A Glimpse At Car Culture In South Korea

Illustration for article titled A Glimpse At Car Culture In South Korea

I recently had the opportunity to assess the car culture in South Korea, which is a nation that reminds us to always be thankful that we have Canada to our north, even if they did give us Celine Dion and Nickelback.


I love going to foreign countries and checking out the cars. In fact, I love it so much that I recently spent an entire morning sitting on the couch in my underwear and looking at all the cars on Google Street View in Botswana. I found this to be a highly productive endeavor, although my girlfriend disagreed.

So you can imagine my excitement when, just two weeks ago, I landed at Incheon International Airport near Seoul, South Korea, after a flight that was approximately the same length as the one that delivered Neil Armstrong to the moon. I was so pumped! I was going to see the cool cars! The unique, weird, exciting Asian cars! All the amazing vehicles of Korea! But first, I had to pee.

The first sign of trouble should’ve been obvious from the moment I stepped outside, when I discovered that I had two choices of taxi cab: Kia Optima or Hyundai Sonata. There were Optimas and Sonatas for miles, and not a single other taxi to choose from. So I selected an Optima, and the driver asked me if I played basketball, and then we started heading towards my hotel.

The second sign of trouble came on the drive to the hotel, when I discovered that every single car in Korea is Korean. Here I was, excited to see all these interesting and unusual Asian automobiles that we don’t have in the United States, and instead we were getting passed by a bunch of Sonatas, Fortes, and Santa Fes.

The most exciting car I saw, on that drive home from the airport, was a Ford Taurus. When you’re getting excited by a Ford Taurus, you know there’s a serious problem.

This ride made me quickly realize that Korea’s car culture is not exactly as exciting as I was expecting it would be. In fact, if I were to rank it, I would place “Korean Car Culture” somewhere near the bottom of the “interesting car culture” ratings, right there below Certified Public Accountant Conference Car Culture, but above Florida Retirement Village Car Culture.


Because I had traveled to Seoul for an event with Kia, I asked Kia’s Korean public relations staff about the level of Korean cars there, and their response was very interesting. They looked at me for a moment, they really thought things over, and then they said: Do you play basketball?

No, I’m kidding. What they said was that approximately 85 percent of cars in Korea are Korean, and approximately 83 percent of those cars are manufactured by Kia and Hyundai.


When you really stop and think about it, this number is amazing. Korean automakers have double the market share in Korea that American automakers have in America. To draw a comparison with the American market, this would be like not just having every single Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler vehicle be American, but also every single Toyota, Lexus, Acura, Honda, Scion, Fiat, Nissan, Infiniti, Hyundai, Subaru, and Kia. POOF! Every single one of those car companies just became American. Oh, and virtually all of them have just merged into two brands.

So there isn’t much variety among the cars in Korea. But surprisingly, that isn’t the biggest problem with Korean car culture. The biggest problem is actually the color of the cars: every single vehicle in Korea is gray, silver, black, or white. And I mean Every. Single. Vehicle.


I tweeted this observation when I was there, and a few people responded cynically that this is also the situation in the United States. But while you might be tempted to say that, I need to explain that it’s on a completely different level in Korea.

It isn’t just that most cars are black, silver, gray, and white. It’s that every car is one of these colors. What I mean by this is, you can walk around for fifteen minutes on a busy street in Seoul, looking at literally hundreds of cars, and not see a single one that isn’t black, silver, gray, or white. And then, while you’re musing at the lack of color on the roads, a Korean person will walk up to you and say: Do you play basketball?


The color situation is so bad that the Wall Street Journal even ran a piece about it a few years ago, entitled “Bright Colors Struggle to Bloom in South Korea’s Silver-Car Nation.” In this article, the newspaper reported that no country in the world has a proportion of silver, white, or black cars as high as Korea. The article also talks about Hyundai’s “variations of silver.”

Now, I admit that I did see the occasional interesting car in Korea, and I’ve added pictures of them to my Facebook page. And I have no doubt there are probably some unique, interesting aspects to Korean car culture that I wasn’t able to experience merely walking around Seoul for a few days. Maybe there’s a tuner scene. Maybe there are off-roader clubs.


Maybe some guy bought his Sonata in dark blue, instead of black.

But in general, things were bleak. And so I left Seoul a few days after I arrived, highly disappointed by the automotive variety.


If you’re looking for interesting vehicles, Korea isn’t the place to find them. But if you ever want to seriously blend in, just go to Korea and rent a silver Hyundai Accent. You’ll fly completely under the radar. Until you get out, at which point everyone will ask if you play basketball.

@DougDeMuro is the author of Plays With Cars, which his mother says is “fairly decent.” He worked as a manager for Porsche Cars North America before quitting to become a writer.


Photo credit Teddy Cross/Flickr


Sorely Vexed

“...even if they did give us Celine Dion and Nickelback.”

And Bieber. Never forget they gave us Bieber.

Still feeling thankful?