After moving to California in 1993, my first objective (after finding a place to live) was to find gainful employment. The retail automotive business has always been strong on the West Coast, and with my years of experience as a General Manager, and a folder stuffed with letters of recommendations, I felt reasonably confident that I’d secure a suitable position. Quite to my surprise, I was unable to land a General Manager position in San Diego and really had no interest in taking a giant step backwards and accepting a lesser position. So, I considered relocating within the State of California if I could find the right position.
I checked out the help wanted section of Automotive News (the quintessential publication for car dealers, manufacturers, or anyone wanting to stay in tune with the latest news in the car business). I couldn’t find anything suitable in San Diego County, or even in L.A. County, and this really puzzled me. So, with a dwindling bank account and no income, I hit the panic button and realized that I might have to expand my search to central or even Northern California.
I spotted a classified ad soliciting a General Manager in the Bakersfield-Fresno area. Not the most exciting place to live, but I had to remain objective. The dealer who ran the help wanted ad was searching for someone to run a Hyundai dealership and two stand alone used car lots. Although I was not particularly excited about the Hyundai product, I thought if the money was right, I’d give it a whirl. The dealer paid for me to fly north, put me up in a decent motel, and I spent two days with him, examined each of the three facilities, and met nearly every employee. Well, we came to terms and I accepted the job with the understanding that it would take me a few weeks for me to vacate my apartment and relocate.
What I didn’t know, was that Hyundai cars were the Edsels of the nineties. If you’re too young to remember Edsels, they represented Ford Motor Company’s biggest failure. They survived only three short years: 1958, 1959, and 1960. Then, Ford Motor Company, after losing millions of dollars, pulled the plug and scrapped the car.
Shortly after rolling up my sleeves and settling into this position, I found myself living on Excedrin and antacids. The job exceeded my worst nightmare. Not a day went by without a gang of angry customers camping outside my office door, waiting their turn to yell at me about the poor quality of their Hyundai car, or the fact that it had been in for service multiple times for the same problem, or that every week introduced a new mechanical failure. I honestly thought that my service manager was going to have a stroke or heart attack.
And what made this situation even worse, was the fact that many service problems were unfixable. Not even the technical gurus at Hyundai could figure out what to do or advise us how to repair certain problems. What do you say to a customer when you can’t fix their car and not even the factory can tell you what to do? In my opinion, at that particular point in time, Hyundai Motor Group was the worst car manufacturer ever.
Well, in 1998, Hyundai Motor Group acquired 51% of Kia Motors, and very slowly, the quality of their products improved. One car at a time; one model year at a time. I’m not certain that the Kia purchase had anything to do with this metamorphosis; it may just be a bizarre coincidence. All I can tell you is that service problems were more manageable, the factory reps offered more assistance, and the entire image and design of Hyundai and Kia cars improved.
A lot has happened since 1998. Hyundai and Kia cars have done a 180 degree turnaround. They have completely changed their image, dramatically improved the quality of their cars, and esthetically, they’re among the most attractive cars on the road. And if you don’t agree, pick up the latest copy of Consumer Reports’ auto edition, or Motor Trend magazine. Or better yet, talk to someone who owns one.
I’ve been a Toyota and Honda guy for over 25 years—wouldn’t even consider driving any other car. But I have to tell you, next time around, I’m taking a hard look at the Hyundai Sonata and the Kia Optima. Whether or not Hyundais or Kias will ever live up to the legacy of Honda and Toyota as far as dependability goes is yet to be proven. All I can say is that the Japanese automobile manufacturers—all auto manufacturers in fact—better take a long look in their rearview mirrors, because if they blink too long, they might find themselves staring at their Korean competitors’ taillights.