The Namyang R&D campus outside Seoul felt a lot like the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank. Employees of Hyundai Motor Group’s three divisions—Hyundai, Kia, and Genesis—bustled about on this lovely Friday morning in September. Over at yonder intersection, a forklift truck hoisted a disguised prototype above the pavement before proceeding to a testing cell.
On another street, some reporters on our bus caught sight of the next Hyundai Veloster, a contract player in B productions, scuttling by in camo-wrap. Alas, the security staff had put strips of “Do Not Detach” tape over our lenses, so there’s no smartphone shot.
At the new design center, top executives were introducing the 2019 Genesis G70, the sporty new sedan from HMG’s two-year-old luxury division. The G70 comes with notions of disrupting the segment dominated by Germany, but no one knew quite what to expect. We took seats inside the center’s presentation hall and looked at two figures under wraps. Genesis head Manfred Fitzgerald welcomed us and turned the show over to Luc Donckerwolke, senior vice president and head of Genesis design.
Clad in black, Donckerwolke looked ready to break into a rendition of “Folsom Prison Blues.” He was serious to the point of graveness when introducing SangYup Lee, vice president of styling and a key member of the international cohort of Genesis designers. Lee made a big mark in Detroit with his C-6 Chevrolet Corvette and 2010 Camaro before going to England and contributing to the new Bentley Continental GT.
Luc and cool hand Lee undraped the G70s and took more than 200 reporters through the high points, laying out the goals of making their 3-Series battler “emotional, athletic, and sexy.”
The G70 evinces vivid execution of conventional themes. The grille and flaring nostrils outside it are a surprise after the sober G90 and somber G80, the papa and uncle models of Genesis. Surprising as well are the fender chevron and the swoopy roofline, an arching cat’s back. The G70 pronounces its own prowess, and these examples on stage look alive in blue and red.
It’s a fine result from Luc’s dream team, especially considering his stumbling block.
“I never wanted to be a boss,” he tells me after the presentation, speaking with elegant traces of his native Flemish tongue.
Not only is he in charge of creating the Genesis brand’s DNA, but also he seeks the right chemistry among his cast of characters.
“We see our designers more than our family. So it has to become a family. And we are making sure that we really enjoy working together.” He names designers who are present or have remained in the studios.
“When we work, there’s no such thing as a hierarchy. I’m not the boss. We are all at eye level, we are enjoying, we are contributing.”
He summons Bozhena Lalova, the Mercedes-Benz veteran who is head of color and trim. Lalova’s past statements have outlined an ethos of purity and perfection. Her theme during this morning’s presentation was how the G70 isn’t just sporty outside, which explains the aluminum trim. She is still wearing the caped blue dress that lent a special salience to her presence. Taking my cue from this, I ask if there was ever the idea using of exotic materials, going a little crazy.
“This car is cool,” she says, with overwhelming graciousness. “It’s young, it’s cool. That’s why we focus on the aluminum. Of course ‘crazy’ materials are something we are considering and developing. And this is going to be the future for the next G80.”
Placed on a tight schedule, we guests are being called away for lunch. I thank Lalova, but before I take two steps, Luc smears caviar over the toast. He introduces Sasha, a bearded dude, mid-30s, wearing a Metallica T-shirt. Alexander “Sasha” Selipanov presents his card: Chief Designer, Genesis Advanced Design.
“Sasha designed the Bugatti Chiron,” Luc says. Whenever my Jimmy Olsen hat is on, I try to keep my wits about me, but right now I can only say, “Oh!”
Selipanov is, like SangYup Lee, yet another product of Art Center College of Design (2005). Although he was born in Tblisi, Georgia, he sounds American.
The patently irresistible opportunity to create a new brand drew Selipanov to the Genesis advanced studio in Russelsheim, Germany, last December. But was there something else? What about that guy with the director’s bullhorn?
“Luc has a unique blend of car passion, creativity, and ability to think outside the box,” Selipanov wrote later in an email. “He is very knowledgeable; however, he is always ready to look at things from an unconventional and unbiased perspective. It is not just the professional side of Luc that is inspiring, it´s also the human, social and even humorous sides as well.”
After lunch on that Friday, hopes of touring the styling studios and seeing the digital design process were dashed. We listened to Lalova’s presentation and were then dragged away to Anechoic Chamber Building 2 for a tutorial on how to create warning chimes. (Industry secret: two guys and a keyboard.) And in another test cell, two more guys described subjecting a prototype to electromagnetic interference. Then we got back on the bus and left Namyang, but not before security checked those “Do Not Detach” strips.
The next day, Luc flew to California. He flies often, visiting the studios in Irvine and Russelsheim. Rare opportunities aside, his achievement in luring young designers to Genesis—and to and Korea—is not to be underestimated. Seoul is neither beautiful nor ugly, cars are everywhere yet there’s no evidence of car culture, and Koreans are not known for achieving a favorable life-work balance. Asking one of our hosts where people go for a winter vacation got a quizzical look in response.
We drove the G70 in the morning, joining the horde of weekend travelers leaving Seoul. Our destination was Inje Speedium, a track in the northeastern part of South Korea. The G70 is quiet and refined on the highway and looks pretty in the sun. On the track, it acquits itself well for a luxe-sport sedan. It introduces doubt about the Lexus IS, Cadillac ATS, and Acura TLX. It would be an easy car to recommend, especially as there was no stinting on the engineering development.
The G70’s big weakness is that it’s yet another well-realized consumer product from Korea, but there’s no distinctly indigenous aspect. The hotrod GV80 crossover revealed last spring in New York shows promise, but if it knows a word of Korean, that word is gwarosa, the overworked employee’s complaint.
Luc had said, “This international team we’re gathering is also there to make sure that we create products which are based on the Korean culture in terms of feeling. We have in Korea what we call Beauty of Emptiness. [It] is not to overload, not to stress the driver or the user with a lot of contradicting elements. So it’s about making an element and making a statement and letting it be. This is why the interior is not overpowering you.”
We await more Beauty of Emptiness.
Meanwhile, Luc, who is also head of design for Kia, had a different preoccupation. After his visit to California, he flew to India in order to research the market. And he was appalled. Cars there have terrible proportions, being narrow for mazelike streets but tall for turbans.
Upon returning to Namyang R&D, he could rummage through the props room, find a magician’s hat to figure out a solution, and use his director’s bullhorn to announce it.