By on August 5, 2018

Hyundai’s vice president of design, SangYup Lee, says the brand should be more than just a value nameplate and is setting his target extremely high. He thinks the company should be producing vehicles that are “sexier than Alfa Romeo.”

While we used a photo of a 2011 Hyundai Accent to head the article as a bit of a goof, the idea is only patently ridiculous if you don’t give it any serious thought. Hyundai’s designs have historically been a festival of mediocrity, but that’s not really the case anymore. The Korean brand has stepped up to meet is rivals and has even managed to surpass them in some respects.

Meanwhile, Alfa Romeo continues to impress enthusiasts but that has as much to do with its greatest hits as its does the modern cars. There’s still over dramatic, oddly attractive, and exceptionally fun — sort of like someone you dated during college but outgrew when you amassed enough self-respect to finally break it off. However, with the exception of the 4C, we’re not confident Alfa’s current lineup is their best visual work to date. 

2018 Hyundai Kona front - Image: Hyundai

If pragmatism were the only deciding factor in purchasing an automobile, Hyundai would win the battle with most manufacturers without breaking a sweat. Fortunately for car-lovers, that isn’t the case. Flair and fun still turns heads and the Korean automaker has been doing a lot to get attention over the last decade. Its cars are much better looking now than they were ten years ago. But Hyundai still wants more expressive styling, which is why it recruited a bunch of top-shelf designers and made Lee vice president of design in 2016. His credentials include the concept vehicles that ultimately led to the fifth-generation Chevrolet Camaro and C6 Corvette Stingray. But he’s also worked extensively with Audi, Bentley, Porsche, and Lamborghini.

In a recent interview with Automotive News at the Concours d’Elegance of America in Michigan, Lee expressed his intent to start pushing the brand’s “sensuous sportiness” design language into production vehicles and gradually transform the fleet into something truly breathtaking. The wait, according to him, will be about a year.

“[The Le Fil Rouge concept] (above) is one of the first cars indicating our future,” he said. “Sensuous sportiness is one thing, but at the same time, if you take a look at Hyundai cars, all the fronts look the same. We used to use the design strategy called ‘family look,’ so the same face on the car. Starting from this car, we’re not using this strategy anymore. The Hyundai look [will be] more [like] chess. You see chess as a king, queen, bishop, knight. They all look different, they function differently, but when together, they became one team.”

While Lee wants all Hyundai Group vehicles to be gorgeous he noted that the core brand will not overlap with Genesis in terms of design. “Even though Genesis was born from Hyundai, Genesis has to be completely separate,” he explained. “I used to work with Bentley before joining Hyundai. When it comes to luxury brands, heritage is so important. When you design Bentley, you have to memorize the Bentley bible, every single year of the car, and then do the sketches. The first thing you must ask when you look at the sketch is: ‘Is this Bentley enough?'”

“At Genesis, we have freedom. We have a bible, but it’s filled with empty pages at the moment. Hyundai and Genesis can’t be comparable. One is a luxury brand out to write a new legacy of originality and consistency. With Hyundai being a volume brand, it’s a Jekyll and Hyde brand, having a broad spectrum depending on the customer’s lifestyle.”

We’re already seeing the uniform look between Genesis’ models while Hyundai continues expanding in multiple directions. That’s likely to continue with the cascading grille helping to bridge the gap between differently styled models within the mainstream brand. However, if the Nexo and Kona are anything to go by, you can also expect even narrowed faux headlamps on the SUVs with the real illumination coming from cleverly disguised units masquerading as fog lights. The rest of the fleet is a little harder to make assumptions about, but we’ll presume serious expressions on their faces with downturned headlights and flowing bodywork with enough hard angles to keep things interesting.

When pressed on the market’s shift toward crossover vehicles, Lee noted it would be a challenge to keep consumers interested in sedans but seemed convinced everything would be fine if Hyundai stayed focused on solving the problem. “The sedan is not going to die,” he said. “That means you’ve got to do more on the sedan than the conventional three-box with a boring look. What are you going to do to make your sedan special? The SUV has to be very distinctive and is very important. But where do you want to take the sedan in the future?”

“[Hyundai’s] value is a given already,” Lee continued. “I’d like to see people [say], ‘Hyundai has some sexy cars. Sexier than Alfa Romeo.’ That is the message I’d like to give to the world.”

[Images: Hyundai Motor Group]

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29 Comments on “Hyundai Wants to Be Sexier Than Alfa Romeo...”

  • avatar

    Hyundai should continue to focus on being good, reliable cars and crossovers. Alfa Romeo may be “sexy” to someone, but very few people want to buy them, so if your trying to emulate a car company try choosing one people actually want

    • 0 avatar

      Well, the article is about the VP of design so it isn’t surprising he’d focus on “sexiness”. If this was a quote from the CEO it would be a bigger deal.

      FWIW, I do think the high-style of the 2010 Sonata helped make some sales so the idea probably won’t hurt. But I agree, the most important thing for the company is to be good on the fundamentals.

    • 0 avatar

      Most important thing is to balance “sexy” sheetmetal w/ practicality/utility.

      Marchionne had bemoaned that FCA had patterned the 200 after the previous gen Sonata (w/ its sloping roofline) which impeded rear passenger headroom.

      Le Fil Rouge concept is a sexy-looking concept, but one can easily tell that rear passenger headroom is really compromised (that’s fine if Hyundai wants to make the next Sonata a “niche” model like what the 6 Series Gran Coupe is to the 5 Series).

      As seen in the spy shots of the new Sonata, while it has the basic shape/design-influence of the LFR concept, the greenhouse/roofline has been toned downed.

      If one is to go w/ a sloping roofline, the best bet is to go w/ a fastback/liftback bodystyle – adds back in some utility.

      In addition, there are limits what designers can do to make a FWD/transverse layout “sexy,” so it’s not like Lee and his cohorts can quite do what designers can do for Alfa.

      Speaking of Alfa, wouldn’t exactly consider the Giulia and Stelvio to be “sexy” w/ that goofy looking front headlight design (reminiscent of the Sonata’s past headlights, but positioned to the front instead of the side).

      The 4C is nice, but that still pales in comparison to the glorious 8C (which hopefully, will make a comeback).

  • avatar

    Genesis looks a whole lot like a Chrysler, right down to the emblem.

    Is that sexy?

    • 0 avatar

      Not to me, because a Chrysler looks like a Bentley. Is that sexy? Yeah, more so then a Chrysler, though thinking any car other then a few exotics are “sexy” doesn’t really work for me

    • 0 avatar


    • 0 avatar

      Many would say Audi – putting aside that Hyundai started doing the hexagonal shaped grille before the 4-ringed one (Ford, among others, also uses the hexagonal grille shape, but both Ford and Audi have started to use an octagonal grille shape on some of their models – probably in an attempt to distinguish themselves, which really isn’t working).

      Anyhow, either way, shouldn’t matter much longer as Genesis models will be getting the Essentia design language starting w/ the GV80 (the G90 is also getting some of the Essentia design cues for its facelift and the G70 should see it as well when it’s time for its mid-cycle refresh).

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    Having recently test driven a Stelvio (whose looks I like), Alfa would do well to emulate Hyundai’s driveability.

    Mysterious controls, unpredictable brakes, and turbo lag weren’t sexy to me.

    • 0 avatar

      oh come on, the Stelvio I drove was an absolute hoot. And that’s all part of the sexiness.

      Maybe Hyundai needs another nameplate that’s nothing but sexy, fast, and expensive. Genesis isn’t it. Or else they should turn Genesis into that.

      Anyway, the simple fact is that if you put out a car and charge a boatload of money for it, people will respond as if you’re worth a boatload of money. But it has to be an entirely new nameplate, an entirely new brand, completely separate from the Sonata dealer (see VW Phaeton).

      • 0 avatar

        Genesis will be getting much sexier sheetmetal based on the Essentia concept.

        The current designs are kinda bland/safe (which was a nod to the domestic market), the best of the lot being the Sport trim of the G80.

        Hyundai has the N performance division for “hoot” – the i30N is a decent enough design, but the Veloster-N, not so much.

        The best opportunity for Hyundai to mix sexy design w/ “hoot” will be in the bespoke N model (totally separate from anything Hyundai is doing).

    • 0 avatar

      Don’t you get it man – its the image. Like riding a Harley.

  • avatar

    Actually the clean uncluttered design of that 2011 Hyundai Accent leading the article is what every new car designer should be aiming for. Or did the 2011 front grill not provide enough engine cooling?

  • avatar

    You’ll drive the ladiez wild when you roll up in an Accent wit 22” spinners.

  • avatar


  • avatar

    Hmmm. Compare this piece to it’s Buick related predecessor. One brand has credibility and momentum, the other mediocrity and marketing.

  • avatar

    Every car company should strive to make design a priority. Even the cheapest penalty boxes benefit from good design. Look at the original Renault Twingo for example. It’s iconic.

    I think using another brand as a target reeks of insecurity though. They should just strive to be sexy in their own right.

  • avatar

    I’ve always thought that a sexy sporty luxury car brand could evolve from the Kia K900 and Stinger, similar to how Genesis evolved from Hyundai.

    • 0 avatar

      Shouldn’t Genesis be first and things evolve from there?

      • 0 avatar

        You let Genesis represent more conservative traditional luxury with more conservatively-styled vehicles tuned for a smooth quiet ride and let the Kia-derived luxury division have the avant garde sexy styling and slightly higher performance tuned more for good handling, all while being based on the same platforms and using the same engines and transmissions. (Maybe give the smaller real-wheel drive Kia-derived model a stick-shift.)

        The Genesis models get new platforms and engines first and then they wind their way into the sporty division a year or so later.

    • 0 avatar

      Kia really should have made the new K900 a more premium/mature take on the Stinger (instead we get this weird blob thing).

      W/ its coming facelift, the G90 will look better than the K900 and even more so when it’s totally redesigned.

      But I agree that Kia w/ its RWD models should be going w/ a more youthful/sporty design – which they have succeeded w/ the Stinger, but not the new K900.

      But I’m afraid, once again, this is a nod to the more conservative Korean market.

      The new K900 is selling gangbusters there – selling around 1,500-1,700 a month (which, is a lot more than what the new LS 500 is doing here).

      The less expensive Stinger doesn’t sell as well as the K900 in Korea.

  • avatar

    There is absolutely no reason this shouldn’t happen – you need only look at smartphones for proof.

    Just look at Samsung; a South Korean manufacturer that has become synonymous with classy design and innovative technology, despite a total lack of brand prestige. Before the Galaxy phones arrived, the brand was more famous for price-led white goods; which is pretty much the same for pre-Genesis Hyundai.

    Lee is right – there’s no point in establishing a corporate identity if your brand doesn’t merit it. Far better to just go all-out in design and release a series of products that capture the public imagination.

  • avatar

    So sexy mean wildly unreliable and half assed interior design and ergonomics?

    Well, they could hire Mazda’s design team. They are more than half way, at least visually. They make some great looking cars.

  • avatar




  • avatar

    Just so long as they remember driving dynamics are part of what makes a car sexy. What they are doing with the N and sport trims make my hopeful but they need to really commit to it.

    Don’t be a shinny D—- with no balls.

    • 0 avatar

      Even the mid-cycle changes to the Sonata made it a better driver (no, not yet on the level of the Mazda6).

      But the good news is that Biermann has requested that his team be on the ground floor when it comes to development of new platforms and powertrains.

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    If they’re going for “sexy”, I don’t think they’re on the right track. Hyundai has definitely developed a unique look, and it’s a good one, but I wouldn’t describe it as sexy. I would describe it as alluring, however.

  • avatar
    cimarron typeR

    If only Cadillac could do want Genesis has /will do in the next decade. I think they’re trajectory is more upward than any other mass market brand.The G70 is going to get a good long look from me. When I was shopping for my G37S I didn’t think the Coupe was comparable dynamically, or interior-wise, but the exterior design was pleasing.Apparently, they’ve improved dynamically based on G80 reviews.

    • 0 avatar

      Cadillac models are getting the Escala-treatment.

      The new CT5 (replacement for the ATS) looks very promising.

      The CT6 is getting Escala cues for its facelift and looks more elegant and sporty at the same time.

      On a side note, it appears that Reuss is really the new head man at Cadillac and he’ll wind up getting the credit for what JdN had put in place before his departure.

  • avatar

    I fully expect Hyundai to be one of the few automakers still making enthusiast cars in 5 years. I’m watching them closely. Liking what I’m seeing so far.

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