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Hyundai cars transforms in two decades

Top Gear with Richard Wiley

Less than two decades ago, the name Hyundai hardly registered on the average car buyer's radar, let alone in the desirability stakes.

Fast forward to the end of the first decade of the 21st century, and the name Hyundai doesn't just register, it has earned for itself a desirability factor which has blossomed as models penned by Head of Design Peter Schreyer (ex Audi) have found their way onto the market.

Founded in South Korea in 1947 as the Hyundai Engineering and Construction Company, another 20 years were to pass before the Hyundai Motor Company was established. 

The first car off the line was a Cortina built in association with Ford in 1968, but when the time came to create a home-grown car, Hyundai hired George Turnbull, formerly of British Leyland, to help them on their way. 

Being a little cynical, I would have rated the association with British Leyland as something of a hand brake! The first fruits of their labor were seen in 1975 in the form of the oddly-named Pony which was styled by Giugiaro of Italy and fitted with a Mitsubishi engine, so it was something of a hybrid but not in the sense we use that description today!

It wasn't until 1991 though, that Hyundai gained some form of independence when it designed and produced its own engine and transmission, notwithstanding that the now well-known Sonata badge was first attached to a car in 1988.

The 90s in fact marked a period of great expansion and included the establishment of plants outside Korea, but perhaps the single most important marketing decision was taken in 1998. For the US market, Hyundai introduced an unprecedented 10 year or 160 000km warranty on new cars. It also embarked on a major quality drive designed to consign pre-conceptions of "Korean quality" into the dustbin and at the same time, bought Kia Motors which had fallen on hard times.

Since then, the Hyundai/Kia conglomerate has grown into the fourth largest auto group in the world with combined sales of 3.6 million units in 2010. Their cars are sold in 193 countries through some 6 000 dealerships and showrooms with around 75 000 employees involved!  Further, the main Hyundai plant in Seoul is the world's largest single factory with the potential to produce no less than 1.6 million units annually. But the emphasis is clearly on global expansion, witness the fact that the company has no fewer than seven Research and Development centers around the world - three in Korea and one each in Germany, India, USA and Japan.

There's no doubt that in terms of stylish execution and inherent quality, Hyundai has transformed and is widely regarded by the establishment as the biggest single threat in the middle to lower segments, especially as the value aspect has not been overlooked during the course of the transformation.

As a personal comment, I feel that Hyundai should now turn towards motor sport as a tool to cement its rising reputation.  Sure, it has been involved in pretty serious rally competitions but the visibility factor of rallying is relatively low. Just look how the unlikely Chevrolet Cruze has left an indelible mark on the World and British Touring Car Championships and imagine the publicity Hyundai would reap if it were to meet the GM challenge head on.  Even better, how about making engines for single seater championships around Europe as VW, Mercedes-Benz, BMW and Renault do to great effect. It would be the icing on top.

Everyone seems to be an expert when it comes to motoring matters, or so they think!  These self-same experts are probably the very people who mistakenly refer to those tubular-shaped devices attached to the car's underpinnings as "shock absorbers".  Sadly, this is not the function of these critically important components at all and I'm at a loss as to how they came to acquire this generic name.

The function of the "shock absorber" is not to achieve what its name suggests but instead, it is to control the rebound energy generated when the springs uncoil or flex AFTER the car has hit an irregularity in the road.

I'll try and be as simple as I can on this subject as it involves the basic laws of physics, a subject which I always struggled with in the classroom, but when your car hits a bump in the road, the impact moves upwards through the structure.  Without springs, the bang and the crash reverberating through the structure would be horrendous so springs are fitted to absorb or soften the blow. 

The softer the spring, the more absorbent it is but the payback comes when the spring uncoils or rebounds after compression. I'm sure you've heard about the principle of "equal and opposite reaction" which tells you that if two objects collide, for example snooker balls, the energy generated by the impact is shared by both balls.  So a ball struck half right say, will travel half left and the striking ball will travel half right.  At least, this will happen when the pros you watch on the TV get to work sinking the whole table! 

So it is with the chassis of your car - as the spring rapidly recoils, invariably beyond its normal resting position initially, and then oscillates as the energy is dissipated, so the body of the car reacts in sympathy by bouncing up and down. A standard "shock absorber" test involves lifting the corner of a stationary car and letting it go suddenly. Even with good "shocks", the car will bounce very briefly before it regains its earlier peaceful disposition but if the "shocks" are kaput, you'll be amazed at how much bouncing goes on after you've let go.

This tells you what happens at speed on the open road when you hit a bump or a dip or when you crest a rise.  The energy unleashed is decidedly large and is initially absorbed by the spring which then unwinds and unleashes the energy in the opposite and upward direction.  This rebound energy needs to be quelled or damped and that's exactly why the proper name for a shock absorber is DAMPER.

A damper that's past its best is dangerous in the extreme as the oscillating movements can lead to complete loss of steering control and badly worn tyres.  So, if your own car behaves as though its riding a nasty swell in Lake Kariba, do yourselves a favour and have the dampers sorted out.  If you see another car behaving in this manner, keep clear as the driver will have little control of brakes or steering.


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