Citing personal reasons, Luc Donckerwolke stepped down from his post as chief design officer at Hyundai, Kia, and Genesis effective Wednesday, according to an internal company email obtained by Automotive News. For those unfamiliar with Donckerwolke, he joined the Korean car conglomerate back in 2015, when it assembled a European dream team of sorts, not just poaching Donckerwolke—a VW Group designer who had spent much of his career penning Audis, Bentleys, and Lamborghinis—but also Albert Biermann, the then-VP of engineering at BMW M. The Belgian designer's CV consisted of some pretty exotic machinery like the Lamborghini Murcielago, Gallardo, and Bentley's EXP 10 Speed 6.
It was a bold and presumably expensive move that ultimately, in our eyes at least, paid off. Up until that point, Hyundais and Kias looked mostly fine but not all that distinctive or striking. Fellow Volkswagen alum Peter Schreyer had already been at the company for several years, pushing out agreeable-looking products and styling elements such as Kia's "tiger nose" grille, but when Donckerwolke came on board, Korea's cars reached a new level of avant-garde.
Admittedly, not everything created under Donckerwolke's tenure was a winner (facelifted sixth-gen Elantra, anyone?) and some offerings exuded his involvement more than others but on the whole, Hyundai, Genesis, and Kia's stables now consist of some attention-grabbing designs. Here are five cars which we think best exemplify just how far the three companies have come from its beige, questionably-built Corolla-clone roots.
Built to take on the BMW 3 Series and its seemingly endless list of rivals, the Genesis G70 wasn't just easy on the eyes but also wowed behind the wheel, racking up a bunch of "Car of the Year"-type awards in 2019. It's a handsome-looking sport sedan that can sit confidently beside its stiff competition.
Kia Optima K5
No, the fifth-gen Kia Optima (sold as the K5 in Korea and China) isn't available in the U.S. but given its looks, choosing to exclude it from this list on a technicality would just feel wrong. The added allure of forbidden fruit can be strong but no amount of unconscious bias can change the fact that this front-drive sedan is visually more attractive than both the comparatively overstyled Toyota Camry and awkwardly proportioned Honda Accord.
Both unveiled earlier this year, the upcoming Genesis G80 and GV80's matching designs don't just look stunning but, more importantly, represent one of the most original corporate faces we've seen in a while. Like BMW's kidney grille-halo light combo, Genesis wants its shield grille and dual, parallel lights to be a visual shorthand for the brand in the public consciousness and purely from a design standpoint—we hope it pulls it off.
Hyundai Palisade/Kia Telluride
Full-size family SUVs aren't likely the first thing to come to mind when you think of impeccably-designed cars but there's something about the Palisade/Telluride twins' mass appeal that bucks the trend—emphasis on mass. Pre-COVID-19, Hyundai and Kia apparently could not keep these on its dealer lots for very long. Maybe its the decidedly premium aura that makes 'em look way more expensive than pretty much all of its rivals. Maybe it's just something they're born with. Maybe it's Maybelline.
It's one thing to build a good-looking luxury car or big three-row crossover but another thing entirely to do it with a compact commuter that starts at around $20,000. Despite being the cheapest vehicle on this list, the recently redesigned Hyundai Elantra might just be the car that's most telling of Donckerwolke's background as an ex-Lamborghini designer. And when it comes to sensible four-door sedans a reasonably financed college kid could buy, distant ties to Sant'Agata, visual or otherwise, are never a bad thing.
At this moment, it's unclear where and what Luc Donckerwolke plans to go and do next. Hyundai, however, might want to start calling headhunters if it wants its future to look as good as its present.