Posted by: Moon Ihlwan on September 18, 2009
Hyundai on Sept. 17 unveiled its new Sonata midsize sedan that will be a key test of its recent campaign to reestablish its image. Departing from the sedate styling of the current Sonata, its successor – a bumper-to-bumper remake – aims to be a head-turner. In my opinion, it is better designed than any other vehicle the Korean carmaker has rolled out to date. It sports a longish nose, a panoramic sunroof and coupe-style design touches.
Hyundai officials claim that it is not just the car’s expressive look that should attract consumers. “The Sonata will set a new standard for world class mid-size sedans with state-of-the-art technology, superior quality, and emotional design,” Chung Euisun, Hyundai’s vice chairman, said at a ceremony unveiling the vehicle. It will play a crucial role in Hyundai’s global strategy, he added.
Indeed, Hyundai has a lot riding on this car. Executives say the next-generation Sonata, to be sold in Korea from this month and in the U.S. within six months, will challenge Toyota’s Camry and Honda’s Accord for the hearts and wallets of drivers, particularly in the U.S. They also say it will help improve its brand image and put to rest the company’s erstwhile reputation as a maker of cheap cars.
Hyundai has been relentlessly waging a marketing blitz to rebuild its image and expand its global presence lately. Hyundai got a major boost to its push to go upscale when its Genesis sedan won its first North American Car of the Year award in January. Few expect Hyundai to sell the Genesis, its first near-luxury vehicle, a lot but the company’s intention is to move many Sonatas from dealerships once the global economy recovers from the current recession and consumers start buying again.
For Hyundai, the new Sonata’s success in America is crucial to make its U.S. business profitable. The current Sonata was the first vehicle built at a $1 billion plant in Montgomery. Ala. but the uninspiring model did little to convince consumers to buy it. While its Alabama plant is capable of making 300,000 vehicles, Hyundai only sold 117,000 Sonatas and 71,000 Santa Fe sport-utility vehicles last year. Auto analysts say Hyundai should sell close to 200,000 Sonatas in the U.S. to make the Alabama operation really profitable.
Hyundai has gone extra miles to charm U.S. drivers with the new Sonata. To appeal to them, the vehicle’s exterior was designed by the company’s studio in California. The Korean version of the car has a two-liter, four-cylinder gasoline engine mated to a six-speed automatic transmission. The U.S. version will be equipped with a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder motor with direct-injection technology to produce some 200 horse power against the Korean version’s 163 hp.
Hyundai’s goal is to sell 450,000 Sonatas per year globally when it enters full production in 2011, the year it will be built in China as well. The targeted volume compares with last year’s 318,000 units and the peak sale of 381,000 in 2006.
BusinessWeek’s team of Asia reporters brings you the latest insights on business, politics, technology and culture from some of the world’s biggest and fastest-growing economies. Eye on Asia’s bloggers include Asia regional editor Bruce Einhorn, Tokyo reporter Ian Rowley, Korea bureau chief Moon Ihlwan, Asia News Editor and China Bureau Chief. Dexter Roberts, and Hong Kong-based Asia correspondent Frederik Balfour.