Here comes Hyundai | When did Hyundai become a major motorsports player?

Steven Cole
By Steven Cole Smith
Oct 4, 2022 | Hyundai, Motorsports, Veloster N, TCR, Elantra N | Posted in Features | From the Oct. 2021 issue | Never miss an article

Photograph Courtesy IMSA

When Hyundai decided to jump into pro racing here in the States, the company shuffled through its resumés for a partner. One name rose to the top: Bryan Herta, a winning IndyCar driver, a two-time victor of the Indianapolis 500 as an owner, and an admitted perfectionist.

Herta had long been interested in partnering with a manufacturer, though he admits Hyundai wasn’t the first company to come to mind. It all started at the Grand Prix of Long Beach in April 2017, when Herta mentioned at a luncheon with Hyundai executives that if the company ever decided to return to motorsports in the U.S.–it had been big in SCCA rally in the ’90s and then had a run in Global Rallycross with Rhys Millen–Herta would be interested in talking.

Photograph Courtesy Hyundai

A few months ago,” Herta said in February 2018, “they reached out to us and said they had a project we might be interested in.” 

Herta was interested, and the result was unveiled at the Chicago Auto Show. Bryan Herta Autosport would field a two-car team in the 2018 Pirelli World Challenge’s sophomore TCR class. Hyundai won the championship. The new TCR class, which stands for Touring Car Racing, migrated from Europe in 2017 to the Pirelli World Challenge and in 2018 expanded to the IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, now the Michelin Pilot Challenge. 

The TCR cars are built at a factory facility and sold to teams in race-ready condition, with very few modifications allowed. Other cars in the TCR class include the Audi RS3, Honda Civic Type R, Volkswagen Golf GTI and Alfa Romeo Giulietta. More are coming.

Photograph Courtesy Hyundai

Herta knew that Hyundai had been racing TCR in Europe, based out of a Hyundai Motorsports facility at the Nürburgring. That’s where Herta’s basic cars come from; he completes them and they either become part of the Herta Autosport stable or are farmed out to teams in both the IMSA and World Challenge series. Herta also offers a less radical, turnkey race Veloster for World Challenge TCA-class competition. 

The fact that the first two drivers Herta hired are still with the program says something about what sort of place it is to work. Mark Wilkins brought a lot of front-wheel-drive experience from Kia’s since-canceled Pirelli World Challenge program, and Michael Lewis had been racing in Europe before coming home to join the team. Lewis has been driving several models, mostly Porsches, in World Challenge races with considerable success. 

At the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge race at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Park on May 15, the largest-ever contingent of Hyundais competed: The Mid-Ohio 120 saw an impressive eight Hyundais in the 15-car field, with the new-for-2021 Elantra TCR sedan taking its first win. Another Elantra finished fifth. The rest of the Hyundai race cars–based on the Veloster N hatchback–took second and fourth, meaning four of the top five spots went to the brand. That put veteran Lewis and partner Taylor Hagler in the points lead.

The cars are so much fun to drive,” said Lewis, whose father, Steve, is the founder of the Performance Racing Industry show and magazine. “I’m so lucky to be part of this program.” Last year, Hyundai took the top three spots in the IMSA standings.

Hyundai’s current stateside race effort, headed by Indy winner Bryan Herta, centers around the TCR cars found in IMSA and SRO competition. Back in the ’90s, though, the brand teamed up with Paul Choiniere and rally legend John Buffum to dominate SCCA rally. Photography Credit: Rupert Berrington

Herta said at Mid-Ohio that being aligned with a factory program is all he hoped it would be “and more. We’re racing at a high level, and we get to innovate. Hyundai supported us as we adapted a hand control system for Michael Johnson, who is paralyzed from the waist down, and last week we put Robert Wickens in the car for the first time since he was paralyzed in an IndyCar accident. It’s fun being part of a company that invests in motorsports and in the human aspect of racing, too.”

Expect Hyundai to become more involved in amateur racing, too, especially through the Veloster N program. “I didn’t have much exposure to Hyundai at first, but the more experience I have with the brand, the more impressed I am,” Herta said. “Their approach to racing is much like it is in the car business: Everything they do, they do at the highest level.” Herta drives a Palisade, his daughter drives a Tucson, and his parents drive a Genesis. “Once people drive the car,” he said, “they get it.”

Photograph Courtesy Hyundai

Hyundai: Once Starting at $4995

The 2021 North American Car of the Year is the Hyundai Elantra, chosen by some 50-odd North American automotive journalists.

Had you been in a coma for, say, 35 years, and you awoke to that news, your first thought would likely be: Hyundai? Builder of the rust-prone lil’ crappy Excel they sell for $4995 new? No! What’s next, a reality TV star getting elected president?

Compounding your confusion might be that Hyundai also won the award for best SUV in 2019 (Kona) as well as best car in 2012 (Elantra) and 2009 (Hyundai Genesis). The Genesis G70, which Hyundai spun off into a standalone luxury brand, won best car in 2019. That’s five wins in 11 years. That’s pretty good, especially considering Hyundai and Genesis were among the three finalists five more times since 2009. 

Let’s compare that to Toyota: zero wins since 2009. Honda: three wins since 2009 with best car (Accord) in 2018 and 2016 (Civic) and best truck in 2017 (Ridgeline).

The North American Car of the Year awards have been going on since 1994, and the fact that we didn’t name Hyundai to a best-anything list until 2009 shows that the appeal and dependability Hyundai enjoys didn’t happen overnight. The climb is unprecedented in recent years–unless you count Kia, Hyundai’s close Korean cousin, which won the SUV award for 2020 (Telluride) and was a finalist in 2018, when the Stinger gave the Accord a run for its money.

So how did it happen?

Let’s go back to those grim days of the mid-1980s, when America was scrambling for a dependable, cheap car that got good fuel mileage. Honda Civics and Toyota Corollas were selling at premium prices; even American entries like the Ford Escort, Chevrolet Cavalier and Dodge Shadow were popular, but there was room for something new.

The market was there: Hyundai began rolling out the Excel in February 1986, setting a record by selling nearly 170,000 copies, the most of any company in its first year of business in the United States. I reviewed the Excel back then, calling it “a welcome entry into the entry-level market.”

Hyundai entered the U.S. market in 1986 with the Excel: At just $4995, it only cost a grand more than a Yugo. Photograph Courtesy Hyundai

Keep in mind that I had recently tested the new Yugo, first offered at $3995, and found little good to say about it. Even though a dealer had gone over my tester with a fine-toothed comb, it took me a block to see that the turn signals didn’t work, the radio didn’t turn on, and the wheels seemed unbalanced, likely due to the lumpy Yugoslavian Tigar radials it wore.

Yugo had bought the rights to the Fiat 128, just as Hyundai had bought the rights to a small Mitsubishi, sold here later as the Precis. Neither donor car was a Honda Civic by any measure. They started falling apart–the Yugo on the way home from the dealer lot. 

Indeed, the little Excel, especially with the optional alloy wheels, looked good, drove well, seated four and asked little–at first. Soon, dependability problems reared their heads, and dealers, working in a tight margin, were reluctant to do warranty work or even major non-warranty jobs on the cars. Parts became plentiful as junkyards began filling up with Excel coupes and sedans. Repos were abundant, as buyers–many of them first-timers–just walked away.

Yugo’s response to the problems: Leave.

Hyundai’s response: Get better.

I went to Korea on a press trip in 1988 to visit Hyundai and drive the new mid-sized Sonata. It was memorable. I left the airport in Seoul and boarded a Hyundai-built bus; it went to the Hyundai hotel; I rode up the Hyundai-built elevator; I relaxed in front of the Hyundai-built television.

The brand’s first in-house design for the American market came with the release of the Sonata for 1989. Photograph Courtesy Hyundai

Later we visited the Hyundai car plant in Ulsan, which was already the world’s largest car factory, cranking out one million cars a year. Eventually we boarded a Hyundai bus for a long trek to the Hyundai proving grounds, where we entered the facility, took a lap on the track in the bus, and headed for the exit to return to Seoul.

The Hyundai bus had no bathroom, so we protested. Loudly. Chris Hosford, a public relations executive who had worked with Chrysler and had just been named head of Hyundai P.R. in the U.S., buried his head in his hands.

Finally, we stopped at the guard shack at the edge of the property and, for the first time on the trip, were able to stretch our legs. We relieved ourselves in the guard’s one-room outhouse. He was very kind and generous: He showed us where the company’s onsite vegetable garden was, and it was blossoming with veggies. He offered us some, but we declined when somebody noticed the garden was directly downhill from the outhouse.

Though Mitsubishi was still helping Hyundai, the Sonata was largely a Hyundai creation, as the company knew that it would have to invest in its own technology to genuinely grow, especially in the U.S. The Sonata was an improvement, but it was still a slow, boring car, inside and out.

I recall one line from my review for Automobile magazine: “A leather interior is offered at a very reasonable price, but you will have to excuse the odor. If car leather were made from fish hides, this is what it would smell like.”

Eventually Hyundai got better and more adventurous. It released the Scoupe, a handsome little coupe that was, like all Hyundais until much later, underpowered by old technology. Only in the last 10 years has Hyundai figured out engines–and hybrids; the first Sonata hybrid was dismal.

Hyundai had built a deserved reputation for making cheap, disposable cars, and then came models like the Sonata. Were we supposed to buy a real car from this company when we could get a lightly used Accord or Camry for the same price? Resale value was horrid; even Hyundai dealers didn’t want to take them in trade.

But the cars were getting better. In 2003, Consumer Reports, based on complaints about new 2002-model-year cars that in general were less than 1 year old, showed Hyundai’s reliability was tied with Honda’s. A few years later, Consumer Reports said the most trouble-free car in America was the Hyundai Sonata, which made headlines everywhere.

By 2003, Consumer Reports labeled Hyundai as reliable as Honda. Photograph Courtesy Hyundai

But that resale issue remained. It was solved by a stroke of genius: Hyundais began coming with “America’s best warranty,” a tagline that’s still in use. The warranties, in a limited but effective way, were transferable, which suddenly spiked Hyundai’s resale value: Buy one and it will still be worth something later on. It was brilliant. Combined with improved quality and a Hyundai Design Center, which opened in 1990, that was finally figuring out what Americans wanted, Hyundai was on its way.

Integra? Celica? For a while, Hyundai offered their own front-drive coupe–first the Scoupe and then the Tiburon shown here. Photograph Courtesy Hyundai

Styling went from bland to crisp, while chassis dynamics made huge strides. In 2015, the brand hired Albert Biermann away from BMW’s M Division and eventually put him in charge of R&D. Hyundai then launched its own N Brand, with the letter signifying Namyang, South Korea, home to Hyundai’s R&D center. 

A promise of N Brand cars was race track capability. Indeed, we found the Veloster N to post faster lap times than the much-vaunted Civic Type R. 

[2021 Hyundai Veloster N DCT Review]

Hyundai’s current top performer is the turbocharged, track-tuned Veloster N. GRM testing found it ran with the Civic Type R–watch the video on our YouTube channel. Photograph Courtesy Hyundai

And Hyundai’s success has brought Kia along with it; Hyundai owns about one-third of Kia, and platform and powertrain sharing has benefitted both companies. Kia has a plant in Georgia, Hyundai has one in Alabama, with a joint investment approaching $3 billion. The new Hyundai Santa Cruz, a trucklet with a small bed that is a genuine innovation, will be built in Alabama in 2022, along with the Sonata, Santa Fe, Tucson, Elantra and several engines. 

Really, the Hyundai story is remarkable. We just put 1800 miles on a 2021 Hyundai Elantra, the North American Car of the Year, with zero issues and a fuel mileage average of 43.1 mpg, city and highway. The company is dedicating a lot of resources to electrics, hybrids and even hydrogen power with its Nexo, the first hydrogen SUV, with a range of 380 miles. It’s available in California.

So long, Yugo, Daihatsu, Daewoo. Hyundai figured out how to get a toehold and use it to leave footprints all over the competition.

Photograph Courtesy IMSA

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Junkers New Reader
8/16/21 1:48 p.m.

I recall first seeing Hyundai at the Sno Drift Rally in January of 2000.  At the time no manufacturers' teams were competing aside from a few Honda engineers in a civic but they were hardly "factory backed."  VW may have pumped in some bucks as well as Ford in the form of an Escort ZX2 sold to a private team I helped out (Tad Ohtake and Cynthia Krolikowski).  The fastest 2wd I recall was in the form of a very hot turbo GLH motor stuffed into grandma's Plymouth Horizon.

Hyundai showed with a few new Elantras built by Vermont Sportscar and were essentially Mitsubishi Evos with lots of Buffum's secret sauce.  There were plenty of STi's and Evo's on the field in the hands of some great talent, but the Elantras mopped the floor with everybody.  It was like a walk in the park for the factory Hyundai team.  I hadn't taken Hyundai seriously as a manufacturer of "durable goods", but that performance made me take note and applaud them for shelling out such money to make sure they were winning and seen by enthusiasts.

Fast forward to 2003 and the entire Hyundai lineup was still the worst handling bunch of cars since the first front drivers designed in the USA in the early 80's.  It was as if they hadn't learned anything from their "racing efforts".  Indeed, I would've chosen any GM X-body car with less than 100k miles and bought 2-3 of them rather than plunk down money on a new for '03 Hyundai.  I think they finally committed to making properly modern cars with the release of the Genesis and Veloster, so thank God for that.

Incidentally, at that rally in 2000 I recall seeing an as-yet-to-be-released PT Cruiser with some very nice aftermarket wheels and either a large exhaust or 4 big SuperTrap mufflers hanging out the back.  I didn't get a chance to get close to it, but clearly this was a few of the Chrysler skunkworks boys taking a project car out for a few "wows."  Was it a turbo?  AWD?  Who knows?

LeftLaneLoser UltraDork
8/16/21 2:49 p.m.

I think they became a major contender when they decided to hire somebody who actually came from a firm that produced actual sports cars. Ahem BMW.

asphalt_gundam Reader
8/16/21 2:53 p.m.

Dad brought home an '89 Excel for a field car us kids could thrash. No power, burned lots of oil but it was a blast on wet grass and I taught my little brother to do J turns in it. Eventually tossed a rod.

BMWGeoff GRM+ Memberand Reader
8/16/21 2:58 p.m.

I remember Antoine L'Estage winning a couple of Canadian Rally Championships in a Hyundai Tiburon.

Junkers New Reader
8/16/21 3:00 p.m.

Rodney King got beat up driving an Excel and I think Chris Rock popularized that fact.  I wonder if that drove the tireless ad campaign to improve the brand?  "Can't we all just get along?"

Junkers New Reader
8/16/21 3:03 p.m.
BMWGeoff said:

I remember Antoine L'Estage winning a couple of Canadian Rally Championships in a Hyundai Tiburon.

I think Canada was blessed with the Hyundai Pony a few years before they brought it to the USA as the Excel.  I remember Hyundai Tiburons were quite popular on the streets of Montreal in the late 90's.

Colin Wood
Colin Wood Associate Editor
8/16/21 3:13 p.m.

My wife's previous car was an early 2000s top-trim Elantra. It wasn't anything particularly noteworthy, but it did, somehow, come back to life after the engine flooded (long story, and yes, it was my fault).

Never quite ran the same after that, though.

BMWGeoff GRM+ Memberand Reader
8/16/21 3:20 p.m.
Junkers said:
BMWGeoff said:

I remember Antoine L'Estage winning a couple of Canadian Rally Championships in a Hyundai Tiburon.

I think Canada was blessed with the Hyundai Pony a few years before they brought it to the USA as the Excel.  I remember Hyundai Tiburons were quite popular on the streets of Montreal in the late 90's.

You're correct about the Pony. I have a picture of one somewhere with a historic vehicle licence plate.

bobzilla MegaDork
8/16/21 3:21 p.m.

I've been buying them since April 15, 2002. Started "racing" them in 2007. Little things made them sooooo much better for handling.  Rear sway bar from the 03 Tiburon and some H&R springs with KYB struts would wake up the Elantra. Durable little cars that you could put a lot of miles on. Nothing fancy. The newer stuff (first gen Forte for instance) has a ton of potential in them but the aftermarket is not quite up to speed.

BMWGeoff GRM+ Memberand Reader
8/16/21 3:23 p.m.

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