KIA AND KOREA
AS I EXITED THROUGH THE automatic doors of Seoul airport the first bus I saw had an illuminated sign indicating it was heading for Gangnam. Other people in the queue thought it a bit odd that I took so many photographs - for the kids of course. Seoul is dissected by the Han River (also known as the Hangang River which flows east to west throughout Korea, to the north lies old Seoul and to the south of the river a more modern culture has risen rapidly - Gangnam.
The people on the South of the river are meant to be a little different to those on the north banks: younger, more modern, western, fashionable and have a style of their own - Gangnam style.
I was in Seoul as a guest of Kia to visit the Seoul Motor Show. Kia’s, and parent company Hyundai’s, stars are on the rise making their own Gangnam style as they take market share across the globe. I had three days in which to visit Seoul and take in the place, people and atmosphere.
Late March in Seoul usually means cherry blossoms in full bloom but this year it was still too cold for them to appear. There was no chatter about conflict with their neighbours in the North and the overall feel of the place was one of economic confidence and future thinking.
Thanks to this positive approach Kia has jumped from one of the worst ranked motoring manufacturers to a position that is now equal to Volkswagen. Kia are now producing highly competitive cars at fantastic prices so I was intrigued to pay a visit to the factory to see just how they are doing this.
What struck me during my tour was how advanced the factory was. I have to be honest and and say that I expected cheap labour, old machines and dirty floors. What I saw was a very modern set up, just about everything in one plant: machines molding body panels to start the process, robots welding them together, humans fixing the life into the cars and eventually starting up the car and driving them off the production line. The set up was incredible and five production lines churned out a car every 81-seconds! From start to finish it took the South Koreans no time at all to build a great car.
It must be cheap labour then that keeps the prices down? No, the average guy on the factory floor was earning $3500 per month. Quite how Kia manage to deliver such an amazingly cost efficient car when factories across Europe have been shut down makes me wonder what went wrong at companies such as Rover in England.
When I was over in Detroit recently I asked Tim Lee GM Vice President who is their biggest threat, his answer, “The Koreans, Hyundai and Kia.”. I bet he hasn’t even visited their factory, if he does he might not sleep at night!
Driving around Seoul the car buying community firmly believe in supporting their own home grown brands. Every car on the roads seemed to be either a Hyundai or a KIa. New Figures released show that Hyundai has a majority market share of 60-percent and Kia has 35-percent.
Talking of the roads - image a bowl of spaghetti and that’s what the roads are like in Seoul - impossible to understand how we managed to get anywhere, crossing water, under bridges, figures of eight, mesmerising. If North Korea ever invaded they’d probably get lost.
It’s great to see such staunch support for home grown products - Kia and Hyundai could sell the ugliest cars and the public would still invest. Obviously they don’t sell ugly cars and this is what has other car manufacturers worried about. Under the guidance of Peter Schreyer, a former Audi designer, Kia are presenting cars that are sleek, stylish, modern and hugely attractive - Sportage and Optima especially. They are also reliable and hit the highs with regard to performance and energy figures.
At the same time Kim Jong-un was shouting up at B-2 bombers over the North/South Korea peninsula 1.2 million people were turning a blind eye as they visited the Seoul Motor Show - a new record.
Story by Matt German