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Hither and Yon

Checking out the cars on display and ranking the shapely models that aren’t actual accessories

Special to WorldTribune.com
By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
Beautiful women don’t have a lot to do with the graceful curves of a new motor vehicle, but you might not know that from visiting the Seoul Motor Show. By tradition, most manufacturers have assumed they can show off their cars far more effectively by draping them with skimpily dressed female models than by letting them stand alone on their merits.
The role of models at the Seoul Motor Show, though, may be outdated. Motor shows in New York, Detroit and elsewhere have abandoned them. Apparently car people realized the models were irrelevant when it came to judging the durability and power of an engine.
Then too feminists, who also buy and drive cars, didn’t like to see manufacturers exploiting gullible buyers by suggesting, if you buy this car, you might catch the pretty woman as well. Or maybe, as you drove around in your shiny new model, you’d have women flattering your ego, confident you were successful and, above all, rich. The car, by this logic, was the ultimate sex symbol.
Korea may be behind other countries in dispensing with the models at such events, but they’re distinctly less visible at this week’s show than in previous years. Most of the cars on display do not come equipped with a female model smiling slyly at a gaggle of photographers.
Some manufacturers have no models at all, just sales and marketing people explaining the virtues of their wares. Lloyd Shin, a marketing manager at BMW Korea, said bluntly, “We don’t need them, we’re just focusing on cars.” Without the models, the BMW exhibit seemed as crowded as some of those of its rivals though fewer people were snapping souvenir shots.
Actually, I found it difficult to tell how much the models mattered at any of the displays. The French manufacturers, Citroen and Peugeot, had some of the prettiest, but they rank far down among foreign imports. Porsche had gorgeous women lovingly caressing cars selling for up to $300, 000, but at those prices doesn’t sell more than 2,000 to 3,000 cars a year in Korea regardless of the quality of the women.
Like the cars, of course, the models come in different ranges. A marketing manager explained to me the gradations.
The top-of-the-line are called “racing models” — they’re the ones who cling lovingly to the sides of the most acclaimed cars, often featured on platforms, giving them that edge that tells the unwary, “Buy this car, and I’m yours.” The inference is, “I’ll give you the same loving attention that I’m lavishing on the car.”
Then, right below the “racing models” are the “pose models” — that’s a fine distinction. They all looked pretty good to me, but the pose models go with somewhat lower-end vehicles. Maybe mid-range. They smile and chat politely and will gladly shake your hand for the cameras if you ask someone to photograph you with her.
Finally there are just plain models — that is, the girls at the information counters who aren’t actually modeling. In contrast to the pose and racing models, they tend to dress in conservative uniforms — dark dresses and skirts.
Future versions of the Seoul Motor Show may not have models at all. Hyundai, occupying one entire side of an exhibition hall, seemed to prove you really don’t need them. The only model I saw at the Hyundai display was clinging to the side of a sports car — a vehicle that few if any at the show would seriously consider buying.
Some of the models seemed strangely neglected. At the Renault Samsung exhibit, a model leaning against Renault Samsung’s biggest offering, the six-cylinder SM7 seemed almost lonely. Few people were bothering to check out the SM7 though its engine and transmission, made by Nissan in Japan, are highly regarded.
With so many cars on display, and so many sales people pitching their assets, it’s tough deciding which car is better. Who can tell the difference between a Hyundai or Kia or one of the foreign imports, whatever the model — the car that is? German manufacturers, leading all foreign imports, rely on their reputation for fine engineering and reliable workmanship, appealing to a niche market of well-to-do Koreans who think a great foreign car like a Mercedes-Benz or BMW carries a certain unique status.
You have to feel sorry, though, for GM Korea, selling cars with Chevrolet name plates that are made in Korea. Are you getting an exciting foreign car or just another Korean brand? GM had a few models decorating a wide selection of Korean-made vehicles plus imports from the U.S., but senior communications executive Park Hae-Ho acknowledged making a profit in the Korean market was “challenging.”
In the end, perhaps you need to be looking over all the models with a careful eye, basing your choice on the charms and looks of the girls beside them. Maybe that’s as good a way of deciding as any.
Columnist Donald Kirk got interested in Korean cars while researching books on Hyundai and the Korean economy. He’s at kirkdon@yahoo.com.
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