The statement ‘The Koreans are coming’ is about as outdated as the Backstreet Boys. They were coming in the past decade, even up until a few years ago, but with this latest generation of products from Hyundai and Kia, the Koreans have truly arrived. By the way, Hyundai-Kia is the fourth largest car manufacturer in the world today, only behind Toyota, GM and VW.

The tide really turned for Hyundai with this latest generation of products, which are obviously design led, with the tech to match. But looks weren’t always the priority. Study their relatively short history of making cars, and you’ll find a few phases.

‘America’s Best Warranty’ gave people less to worry about. Pic from my 1999 Road & Track

In the early days, it was all about value, undercutting established names by a few thousand bucks and drawing in folks who want more for less. Then came the quest for reliability, and what better way to convince than to offer epic warranties? Hyundai’s industry shaking warranties (they have trademarked “America’s Best Warranty”) appealed to those who wanted a reliable partner, a crowd that would normally head to Toyota showrooms without thinking.

Continue reading after the jump.

2010 Hyundai Elantra Sedan rating by J.D. Power USA

That’s still in place today, but the focus shifted to perceived quality, also a long time Toyota value. The generation of cars just before this one is proof of this approach, as well as the improved rankings in studies such as those by J.D. Power. The previous gen Sonata NF represents this phase well – it’s a solid, dependable, quality product, but also one that’s rather boring, and not outstanding in any area, to be honest.

Previous gen Sonata NF was competent, but didn’t stand out in any aspect

All those ticked boxes lead us to the next level – design and tech – and the name for it is “New Thinking, New Possibilities”. Hyundai’s new brand direction and statement was unveiled at this year’s Detroit show, and the meat in this new motto, which captures the spirit of change at the company, is “Modern Premium”. But what’s this different kind of premium they are talking about?

Modern Premium aims to provide customers with “emotional value and experiences beyond expectations”. Euisun Chung, Vice Chairman of Hyundai Motor explains: “Today, customers do not believe that expensive cars with unnecessary technology are premium. Instead, they want their core needs fulfilled at an accessible price and with a car that exceeds their expectations; a car that reflects their values and the times in which they live.”

Hyundai wants to make its cars desirable; the Veloster is a nice attempt

According to Hyundai, iconic Apple products such as the iPhone and iPad are non-car examples of Modern Premium, so is a cup of coffee at Starbucks. They believe that products that people desire, trust and are proud of don’t necessarily have to come with big price tags like traditional luxury items. In other words, you don’t need a Vertu, because the iPhone 4 is premium enough, and it serves you better as well.

One major Modern Premium feature is Blue Link, Hyundai’s new telematics system that was launched at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Largely similar to GM’s OnStar and Ford’s Sync with some variations, Blue Link will debut later this year in North America with the Sonata and Veloster, and will be introduced in China next year. Europe and the rest of the world is in line. For Blue Link, Hyundai worked with ATX, the company behind BMW’s ConnectedDrive.

Blue Link telematics system debuts in the US this year, Hyundai’s version of OnStar and Sync

Offering features like Facebook connection by voice, weather and restaurant info, and a range of GPS related functions, Blue Link is cool, and it won’t be just for the higher range models. But what’s more tangible for us here and now is the other main Modern Premium pillar – design.

They mention “emotional value” and nothing speaks more to the emotion than design. Need proof? Ask an Alfa Romeo owner about the appeal of his bella, or even Kia Forte owners, who are quite a passionate bunch. Look at the current Sonata and Tucson, then compare them with the cars they replace. These are wallflowers morphed into head turners, and whether you like the direction or not, people pay attention.

Eye catching Sonata is selling well in Malaysia, figures (Jan-Mac 11) are on par with Accord

Hyundai calls this design direction “Fluidic Sculpture”, and it’s a look that will be used across the entire range. The Sonata and Tucson started the movement last year, followed by the Elantra and the Accent (Elantra should be coming this year, Accent’s entry is still being considered).

Already, the distinctive blend of organic shapes and bold lines (as opposed to Kia’s sharp look) are becoming synonymous with Hyundai, and is set to be a recognisable signature look for the brand.

It’s translating into sales too – Hyundai-Sime Darby sold 1,000 Sonatas from Jan-March 2011, just five units less than the Accord. Still some distance from the Camry and Teana, but very decent for our Japanese dominated market. HSDM sold 619 Tucsons in the same period.

Fluidic Sculpture for the whole range, new Accent is clearly Sonata’s younger brother

In the next part of this story, we talk to a designer who’s heavily involved in the Fluidic Sculpture movement, the same man responsible for the Sonata YF’s bold design. Stay tuned!