DETROIT — Albert Biermann had barely unpacked his bags in Seoul last April when his new boss, Hyundai Motor Chairman Chung Mong-koo, handed him an urgent assignment: to work some of his old BMW magic on the nearly completed Genesis G90.
Biermann, who led the development of such spirited sports cars as the M3 and M5 as head of BMW’s M performance division, had just been hired by Hyundai to infuse its vehicles with some of the same driving characteristics as Germany’s finest luxury cars.
But the G90 executive sedan — which would serve as the flagship of South Korea’s first homegrown luxury brand — came with an additional mandate: a rear-seat ride that needed to please buyers in China and South Korea, where many well-heeled customers buy luxury cars to be driven by their chauffeurs.
“I almost spent as much time in the back of the G90 as driving the G90,” Biermann, 58, joked during an interview at the Detroit auto show.
When the finished car emerged in South Korea (where it’s called the EQ900) in December, then took the stand at the Detroit auto show the following month, it put the auto industry on notice. Hyundai, an upstart car company that began building its own engines only in 1991, had laid out a full-fledged product plan for its new luxury brand, with help from a cadre of executives poached from Bentley, BMW and Lamborghini.
Biermann, who spent 32 years at BMW, may be the most important of those hires. Chung is betting Biermann has the chops to teach a Korean team rich in technical talent how to match the German automakers’ famous balance of luxurious isolation and precise performance.
It won’t be easy to go up against a century’s worth of automaking heritage, but Biermann said he sees his team making rapid strides. Steering response in the G90, for example, is much improved over that of the Equus it replaces.
Leading the engineers at Hyundai’s test track in Namyang, Biermann thought of his own days as a rookie at BMW, learning the delicate art of tuning a suspension.
“To be honest,” he said, “physics just don’t change.”
For the G90, Biermann said, Hyundai didn’t use “the fancy stuff” — no air suspension, rear-wheel steering or anti-roll stabilization, which would add too much cost to cars that must be priced, for now, below the German competition.
Indeed, Biermann’s mission is to replicate not the BMWs of today but the BMWs that he tuned as a young man: those rock-solid, long-lasting machines that gave German cars their reputation for engineering.
“The chairman always is emphasizing that job No. 1 is quality, and not just for the first owner or leasing buyer, and not just for two or three years,” Biermann said. “After 10 years, he wants quality levels to be the same as for a new car.”
‘N’ is for …
Though the G90 was Biermann’s first big test, it was not the reason he was hired.
Hyundai initially lured him to Seoul with the opportunity to run Hyundai’s sports car subbrand, called N. Formed in 2012, the N division’s High Performance Vehicle Development Center now employs 130 people around the world, not including the powertrain engineers who work on its engines, Biermann said.
More than a follower to BMW’s M, the “N” is said to stand for Namyang, the Korean proving ground where Biermann is based. However, it could also be an allusion to Nurburgring, the grueling German road circuit where Biermann oversees engineers from Hyundai’s 3-year-old European test center.
At the Frankfurt auto show last fall, Biermann showed two concept cars: the N 2025 Vision Gran Turismo, a Le Mans-style racing prototype, and the RM15, an aluminum-and-carbon-fiber Veloster with racing stripes, a showy wing and a midmounted, turbocharged four-cylinder engine cranking out 296 hp.
As for production models, plans remain secret, but Biermann said his team is working on three N-badged cars. The first, slated to hit the road by the end of 2017, is meant primarily for Europe. The second is geared toward the U.S. The third was envisioned as a global product.
All three are variants of mass-production cars, but Biermann said he can imagine that N will someday have a car of its own, with a unique design and nameplate.
N also will tune the performance cars for Genesis. One likely candidate is the first model being built from scratch as a Genesis, a BMW 3 series rival known as the G70. That car, Biermann said, is the “baby” on which he lavishes the most time.
As a younger man tuning BMWs in Bavaria, Biermann could hardly have imagined his career would culminate with the creation of a BMW rival in Korea. But when Hyundai came calling in 2014, he had been mulling how to conclude his career.
“What do you do with your life when you’re 57?” Biermann remembered thinking.
He studied the history of Hyundai and Korea and found symmetry between traditional German and Korean culture in the respect for age, the sensitivity toward individual people and the quest for an orderly, harmonious society. In a way, Biermann said, Korea has done a better job of preserving what he loved about Germany in his youth.
Picking up and leaving for Seoul hasn’t been an easy transition. Biermann doesn’t speak Korean, and neither does his wife; she tried and gave up. But he has interpreters, and the N division conducts all its business in English.
He is also among a growing international contingent at the top rungs of Hyundai, including fellow German Peter Schreyer, now the group’s chief design officer; former Lamborghini executive Manfred Fitzgerald, who is heading global strategy at Genesis; and Luc Donckerwolke, formerly of Bentley, who will lead Genesis design.
Biermann’s mandate as executive vice president for vehicle testing and high performance development actually covers testing and tuning all cars — from the $70,000 Genesis G90 to the $15,000 Hyundai Accent. He even oversees development of the GT tuner line for Hyundai’s sister brand, Kia.
Biermann said Hyundai’s lineup is too big for him to be involved in the development of every vehicle. So he is working to leave his mark at the company by driving home the idea that every humble rubber bushing can be tuned for noise, vibration and harshness, or for ride comfort, or for durability.
Biermann said an engineer’s job is to make every car, even an entry-level Accent, a “hero” in its own way. Every tuning decision needs to help make it a car that’s worth driving. He sees progress in that regard.
“In our company, you can rely on the fact that everyone is doing his best,” Biermann said. “And that is very satisfying for me.”
You can reach Hans Greimel at firstname.lastname@example.org. — Follow Hans on