DETROIT — SangYup Lee doesn't want Hyundai to settle for just being a value marque.
Lee, Hyundai Motor's vice president of design since 2016, wants to add an emotional touch to Hyundai products through designs that are just as "sexy" as Alfa Romeo.
The brand is moving away from the uniform "family look" for its lineup to give each vehicle more of its own personality. This will be apparent in coming years in the changes to the front ends of Hyundai vehicles: The signature cascading grille won't be going away, Lee says, but each vehicle will sport a unique variation of it.
Hyundai signaled its design direction in March when it unveiled the Le Fil Rouge concept at the Geneva Motor Show, showcasing what it calls a "sensuous sportiness" theme. Sensuous sportiness, Hyundai says, is based on the "harmony between four fundamental elements in car design: proportion, architecture, styling and technology."
Lee, 48, is no stranger to expressive, emotional design. His portfolio includes the fifth-generation Chevrolet Camaro concept, the C6 Corvette Stingray concept and Bentley's EXP 10 Speed 6 concept.
On the sidelines of the Concours d'Elegance of America in the Detroit suburb of Plymouth, he spoke with Staff Reporter Vince Bond Jr. about design, building a Korean luxury legacy with Genesis and a career that has seen him handle designs for Audi, Bentley, General Motors, Lamborghini and Porsche. Edited excerpts:
Q: When will we start to see sensuous sportiness in Hyundai's lineup?
A: Next year. [The Le Fil Rouge concept] is one of the first cars indicating our future. Sensuous sportiness is one thing, but at the same time, if you take a look at Hyundai cars, all the fronts look the same. We used to use the design strategy called "family look," so the same face on the car. Starting from this car, we're not using this strategy anymore. The Hyundai look [will be] more [like] chess. You see chess as a king, queen, bishop, knight. They all look different, they function differently, but when together, they became one team.
What was the inspiration for the sensuous sportiness theme?
The car is an emotional product. We want to maximize emotional value to it. The Alfa Romeo and Maserati, those are really sexy cars, even the Germans got a lot of influence from the [Italian] cars. That emotional, sensous beauty, you don't find that in the volume brands. For Hyundai to be sexier than Alfa Romeo, this is the mission we want to achieve.
Will this concept have any influence on Genesis?
Even though Genesis was born from Hyundai, Genesis has to be completely separate. This is why we created the Hyundai look to have a broad spectrum of different looks. Hyundai is the type of brand [where] we always have to do something more fresh. You can't get hung up on tradition so much. For Genesis, it's the first luxury car brand from Korea. Luxury brands need originality.
Look at a fashion brand like Louis Vuitton and Chanel. Chanel, underneath it, says Paris. Burberry, it says London. Genesis should be able to write Seoul. Seoul is a cool city. There are so many things that are special that we should be able to capture as the Genesis brand. Korea is technologically advanced with Samsung and LG. The car should be able to have that touch in a luxury way.
I used to work with Bentley before joining Hyundai. When it comes to luxury brands, heritage is so important. When you design Bentley, you have to memorize the Bentley bible, every single year of the car, and then do the sketches. The first thing you must ask when you look at the sketch is: "Is this Bentley enough?"
At Genesis, we have freedom. We have a bible, but it's filled with empty pages at the moment. Hyundai and Genesis can't be comparable. One is a luxury brand out to write a new legacy of originality and consistency. With Hyundai being a volume brand, it's a Jekyll and Hyde brand, having a broad spectrum depending on the customer's lifestyle.
The Le Fil Rouge concept signals Hyundai's direction to "sensuous sportiness."
Bentley, Porsche, Lamborghini all have traditions that go back generations. How does it feel to be with Genesis, a place where you can write your own history?
It's amazing. I used to work for General Motors, worked on C6 Corvette and fifth-gen Camaro and moved to Volkswagen, Audi and Bentley. It was an amazing journey. But sometimes, you feel the pressure of the heritage. With Genesis, we have a brand bible and we're going to fill up the pages. Creating a brand legacy out of design is a fantastic feeling.
How does your mindset change when you go to a new company? Do you just have to wipe your slate clean?
Sometimes, it's a benefit when the outsider comes to make a fresh statement. It actually sometimes works. But it works only when you completely understand the brand. Whenever I moved from Detroit to California to England, I try to get soaked into the culture as much as possible. Without that, it's difficult to blend into the team. You have to start with the respect to the new brand. That respect only comes when you wipe everything that you know, a fresh start.
The market continues to move toward crossovers. Does that make it harder to design a sedan? Is there more pressure to make it appealing?
Yes. This is the big challenge. The sedan is not going to die. That means you've got to do more on the sedan than the conventional three-box with a boring look. What are you going to do to make your sedan special? The SUV has to be very distinctive and is very important. But where do you want to take the sedan in the future?
Hyundai, right now, is known for value. Ten years from now, when everybody has seen your designs on the road, do you want it be known for design and value?
The value is a given already. I'd like to see people [say], "Hyundai has some sexy cars. Sexier than Alfa Romeo." That is the message I'd like to give to the world.