Interest in and penchant for automobiles in Europeans are special; they take pride in the fact that Europe is the birthplace of the automobile, where the automotive industry and driving culture have sprung. Many industry-leading manufacturers are based in Europe, and their longstanding tradition, technological capacity, and brand influence are indeed a powerful force in the industry.
That is why, despite the far larger size of the American and the Chinese markets, the European market is often said to truly develop the automotive industry at the forefront. And the European consumers, of course, are the ones who daily witness and experience this development firsthand.
As such, it is difficult for non-European makers to thrive in Europe. But Hyundai and Kia seem to be an exception: its reputation in the European market is improving day by day. It has only been 40 years since Hyundai revealed its first model Pony in 1974 Torino Motor Show in Italy, but its annual sales in Europe now exceed 1 million vehicles.
Diverse Driving Conditions
There are approximately fifty countries in Europe—diverse climates and topography, culture and language, and lifestyles and people comprise this arguably most heterogeneous continent in the world. According to these various factors, importantly, the driving conditions and needs must vary as well.
The UK is known for its narrow roads and rainy climate, which result in general road roughness. As a result, maneuverability for quick turns and comfort at medium speed are considered important in evaluating driving performance. On the other hand, Italy has a need for city driving through narrow road, and its fashion-conscious consumers and prefer beautiful cars. That is why cars there must be compact yet pretty, light yet exciting to be considered excellent.
Germany presents yet another driving environment. Straight roads cross the open plains extending to the horizon; just outside the city is the Autobahn, renowned for its no speed limit. The pavement is even, so there is little instability even at high speed. In an environment where high-speed driving is common, stability at high speed and powertrain performance are key. That a famous circuit like Nürburgring, positioned in the Eifel Mountains, was present in the country since the 1920s adds to the need for speed among the motorsport fans. All these factors signal why the German automotive industry developed with such rapidity.
With the divergent environment and culture, the car segments in demand also vary by the country and locale. As mentioned, Italy’s penchant for city driving makes the tiny A-segment the most popular; France, on the other hand, prefers the B-segment, and domestic brands Renault and PSA Group (Peugeot, Citroen, DS), as well as the Japanese brands known for their small cars, are thus popular.
Northern Europe, with its snowy, harsh terrain, are fond of 4WD models capable of navigating through harsh road conditions. Particularly in Norway, where its abundance of water resources are utilized by hydropower generation, abundant electricity makes electric cars a popular choice. It takes roughly a year in waiting period to purchase Hyundai Kona electric model in Norway, but that has not stopped the Norwegians from waiting in line.
Hyundai/Kia’s Driving Performance
Captures Europe’s Heart
The team began the year with a new manager in Andrea Adamo. Succeeding Michel Nandan, who had been at the helm for six years, he had to juggle his time in being responsible for managerial duties in addition to his existing duties at Hyundai Motorsports, R5(Rally car) and TCR racecar sales. He decided to become a motorsports engineer at age 14, and joined Hyundai in 2015 after having worked for Fiat and Honda.
The biggest reason behind Hyundai and Kia’s surge in popularity in Europe is due to the R&D efforts that analyze the optimal driving environment for each country and accordingly improving driving performance. Testing the vehicles’ driving performances to match the localized conditions and preferences is the role of the Vehicle Testing Team. It is not an overstatement to say that all cars developed and sold in the continent goes through the watchful eyes and hands of this team.
The testing protocol for new vehicles are a product of intimate communication and collaboration. Local European engineers from the Europe Technical Center, domestic engineers from the Namyang Institute, and product planning and sales representatives all congregate to exchange and coordinate opinions. Media representatives specializing in automobiles are also invited to add their perspectives in the localization process. The resulting automobiles, capturing European hearts, are a product of such meticulous processes.
Then what accounts for Hyundai and Kia’s improved driving performance in the continent? “Right around 2010, Hyundai and Kia cars were middle-of-the-pack in the major European media rankings,” says Senior researcher Sangmin Woo of the Vehicle Test & Development Team. “But our rankings have improved considerably. Since 2010, we have begun benchmarking European cars and incorporated customer and media feedback, as well as inputs from local European engineers, into vehicle development. The data accumulated in development then were shared with Namyang Institute, and further improvements and tweaks resulted in the current performance level.”
Realistically, it is impossible to adapt the vehicle to all 50 countries, rendering 50 versions—but the goal of the Europe Technical Center is to maximize the vehicles’ performance levels in as many locales as possible.
“We tailor our developments to major, representative markets like the UK and Germany, and perform additional harsh-climate tests in countries like Spain and Sweden for its respective summers and winters. And we also subject small cars like i10 and i20 to more rigorous evaluations for Italy and France, where such vehicles are more popular,” Woo says.
Meanwhile, there is a high demand in Europe for economical and practical small hatchbacks, high-utility SUV, and wagons. But when going on a trip or carrying heavy loads, trailers are a popular choice; in a continent full of narrow roads, it makes sense to purchase a small car and explore other rational options for load management, rather than buying a large car upfront.
Recognizing such, German auto magazine 〈Auto Bild〉 has since early 2000s tested vehicles’ towing ability and issued featured articles on the subject. How is the Europe Technical Center doing in developing trailer-related technology?
“One important dimension on localizing to Europe is trailer towing ability. When towing a trailer, there is a heavy burden on powertrain, so we need additional cooling performance. Speed limit changes for cars towing trailers, too, so corresponding updates in built-in navigation is also necessary. When ADAS function is in play, there can be serious impact on safety, so depending on whether there is a trailer in tow, the function needs to change. Finally, to prepare for the case of long-distance trailer travel, we are running test drives in the Alps to assure gradability. So yes, we’re considering trailers in development,” Woo says.
Nurburgring: the Arena for
Hyundai and Kia’s Driving Performance Test
Hyundai and Kia began focusing their capabilities to upgrade general driving performance in 2011, and Nürburgring was chosen as the base of such efforts. The circuit, serving over one hundred years as the heart of motorsports since its construction in 1927, is the place where Hyundai and Kia’s vehicles undergo rigorous development. Other manufacturers have similarly built test centers in Nürburgring to test and polish their new vehicles.
Europe Technical Center’s High Performance Vehicle Testing and Design Team is exploring the ways in which the team can take advantage of not just Nürburgring but also Germany’s general driving environments. In addition, it collaborates across many fields to recruit from the country’s rich human resources in high performance car development. Jeeyong Jung, a Senior Researcher in the team, recollected his first Nürburgring testing in 2011 and shared his thoughts about the reason why driving performance tests are conducted in the circuit.
“In 2011, I got on a Genesis Coupe with a professional driver experienced in Nürburgring circuit and started the testing. That was the first step in our efforts to build a car that parallels powerhouse European models. The reason why we chose Nürburgring is that this is the only circuit in the world that requires cars to speed to 200 km/h, jump, and then turn the corner in one stroke. In 2013, we built a test center near the circuit and ran performance tests of new major models. The cars were really, very rigorously tested to improve the final development.”
Nürburgring is the site for not only driving tests but also durability tests. Along with new vehicles, new engines, transmissions, and platform—essentially all parts related to driving itself—are subjected to rigorous tests in Nürburgring to ensure durability. Sangmin Woo, the Senior Engineer in charge of durability tests, chimed in:
“Durability tests subject each model to 480 laps in the Nürburgring circuit—that’s 10,000 kilometers. An experienced professional driver who knows the circuit to every inch runs 30 laps a day at 90% of his max ability. The data gathered in the process and driver feedback is shared with Namyang Institute, and tweaks are made to improve upon the previous run. Then we will have another run on the circuit. Mass-produced cars, high-performance cars, they all go through the same process. Electric cars also run the Nürburgring circuit for durability tests.”
Nürburgring is also the place where Hyundai’s high-performance brand N was honed to perfection. Jung, who has witnessed every progress of N since its birth, explained to us the process of high-performance car development in Nürburgring as follows.
“One role of the Europe Technical Center is to steadily communicate and collaborate with the Namyang Institute and use Nürburgring as the site for vehicle testing. I came to the center in 2015 as part of the new establishment of the high performance car development team, and since then I have worked with engineers from Europe and Namyang at Nürburgring to endlessly test our vehicles. The collaborative process with Namyang Institute, I would say, isn’t all that different from other teams’: get the testing data, make the necessary improvements, test it again, and repeat until the performance is good enough. But there is one difference. Whereas mass-produced models go through localization processes, N models are configured the same worldwide, no matter where you buy them.”
Nürburgring is said to be a tough circuit even for professional drivers. Its rigor therefore provides the perfect setting for Hyundai and Kia’s vehicle testing—perform well here, and perform well anywhere. The data accumulated in the ceaseless test runs in the circuit have become and will continue to become nutrients for the future models’ performance upgrades. In a larger sense, these tests directly result in the brand’s overall improvement in quality.
And indeed, recent surges in popularity of Hyundai and Kia in Europe are reflections of the hard work of these engineers behind the scenes: it was the focus on driving performance and localization that captured the hearts of the European consumers. Even now, the engineers from the Europe Technical Center are hard at work, cruising the roads in Europe and dashing the Nürburgring circuit, striving to perfect the driving performance of the new vehicles.