Seoul, South Korea – Flashy Maseratis and Bentleys are fast becoming the cars of choice for young, monied South Koreans, eclipsing German luxury brands now so commonplace that some in Seoul’s upscale Gangnam district jokingly refer to a BMW 5 Series as a Hyundai Sonata.
Driving the sales of six-figure plus cars is a growing acceptance of conspicuous consumption in the conservative home of Hyundai, where more younger, affluent Koreans are turning their backs on their parents’ frugal ways.
Last year chef-restauranteur Song Ji-hoon, 34, sold his Mercedes-Benz CLS to buy a Maserati Ghibli.
“While our parents saved a lot in the past, younger people nowadays spend on things they can enjoy,” he said. “The street is now flooded with German cars. My car is not something one can see often.”
In 2014 the Seoul Bentley dealership was the world’s top seller of Flying Spur sedans, which start at just under a quarter of a million dollars (R3 million). The outlet, in Gangnam, ranked second in overall sales behind one in Dubai.
South Korea is also the seventh-largest market for Maserati, which saw sales increase five-fold last year to a record 723 cars after the brand introduced its Ghibli sports sedan, which starts at around $90 000 (R1.08 million).
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Kevin Kang, chief operating officer of a joint Aston Martin and McLaren dealership which will open in the first half of this year in Gangnam, said: “Korean consumers now want to flaunt themselves. There lingers antipathy towards the wealthy, but at the same time there is aspiration to be wealthy,” he said.
Imported luxury vehicles were relatively scarce in South Korea before a trade deal which took effect in 2011 unleashed an influx of premium German cars. While South Korea is the 11th largest car market, it ranks in the top four for certain flagship models such as Audi’s A8 and the Mercedes-Benz S-Class.
The Korea Automobile Importers and Distributors Association says sales of imported vehicles priced above 100 million won (R1.1 million) grew by a third in 2014 from a year earlier to 14 975, a figure that excludes Maserati, Lamborghini and Ferrari, which are not association members.
Sales of foreign brands priced 150 million won (R1.65 million) and above nearly doubled last year, as more wealthy drivers sought “ultra-premium” cars to flaunt their status, a trend mocked and celebrated in Psy’s 2012 hit song “Gangnam Style”.
Industry analyst Andy Bae commented: “There’s a strong element of me-too-ism in Korea; people follow what other people are buying.”
He expects Korea’s ultra-luxury car market to grow 45 percent by 2017.
South Korea’s overall car market grew eight percent last year.
The number of South Koreans with assets exceeding 1 billion won (R1.1 billion) doubled to about 167 000 in 2013 from five years earlier. This rising wealth, coupled with younger peoples’ desire to stand out in a traditionally conformist society, is encouraging luxury carmakers.
Koreans are also marrying later and often rely on parents for housing, leaving many with the means to splash out on flashy wheels.
Kim Eui-young, sales manager at the Maserati dealership in Gangnam, which opened in 2007, said: “As consumers get younger, they are less shy about something that stands out.”
Some ultra-luxury cars owners, however, prefer discretion.
A businessman in his 40s, who did not want to be identified, said he bought a blue Ferrari 355 Spider to enjoy on weekends. He also owns a Porsche and a Maserati, but drives a Hyundai SUV to work every day.
“People are looking at my cars,” he said. “But my employees don’t know.”