Brands like Hyundai and Kia have become household names. So why not appreciate some KDM cars like we do with JDM cars?
Similar to the K-Pop groups from the same country, South Korean based auto manufacturers have come into vogue as of late and have gained a substantial audience. Models like the Telluride, Soul, G70, Carnival, and Kona all are gaining traction here in America, as well as the rest of the world. They’re making great cars that are packed with features and sold for an agreeable price. It’s looking like we’re in the middle of a KDM car boom. What’s KDM you ask? Well, let’s dig into it.
If you’ve read our piece on JDM cars, you’re probably experiencing some slight déjà vu. KDM stands for the Korean Domestic Market, which means we’ll be looking at the local brands like Hyundai, Kia, Daewoo, and a couple other odd ones you may not have heard of. Some of their cars we have here in the US, but there’s plenty of automotive history that we’ve missed out on.
The Korean car market didn’t really start until after the Korean War. During and after this war, many South Koreans had their first interaction with a car known as the Willys Jeep. Three brothers named Choi Mu-seong, Choi Hae-seong, and Choi Soon-seong decided to craft their own vehicle based off of what they had seen with the Jeep.
The brothers put together their vehicle with imported parts, parts that were scavenged from decommissioned Military Jeeps, or parts they had fabricated from scrap. The largest example of their in-house fabrication was the body. The entire body of the vehicle was made from tooled oil drums that were then welded together to closely resemble a Jeep. From their hard work came the first Korean produced car back in 1955.
We’ll talk more about that car in a bit, but these three brothers essentially mark the starting point of Korean Domestic Market we know today. Following the first KDM car’s development, the South Korean government enacted the Automobile Industry Promotion Policy of 1962. This encouraged local automotive production to thrive and only allowed foreign automakers to operate within the country when in a joint venture with a South Korean manufacturer. From here we see the likes of Kia, Hyundai, and other KDM automotive brands.
It’s time to introduce you to some important, odd, and well-known KDM cars. A lot of these cars started in some shape or form in other markets and ended up there through a joint venture to be rebadged, reworked, and resold to different buyers. That’s not to say that KDM cars don’t have any independent development, but their early cars definitely had some outside help.
Sibal translates to “start” in Korean (just be careful on the pronunciation), so it’s fitting that it was the name of the first KDM car. The Sibal was the Jeep-like car manufactured by the three brothers that was mentioned earlier. It had a 1.3-liter 1322cc 4-cylinder engine attached to a 3-speed manual transmission. There’s not much known about power or torque numbers from the Sibal, but it could reach a top speed of about 50 mph. The model received a presidential award for its development, but was mostly used locally for Taxi use.
South Koreans love their compact vans and trucks, so they made some. The Hyundai H-100 is a series of compact vehicles, originally based off the Mitsubishi Delica from Japan. There’s the compact ute version known as the Hyundai Porter, and then there’s the compact passenger van known as the Hyundai Grace. Both versions slowly separated from their JDM counterpart and are still being sold today.
We don’t often hear about Daewoo here in America, but the rest of the world knows the brand well. One of their entries into the automotive ring was the Daewoo Matiz. This compact hatchback derived itself from its predecessor, the Daewoo Tico, which was based off the Suzuki Alto. The original Matiz from 1998 carried a 0.8-liter 3-cylinder engine that produced 51 horsepower and 51 lb-ft of torque. Pretty abysmal numbers, but it’s grown since then and you may have ridden in one without knowing. That’s because here in the US it’s known as the Chevrolet Spark.
While the Sibal was South Korea’s first car, the Hyundai Pony was South Korea’s first mass-produced and exported car. The Pony was built similar to the way Volkswagen had built their Rabbit. It was economical in design, had an efficient 4-cylinder engine under the hood, and it was even designed by the same person – Giorgetto Giugiaro. The Pony came in more body styles that the Rabbit though, having a coupe, hatchback, sedan, or wagon available. The model has been long gone, but Hyundai recently teased a return of the boxy car in EV form.
Similar to the Toyota Century and Lincoln Town Car, Daewoo had a line of luxurious executive cars dubbed the Daewoo Royale. The range topping model was the Daewoo Imperial, a luxury sedan that was derived from the Opel Senator and included some established American and Japanese luxury model features. It featured a sleek black paintjob, vinyl roof, chrome accenting, automatic climate control AC, leather upholstery, digital instruments, and all the push button powered car features you could want in the early ‘90s.
No that is not a typo, SsangYong is another South Korea brand that you probably have never heard of. However, they make a pretty nice SUV/truck known as the Musso. The SsangYong Musso was started in 1993 as a collaboration with Mercedes-Benz. It comes in the form of a mid-size SUV or a double cab pickup truck known as the Musso Sport. They’re no Toyota Tacoma or Land Cruiser, but they’re pretty competent off-roaders thanks to Mercedes-Benz‘s help and a four-wheel drivetrain that helped win the Rallye des Pharaons in 1994.
Remember the Kaiser Jeep? It was a military truck used primarily in the ‘60s and ‘70s and was sold to civilians for a short time as the Jeep Gladiator. Well, it’s still technically being produced, but under Kia. The Kia KM450 is essentially the M715-type that the US military used, just with a little more modernization. Hopefully their production and development of this capable off-roader will lend itself to a civilian Kia truck. I mean Hyundai has the Santa Cruz coming, so why not something beefier from Kia?
South Korea loves Jeeps, and the SsangYong Korando was originally just that. It was more specifically a Jeep CJ-7, but the company took some creative liberties in 1996 with the next generation of the model. The second gen Korando looks like someone messed with a Jeep Wrangler using the warp tool in Photoshop. Under the sheet metal is some Mercedes-Benz engines (which includes diesel options) and components taken from their Musso line.
Ever heard of a Lotus Elan? It was a fun little coupe/convertible sports car that originally had a fiberglass body and was developed by a British auto manufacturer that loves to craft race cars. Well, Kia took it over when they gave up on the less exciting M100 model. The Kia Elan looks almost identical to the Lotus version, aside from some different lighting, Kia badging, and a 1.8-liter naturally aspirated 4-cylinder engine under the hood. Needless to say, Kia Elan models are rare for a reason.
The Oullim Spirra is one of the very few exotic sports cars to come out of South Korea. The KDM car was produced from 2008 to 2017 and ceased production due to the company going defunct. It had the right lines, the cool interior, a mid-placement twin-turbocharged V6 engine, and was capable of 0-60 mph in under 4 seconds. This car was able to beat the BMW M3 GTR, Porsche GT3 RSR, and Nismo 350Z when tuned for the track, but it just couldn’t find its audience to be successful.
South Korea wants KDM cars to be a thing. The government had been limiting any sort of modifications or changes to cars within the country, but they’ve had a change of heart. Now, similar to Japan, South Korea is having aftermarket tuners and parts shops pop up around the country that specialize in KDM cars. The Hyundai Veloster N and Kia Stinger GT2 were already shaping up to be some interesting options in the performance car market, but now there’s potential to make them even better. We’re witnessing the birth of another car tuning culture specifically for KDM cars, and it’ll be something to keep an eye on.