Currently reading: Hyundai designer SangYup Lee picks his hits after 25 years
Autocar Awards 2022: Design Hero winner on how he's made Hyundai the envy of the mainstream

It’s no wonder that SangYup Lee, design boss at Hyundai and winner of this year’s Autocar Design Hero award, can’t decide which is his favourite car that he designed.

“It’s always a difficult question when you’ve been involved with the Bentley Continental GT, Chevrolet Camaro, Chevrolet Corvette and Bentley Flying Spur,” smiles Lee.

“I would say it’s whichever car I’m working on: when you’re proud of a car you’ve designed, it’s difficult to keep challenging the status quo. How do you move on [to the next car]? Sometimes you have to forget what you’ve done before and challenge yourself at a new level.”

Lee has worked on 15 brands in eight countries over 25 years. Now as chief designer for Hyundai and Genesis, he’s overseeing the creation of 50 production cars at any one time across 11 design centres globally, with a team of 700 people.

He describes digital processes as among Hyundai’s strengths: “We review [designs] on virtual reality and augmented reality. This is why we were able to deliver so many cars during the pandemic. We have a huge VR room, the size of two basketball courts, and walk around it looking at a car. The guys in the US join us from their kitchens and we all do the review together. It’s a new process of car design.”

Lee joined Hyundai in 2016 from Bentley, having previously worked at the broader Volkswagen Group and General Motors. Since then, Hyundai design has become increasingly admired, most markedly for the Ioniq 5 but also for the Prophecy and Seven concepts, previewing the upcoming Ioniq 6 and Ioniq 7.

Asked where he finds inspiration, Lee says: “Everywhere. Sometimes I go to a huge car park, like at a Costco in the US. I park my car, put a chair in the corner and look at all the cars, and I ask myself: how I do make my car special? I look at how customers interact with the car: how they open the door, how they put stuff in the boot. I think: should I make the line a bit lower for putting things in the boot, and should I design the seats differently to make it easier to put kids in the rear?

“Inspiration comes from looking at car parks to looking at architecture. I spoke to [British architect] Thomas Heatherwick recently; I love his London double-decker bus. The shape is very soft, very functional and really unique. “Sometimes we forget that we’re delivering creative value to customers. If there are no customers, the car in the street doesn’t exist. Car companies can be egoistic about their brand, but the answers come from customers and what they want.”

On his favourite non-Hyundai cars, Lee says: “I love the Porsche 911 series, but the air-cooled 911 is my all-time favourite. When it comes to beauty, the Italian cars are the basis for many car designers. The Alfa Romeo 33 Stradale is ultimate beauty. Then the Ferrari Daytona, Lamborghinis… There are so many.”

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Future car design will be dictated by digitisation, according to Lee.

“The car is now becoming a digital device, so it will become more of a living space,” he explains. “It’s a great opportunity for a designer. Obviously, the flat floor [of an EV] gives us more space inside. Cars will be boxes, because that’s the best way to utilise that space. The interior becomes the most important part of the car, but the box still has to be beautiful.”

Read more on all the Autocar Awards winners here

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