Hyundai is Forbes Wheels’ Best Automaker for 2021. The company is on a roll with a standout line of crossovers, SUVs and sedans, which many U.S. automakers are abandoning. Sales are solid: Counting Hyundai, luxury spinoff Genesis and sibling Kia, the Hyundai Motors family in the U.S. holds 9% market share in 2020, according to MotorIntelligence data.
The Forbes Wheels automaker of the year award goes to the company making significant advances to create vehicles buyers want and need. The best companies are designing future products with safety, autonomous driving, the environment and the future of transportation in mind as the world moves toward more people living in urban areas.
For a short period the Covid-19 pandemic may slow or reverse the move toward living in megacities—areas with at least 10 million population—but won’t reverse trends that take a decade or more to unfold.
Most all of Hyundai’s current cars or SUVs rate above average with the exception of some entry-level subcompact models. The three-row midsize SUVs , Hyundai Palisade and Kia Telluride, were introduced as 2020 models and sent shock waves through the industry for their class-above quality. For a time they commanded dealer markups reported to be as much as $10,000.
“They have the best mass-market seven-seat SUVs in Telluride and Palisade. They have a luxury brand [Genesis] whose only flaw at this point is a lack of stand-alone stores,” says Forbes Wheels contributor Jerry Hirsch. “Elantra and Sonata are two great family sedans at different price points. They have intuitive technology in their vehicles. They are pushing into zero-emissions, offering a small range of battery electric vehicles across the brands, a fuel cell vehicle and are looking at the bigger picture by developing fuel cell heavy-duty trucks that are actually in commercial operation.”
“It’s hard to even think of another brand that’s on a similar roll to Hyundai, Kia and of course Genesis,” says contributor Lawrence Ulrich, who recently profiled the rise of Genesis (see “The Brand Behind the Best Luxury Cars You’ve Never Heard Of”).
The 10-Year Warranty Launched Hyundai
Hyundai has been in the US since 1986 and suffered through the first decade with a reputation for low prices, mixed reliability and quality control jokes on late-night TV. By 1999, Hyundai felt confident enough in its quality to establish the Hyundai Advantage warranty: a five-year/60,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty, a 10-year-old/100,000-mile powertrain warranty, and five years/unlimited miles free roadside assistance. The 5/60 and 10/100 warranty continues today.
Buyers two decades ago thought Hyundai Advantage was a great deal in case there were reliability issues. Hyundai knew the long warranty was a great deal for itself as well. Because the company had upbeat internal reliability projections, it carried little financial risk to the company. By the early 2000s, Hyundai was at or near the top of several reliability surveys.
Quality and Safety Bragging Rights
In 2020, Hyundai Motor Group (Hyundai, Genesis, Kia) had the most model-level awards (seven) on the J.D. Power Initial Quality Survey (IQS): Genesis G70, Hyundai Tucson, Hyundai Veloster, Kia Forte, Kia Sedona, Kia Sorento and Kia Soul.
On the J.D. Power Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS) measuring reliability of three-year-old vehicles, Genesis ranked first overall among brands and the G70 was the highest-ranked midsize premium car. (The Hyundai and Kia brands were ranked slightly better than average. Kia Niro and Kia Sorento ranked among the top three in their segments.)
On Safety, Hyundai says it has the most models—11—that received the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) Top Safety Pick + rating (seven) or Top Safety Pick (four) of any automaker. The Top Safety Pick requires good ratings in the driver-side small overlap front, passenger-side small overlap front, moderate overlap front, side, roof strength and head restraint tests; advanced or superior rating for available front crash prevention—vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-pedestrian evaluations; and acceptable or good headlamps standard. TSP+ requires acceptable or good headlamps standard.
Similarly, all three Genesis sedans received Top Safety Pick + ratings. Six Kia models received Top Safety Pick ratings.
Better Looking Cars Through Fluidic Sculpture
Circa 2005, Hyundai decided the curves of Arizona’s Lower Antelope Canyon were better looking than its cars. The company embarked on a new design philosophy to set its cars apart from the offerings of Honda, Nissan and Toyota: fluidic design. Between the company’s own forward-looking designers and hires from European automakers, Hyundai evolved a look with flowing lines, particularly in the side views, and a hexagonal grille on some models.
Fluidic sculpture arrived in the U.S. in 2010 on the 2011 Hyundai Tucson and then the 2011 Hyundai Sonata sedan. The boxy look was dead. By mid-decade, fluidic design evolved to fluidic sculpture. Hyundai called it a refinement and privately said that, having made the point, it was time to back off a bit on the highly sculpted look. Entering the third decade of the century, Hyundai has a line of cars distinct from the competition, with rooflines a bit lower in some cases the pre-fluidic Hyundais, but with as much interior space as before.
Better Handling, High Tech Cars
Hyundai’s long-term goal has been to be the peer of Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, not just mainstream brands such as Chevrolet, Honda and Toyota. Thus the introduction of the midsize Genesis sedan in 2008 under the Hyundai brand. It was well built and nicely appointed inside but not a standout performer. Hyundai had matched Lexus but not the BMW 5 Series or Mercedes-Benz E-Class.
To augment the existing design team, says Forbes Wheels’ Ulrich, “Genesis, along with Hyundai and Kia, have become the most shameless poachers of talent in the global industry … European talent, mostly.”
The European talent includes Peter Schreyer of Audi and VW Group as Kia chief design officer head then in 2018 president of design management for Hyundai Motor Group. Later came Luc Donckerwolke, the former design chief of VW Group’s Lamborghini and Bentley brands, who rose to design chief for Hyundai Motor Group before retiring in 2016.
On the performance side, Hyundai Motor Group in 2008 hired Albert Biermann, chief engineer of BMW’s M performance division, as executive VP and head of vehicle test and high performance development. He is now president of Hyundai-Kia vehicle test and high performance development. Biermann is responsible for the excellent handling of the platform underpinning the 2021 Genesis G80 sedan and Genesis GV80 SUV, as well as the twins’ safety and semi-autonomous driving features.
Hyundai N Models And N Line
Americans want cars that ride smoothly. At the same time, they want at least the aura of performance. Look-fast, go-fast versions are part of an automaker’s coming-of-age. Hyundai has obliged with Hyundai N models and now N Line models.
In brief, a Hyundai N Line model is sportier than base Hyundais and a Hyundai N car is a serious performance vehicle. It’s no more confusing than BMW’s increasing levels of badging and performance on the BMW M Sport, M Performance and all-out BMW M variants. Similarly, Audi has S, RS and S Lines, Cadillac has the V Series, Mercedes-Benz has AMG and Rolls-Royce has Black Badge.
For Hyundai, the Veloster was first with an N version in 2019. By the end of 2022, there will be seven N or N Line models including the Elantra N and N Line, Sonata N Line, and Tucson N Line. N models are capable of “sustained track performance,” says spokesman Derek Joynce. Hyundai’s senior manager of product planning Michael Evanoff expects 5%-10% of Elantra buyers will choose N or N Line variants.
As for the N branding, Hyundai says the letter has three meanings: Namyang, Korea, is Hyundai’s global R&D facility and birthplace of the N models. The cars were tested on the Nürburgring race track in Germany; Hyundai uses the Ring as its European testing site. Finally, the letter N resembles a twisty road where the N cars are most at home.
Hydrogen, Electric-Powered Vehicles
Hyundai is pursuing alternative propulsion systems from bridging technologies such as plug-in hybrids to battery electric vehicles (BEVs) to hydrogen fuel cells for cars, local delivery trucks, and long haul trucks. By the end of 2022, there will be 10 electrified vehicles for sale: four conventional hybrids, two plug-in hybrids, three battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) and the fuel cell Nexo.
In August, the company said its EVs will fall under the sub-brand Ioniq, with three new EVs delivered by 2024: Ioniq 5, Ioniq 6 and Ioniq 7. Ioniq 5, due in 2021, will be a midsize crossover. Ioniq, Hyundai says, is the fusion of “ion” and “unique.”
At the end of the year, Hyundai announced its hydrogen fuel cell development system will use another new brand, HTwo, which stands for (this almost doesn’t need explaining) the hydrogen molecule H2. Hyundai has offered the ix35 and in the US the Tucson FCEV, primarily in southern California where most of the US fueling stations are located.
Hyundai currently sells the Nexo Fuel Cell compact crossover for $60,000, less an available $8,000 federal tax credit. It has a range of up to 380 miles.
In Europe, Hyundai is delivering 50 Xcient fuel cell heavy duty trucks (track and integral cargo box with the ability to tow a box trailer) with plans to deliver 1,600 by 2025. They have a range of 400 km or 250 miles.
A year ago, Hyundai debuted the concept HDC-6 Neptune fuel cell tractor, tractor being the front end of a tractor-trailer combination. The cab resembles a 1930s locomotive; inside is a spacious area with seats for driver and partner but also a double bed and a full bathroom, meaning a toilet and shower. Depending on the number of hydrogen tanks, the truck could travel 600-800 miles, or 10-13 hours, before refueling.
Hyundai’s Future: Looking Good
The Hyundai group is well-primed for the future with an appealing line of crossovers and SUVs well-regarded for their fit and finish. They have matched and raised Japan, Germany and the U.S. on quality. They’re delivering performance cars. has a good handle on semi-autonomous driving (Level 2) through Hyundai Drive Assist. Hyundai is profiting from U.S.-flagged automakers giving up on virtually all sedans. Hyundai does yet not sell pickup trucks, a high-profit business for the U.S. automakers, nor does it sell full-size SUVs that are big, comfortable and chip away at the company’s corporate average fuel economy, or CAFE, ratings. It will launch the midsize Santa Cruz pickup in 2021, based on a concept first shown in 2015 that had an expandable pickup bed.
The group has two modern plants in North America, Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama (HMMA) in Montgomery, and Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia (KMMG), with a combined investment of about $3 billion. Each produced about 340,000 vehicles in 2019, some of them for export.
The launch of the Genesis luxury brand is off to a solid start except for a poorly conceive plan to create standalone dealerships; for now Genesis is mostly sold out of the corner of Hyundai showrooms, often with sales reps who don’t handle Genesis exclusively.
On the whole, the Hyundai Motor Group of Hyundai, Genesis and Kia is a benchmark for the auto industry. That makes Hyundai our Automaker of the Year for 2021.