Hyundai, While Not Pulling Up Stakes in the Car Market, Knows Where Its Future Prosperity Lies
Ignore that slight dip in U.S. sales volume last year, Hyundai Motor America’s chief operating officer, Brian Smith, says. It’s just because the automaker stopped flinging so many cars at rental agencies.
Barring some unexpected disaster, 2019 should see the brand’s sales climb in the U.S., Smith said, adding that Hyundai’s not planning on pulling a Ford or GM anytime soon. Honest-to-God cars will live on in Hyundai’s lineup, but utility vehicles will continue earning an ever greater share of its total volume. No surprise, what with a big ‘ute on the way.
While the new Kona and upcoming Palisade will no doubt swell the ranks of Hyundai light truck buyers, Smith feels fans of the company’s Santa Cruz pickup concept will be pleasantly surprised by what the brand has in store for them.
Overall, Hyundai sales fell 1.1 percent in the U.S. in 2018, with passenger cars falling 15.1 percent and light truck sales rising 23.6 percent. Like other brands, Hyundai spent much of 2018 attempting to pare down the number of vehicles offloaded to rental fleets while boosting its commercial sales. On that front, the automaker was partially successful, though it’s still a ways from its fleet target.
But 2018 was also the year new, desperately needed crossovers started arriving. As Smith told Wards Auto at the North American International Auto Show, the continued popularity of the Tucson compact (sales rose 24 percent in 2018) and arrival of the subcompact Kona (Hyundai sold 47,090 last year) pushed car concerns to the background. A revamped Santa Fe (née Santa Fe Sport) also appeared on the scene last year.
“We’re up about 40,000 units (2018 compared with 2017) on our SUVs, so that made up for most of the decline in sedan,” Smith said. “This year we’re adding a little bit of Kona and Santa Fe (CUVs to our commercial-fleet business), but Tucson’s a really popular fleet vehicle. It’s also popular at retail, and that’s our challenge right now…to meet the commitments to some of the fleet companies and still not run short at dealers.”
Smith predicts continued growth for the Kona, with perhaps 60,000 units sold in 2019. As for the burly Palisade, which goes on sale this summer, Hyundai’s aiming for a 5 percent market share in the three-row crossover segment, which translates into 25,000 to 30,000 annual sales.
Meanwhile, models like the revamped-for-2018 Accent and refreshed Elantra and Sonata still have a place in the lineup. “We’re not done with Sonata or Elantra,” Smith said. “We’re going to continue to improve those products…and we are going to gain market share (with others leaving).”
Of course, in attempting to secure Ford and GM’s customer castoffs, Hyundai will have to compete with the likes of Honda and Toyota, the latter of which has a new Corolla arriving this spring.
One thing Toyota and Honda — or any other automaker, for that matter — can’t boast is a compact, unibody sport pickup, something Hyundai still plans to foist on the American marketplace. In the planning phase for what seems like eons, the truck is still a go.
“It’s going through a lot of reviews,” Smith said. “The one thing I’m most encouraged about, each time I see it with another change, is it still looks like the concept. It’s not submitting to a lot of changes.”
Smith refers to the unibody, midsize Honda Ridgeline a “tweener,” adding that Hyundai’s future offering “is much cooler and more youth-oriented.”
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