looked remarkably close to the legendary supercar from the 1980s. I don’t think anyone would have minded if Porsche had officially imported it to the U.S. instead of customers having to go through a third-party importer.
Are there any cars you’d like to see make it to the U.S. from an overseas country?