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New Yorker: Regular Car Reviews and the Semiotics of a 1999 Toyota Corolla

Despite the ever-increasing might of South Korea’s automobile industry, it’s a dull place for the car connoisseur. The occasional Ferrari or Lamborghini always looks freshly delivered in the loud yet basic color schemes beloved of the Gangnam nouveau riche. More tasteful but rarer are the domestic survivors of the scrappy nineteen-eighties: the Kia Pride, for instance, a mass-produced modernity symbol marketed in the West as the Ford Festiva, or the Daewoo Maepsy, the last Korean car branded with a genuinely Korean-sounding name. For the most part, the streets of Seoul offer up a halting parade of just-this-side-of-generic vehicles stamped out by local automakers in (besides the signature orange of the city’s taxicabs) black, white, and gray, none of the designs liable to quicken the pulse of anyone but a development economist.

Most passenger cars on Korean roads are of recent vintage, dating overwhelmingly from the past ten to fifteen years. Even the stalwart Spectra, Kia’s budget-priced compact, has become a rare sight in its homeland since its discontinuation in 2003. Test-driving a model of that year, my favorite car-review channel on YouTube once summed up the Spectra’s lack of distinctiveness by likening it to “the fictional idea of a regular car, a completely made-up symptom of the ridiculousness of the human condition.” Nor has the channel’s host praised other Korean automobiles much more effusively: Hyundai’s somewhat design-forward 2013 Veloster Turbo is “an economy car in a Men’s Wearhouse dinner jacket”; the chintzily hip 2016 Kia Soul 6MT is “the official car of wearing fake Gucci to a deposition.” Of Hyundai’s sleeper 2020 Elantra GT N Line, he declares, “Fine: the very definition of it.”

The channel is Regular Car Reviews, which I discovered after moving to South Korea in 2015. I’d come from Los Angeles, a city reflexively associated with a car culture of which I never partook. The same transportation-dissident impulse that kept me from driving in Southern California now compels me, in Seoul—a city whose subway system is as good as its car spotting is bad—to watch videos about the Chevrolet Camaro, the Dodge Neon, and even the Ford Pinto. It could simply be a way of securing one hoped-for benefit of expatriation: a fresh perspective on my homeland, the United States of America. Each of the more than five hundred episodes of Regular Car Reviews evaluates an automobile’s design and performance, but also reflects on that automobile’s sociological significance, goes off on non-sequitur comedic riffs ranging in vulgarity from mild to bestial, and unfailingly delivers a shot of pure twenty-first-century America.

Read the whole thing at the New Yorker.