The latest arrival, SsangYong's luxury Musso 4X4, is a case in point. Admittedly it is the creation of British designer Ken Greenley, but its wheel-arch "blisters", ornate tail and car-like visage are the kinds of quirky details that appeal to Korean buyers - "the Korean look". In the industrial cauldron that is South Korea - on course to become the world's third-largest vehicle manufacturer by the year 2000, after the US and Japan - individuality, even idiosyncracy, is seen as the mark of a confident manufacturer.
Other intriguing features distinguish the Musso from more mainstream European vehicles. Ken Greenley, whose job at SsangYong dovetails with his post as a Royal College of Art lecturer, has made the back seats higher than the front ones, the rear compartment roomy and comfortable, and kicked up the waistline to give passengers in the back a sense of cocooned security. The reason? Ambitious, upwardly-mobile Koreans don't like driving; they leave the stress and traffic-dodging to chauffeurs. Taking a back seat, it seems, commands the respect of impressionable Seoul-mates.
Unlike most Korean cars, the Musso is no blue-collar runabout. Making a strong pitch for the territory held by Landrover (particularly the Discovery), it apes neither the imperialistic look of the Range Rover nor the gung- ho lines of the Mitsubishi Shogun. Such originality may come as a surprise to those who associate Korea with cheap imitations. Korea's motor industry was founded on the coat-tails of Japan's - and early Korean cars were indeed second-rate hand-me-downs. But SsangYong's Musso is neither Japanese cast-off nor crib; it owes nothing to its oriental neighbours other than quality control. Instead, SsangYong has drawn on its experience making workhorse Korandos for the Asian market, and the Kallista sports car that it bought from Essex-based Panther in 1986.
This British connection - one of many that has helped shape the Korean motor industry - led to the appointment of Ken Greenley (who styled the stillborn Panther Solo, as well as the Aston Martin Virage and Bentley Azura) as SsangYong's design director. Adding to the Musso's credibility in Europe is the Mercedes-Benz engine under its bonnet. It is not particularly advanced, certainly not potent, but it is a Mercedes, and everything that stands for. In taking a small but enlargeable stake in SsangYong (literally, twin dragons), Mercedes-Benz not only endorses the Musso but gets a toehold in one of the world's fastest-growing markets - the Pacific rim.
SsangYong is the fifth Korean car maker to woo British motorists. The first was Hyundai, whose unassuming, Mitsubishi-based cars arrived over a decade ago on a value-for-money ticket that has characterised Korean products since. As the giant grew (into one of Korea's three biggest companies), so Hyundai shed its dependence on Japan. Today, the biggest Hyundai plant - turnover pounds 45bn, employees 170,000 - is capable of making more cars than Italy produced in 1993. Hyundai ploughs pounds 250m a year into research and development, and will introduce a new model every year for the next five years - with no Japanese involvement.
Korea's number two car maker, Kia, is a relatively small player here in Britain, with 711 first-quarter registrations (against Hyundai's 3,500), according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. That could change, though, if the company establishes a European base: the cheap labour on which the Korean motor industry was founded is no longer available in the land of the rising Won.
Kia makes no attempt to disguise the Mazda 121 origins of its Fiesta- sized Pride, though the Mentor, designed and developed with specialist British help, camouflages its Mazda-based underpinnings. New models, including the imminent Sportage off-roader, will increase Kia's presence as well as marginalise its Japanese ancestry. Ditto Asia Motors' Rocsta, a small, short-haul Jeep lookalike that is too uncomfortable to be taken as serious transport.
Daiwoo, Korea's third-largest car maker - and the world's 33rd biggest company - has wide-ranging interests that include building the monster ships that ferry its cars, 6,000 at a time, to Europe. Production is set to rocket from 700,000 vehicles a year to two million by the turn of the century. The biggest company you've never heard of was originally in bed with Toyota. The legacy of its subsequent 20-year affair with General Motors, ending in 1992, can be seen in its dated but attractive mainstream models, based on old Vauxhall running gear.
Like Hyundai and SsangYong, Daiwoo is also bent on doing its own thing, establishing its own identity through design and developing facilities that include a Worthing-based technical centre. There is nothing innovative about the cars themselves, but the way they are marketed is radical. Middlemen dealers are out. Instead, Daiwoo (meaning "the whole universe", a reflection of its diverse interests) sells direct to the public through a three-tier network of "car centres", the biggest called "motor shows", staffed by salaried sales advisers.
Daiwoo's fixed prices (not that cheap) for the Escort-sized Nexia and Mondeo-rivalling Espero are non-negotiable, but they include AA membership, lavish equipment for which you'd normally pay a lot extra, a long warranty, and servicing for three years; you even get a courtesy car during routine maintenance. If the Daiwoo experiment works, it could rev- olutionise the way all cars are bought and sold.
SsangYong's first luxury car is sold by West Bromwich-based International Motors. The five-door Musso - tailgated at the back, not swing-doored - is available with a 2.9-litre five-cylinder diesel that makes up in smoothness what it lacks in zap: 94hp is not enough for a 35cwt heavyweight. Acceleration is sluggish, top speed only 91mph (too slow for Germans charging along de-restricted autobahnen). Petrol-powered Mercedes engines are on the way, and promise much better performance.
Ken Greenley concedes that the Musso, priced at pounds 16,000-pounds 22,500, might have looked more conservative, more Savile Row, had it been designed exclusively for the international market. Even in Oriental attire, though, it is expected to lure as many buyers from luxury estates as from bull-barred 4x4s. IM expects to sell 1,000 here this year - and twice as many the next year - mainly through Isuzu and Subaru dealers. New models, including a smaller 4x4 and a Mercedes-based luxury saloon, are on the way. Upholding a long Anglo-Korean tradition, Ken Greenley will be shaping them. !Reuse content