Interesting article in the December, 2011 issue of Motor Trend, by Ron Kiino. Can't really argue with anything he writes, unfortunately.
Growing up in Southern California in the 1980s, I used to ride along with my parents, staring out the car window and trying to spot the coolest automobiles the world had to offer. All the best wheels came to SoCal, from Ferrari 328s and Porsche Turbos to Lotus Esprits and BMW M1s. The cars that really grabbed me, though, were the ones I believed I could purchase by the time I had a license: the Toyota Corolla GTS, Volkswagen GTI, and Honda CRX and Prelude.
I wanted Hondas the most, because, as I read in such magazines as Motor Trend, they offered the best blend of technology, reliability, and affordability. The CRX Si won MT's 1988 Import Car of the Year with its mix of 16-valve aluminum engine, four-wheel independent suspension, and $10,195 price tag. "The most exhilarating ride you'll find this side of a formula racer," MT wrote. The '88 ICOY runner-up, the Prelude Si 4WS, the first production car to offer four-wheel steering, was another Honda I coveted. Honda was a pioneer, and every car enthusiast knew it.
Every car enthusiast also knew that Hyundai, which released its first U.S.-market car, the Excel, for 1988, was the opposite of a pioneer -- a follower. The perception of many was that Hyundai was a Honda copycat: "Hyundai" looked and sounded somewhat similar to "Honda," and it, too, used an H badge. Hondas were high-quality and fun to drive, and Hyundais were, um, not.
In the 1990s and into the 2000s, Honda remained a forerunner. It introduced titanium connecting rods and VTEC variable valve timing in the Acura NSX. The Integra Type-R, the poor man's NSX, offered a handbuilt I-4 with 108 hp per liter, unheard of for the day. And the Legend was the first near-luxury car to alert Europe that Japan was serious about upscale autos. As H-badged Hondas, Civics, Accords, and Preludes got VTEC, the Insight introduced Americans to the hybrid, and the S2000 afforded speed junkies the feeling of a MotoGP bike in a car.
Since then, Hyundai, somewhat under the radar, has steadily improved the quality of its growing lineup, building cars that are as reliable and often rewarding as they are affordable. Over the last few years, specifically, while Honda has lifted off the trailblazing throttle, Hyundai has put its pioneering foot to the floor. For instance, Honda currently tops out at a six-speed automatic. Hyundai? Eight. Honda offers not one car with a direct-injected engine. Hyundai? Seven (and counting). The most luxurious Honda, the Acura RL, pales next to the amenities and power of Hyundai's Genesis and Equus. Hyundai satisfies rear-drive sports-car fiends with the Genesis Coupe. Honda? Not so much. Honda's tiny CR-Z Hybrid (34 mpg combined) barely surpasses the fuel economy of the comparably sized Veloster (32), which is devoid of any hybrid wizardry. What the Veloster isn't devoid of, however, is a dual-clutch transmission, that sporty tech piece adopted by Audi, BMW, Ferrari, and Porsche. And now Hyundai. But not Honda.
Hyundai still has a ways to go, especially in terms of chassis dynamics, but the perception and reality of the brand have changed. When looking to the future, I wouldn't be surprised to see an H badge leading the way -- just not the one I adored as a kid.