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Inside Hyundai’s Korean R&D Centre

The key to delivering great value at a price point is Hyundai’s research and development capability

Published: February 29, 2012, 10:00 PM
Updated: June 17, 2015, 5:08 PM

Hyundai is on a roll. Its Canadian sales are up more than 80% over the past five years, it’s gaining market share hand-over-fist, and it’s on the verge of passing Honda for fifth place in annual sales.

That success is not limited to the Canadian market. Hyundai is doing well on a global scale as well.

Nor is its success based just on price as it once was. The company has succeeded in shaking the quality issues that once plagued its products, which now rank with the best in the industry.

Its next goal is to move the brand up-market, though not in the conventional sense.

As Frank Ahrens, the director of Hyundai’s global PR team explained during a tour of the company’s homeland facilities, the Korean automaker is not only committed to maintaining the high level of quality, it’s time for Hyundai to develop a more upscale image.

Although it already has premium models in its lineup, including its Genesis and Equis models, Ahrens says the brand wants to bring some of those luxury elements to its less expensive models. Just because a car is priced as an entry-level model, he says, that doesn’t mean it can’t have some of the amenities that are common in more expensive cars.

For a company that’s building its success on delivering great value at any price point, this latest strategy fits well.

The place where such ideas will be put into practice is the company’s research and development centre in Namyang. This sprawling facility, which spills over reclaimed land that would easily accommodate 500 football fields, is the cradle for all Hyundai vehicles.

It’s also the birthplace for models by Hyundai’s sister company, Kia, although once common platforms and powertrains have been engineered, there’s no further "sharing." In fact, the next step in bringing a new product to life – the designand development of the exterior and interior – becomes very private.

Lee Byung Seob, the director of Hyundai’s styling group and design centre was crystal clear when asked if he and his counterpart at Kia, Peter Schreyer, ever exchanged thoughts about product design. "No, I don’t communicate with him," he responded bluntly. It didn’t sound like they’d even exchange Christmas cards.

In addition to developing new technologies, such as Nano windshield glass that will minimize the need for wipers, and solar-cell sunroofs, Lee and his team create new products.

The process starts with visualizing the design through interior and exterior sketches. The next step is digital modelling where the smallest details are added to determine feasibility, and finally the building of full-size clay models and hand-built interiors brings the car to life.

The Namyang centre, however, is more than a design facility, although it includes about 500 designers among the 10,000 persons working there. There are three districts within the centre, with the design team, engineering (which employs 1,500 staff engineers, plus another 1,500 guest engineers) and powertrain development (which has about 2,000 engineers on staff, including 108 with doctorate degrees) all working in District A.

District B is comprised of a wind tunnel facility and hot/cold chambers to test products in extreme temperature conditions.

The third district includes a pilot production centre, where assembly techniques for new models are tested, as well as a crash testing facility, where about 600 vehicles were crunched last year to ensure occupant safety meets the highest standards.

There’s also a proving ground at the Namyang centre with 70 kilometres of roads featuring 71 different surfaces, plus a 4.5 kilometre, four-lane high-speed test track.

The aero-acoustic wind tunnel is designed so it can be used to not only evaluate the aerodynamic forces on a vehicle, but the 100-by-60-metre test chamber is also capable of measuring noise levels within the vehicle. Interestingly, the 8.4-metre fan that can generate winds speeds up to 200 km/h was built in Canada.

To demonstrate the value of wind tunnel testing, Hyundai engineers has been able to reduce the average aerodynamic drag of its lineup by 20% over the last 10 years – a key factor in helping improve fuel economy.

At the time of my visit, a Veloster was undergoing aero tests. Although the car was under a cover to deter us from seeing the changes being evaluated, it was apparent a more aggressive spoiler and redesigned tail-lamps were being considered as steps to reduce drag and improve rear downforce, which seems to be a bit lacking in the initial iteration.

Some new items not under wraps during our visit were discovered while touring the powertrain centre. This department dates back to 1984, when it was established in Mobuck, Korea. The engineers there developed the first proprietary powertrain – Hyundai’s own engine – in 1991 and the program moved to Namyang in 2000.

There, it now develops a range of engines, including gas-powered, diesels for passenger and commercial models and future powertrain projects such as fuel-cell and all-electric systems, as well as the development of transmissions for the Hyundai and Kia lineups.

While Hyundai has recently introduced an eight-speed automatic transmission, I learned that a 10-speed automatic is currently in the works. The six-speed dual-clutch transmission in the new Veloster will also be getting an upgrade, with a seven-speed version under development. And a new Kappa CVT (continuously variable transmssion) will be available for the 2012 Accent.

A highlight from the engine department is a new Tau 5.0-litre V-8 with direct gasoline injection, coupled to an eight-speed automatic. This potent powertrain, with about 435 horsepower on tap, is currently available in some markets and is about to be introduced in North America.

While no-one would speak officially about them, at least four interesting Velosters were spotted at the proving ground. Although wrapped in camouflage covers, the large round exhaust pipes peeking out from under the canvas confirmed whispers that have been circulating – that a turbocharged version of the Veloster is in the works. Speculation suggests that this much-needed performance boost will be announced early next year, likely at the Detroit auto show.

Whether it’s developing new powertrains, designing new models or simply finding cost-efficient ways to integrate high-end features into lower-end cars, Hyundai’s world-class R&D facility seems well-equipped to find the right solution.