By on January 25, 2020

Image: Hyundai

Perhaps realizing that his job was done, Michael O’Brien, Hyundai Motor America’s vice president for product, announced his departure from the automaker late Friday.

O’Brien leaves the company he served for nearly 20 years on February 3rd, heading off to pursue “other interests,” the grateful automaker said in a statement. Put in charge of the Korean brand’s product direction, O’Brien played a major role in turning around a flagging sales situation with a surge of crossovers big and small.

“I would like to thank Mike for his tremendous contributions to Hyundai’s success. It’s impossible to quantify the impact he made in getting our business and product portfolio to where it is today,” HMA Chief Operating Officer Brian Smith said in a statement. “We all wish Mike clear skies and tailwinds on the next leg of his career journey.”


O’Brien joined the automaker in 1987, leaving for a stint at Toyota in 1996. He was back in 2010, however, tasked with guiding the brand’s American lineup. The post-recession years were heady times for Hyundai; sales of revamped passenger cars soared, but good times eventually gave way to a sales crisis born of a product mix that didn’t align with rapidly evolving consumer tastes.

Crossovers were king, and Hyundai didn’t have enough of them. It had three: the compact Tucson, midsize-ish Santa Fe Sport, and range-topping Santa Fe. The dramatic sales downturn that began after 2016 eventually led to the ouster of Hyundai’s U.S. CEO and a hastily crafted plan to flood the market with the things buyers wanted.

That plan has now come to fruition. With O’Brien’s help, Hyundai developed a full stable of CUVs spanning the sub-subcompact to midsize segments. The smallest of the bunch, the Venue, just landed, while the newly enlarged Santa Fe and top-flight Palisade replaced the aging Santa Fe Sport and Santa Fe last year, joining the equally new subcompact Kona. A restyled Tucson drops later this year.

The product surge had the desired effect. Volume grew 3 percent in 2019, pushing Hyundai’s U.S. market share back above 4 percent.

[Images: Hyundai]

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21 Comments on “Lineup Now Secure, Crossover King Departs Hyundai...”

  • avatar
    R Henry

    I assume Nissan has his phone number?

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah I have a feeling that he’ll be showing up at another automaker soon enough and likely already has an offer in hand.

    • 0 avatar

      GM, Ford, and Chrysler need him as much as Nissan

    • 0 avatar

      I was going to say Nissan already has enough SUV’s and then I remembered what they did to the pathfinder. That thing could be one of the king BOF 4X4 SUV’s right now but instead its a glorified minivan. What they did is literally no different than if Toyota were to slap the 4runner name on the highlander. So yes, they could use the help, but anyone with half a brain could do it. Since Ford took the explorer RWD again I wonder if they’ll do the same to the pathfinder, or do it right and make it a SUV version of the new frontier.

      • 0 avatar

        A glorified minivan that sells is better than a he man SUV that doesn’t, as far as Nissan’s survival is concerned. Buy a used Xterra

        • 0 avatar

          “A glorified minivan that sells is better than a he man SUV that doesn’t”

          The 4Runner HANDILY outsells the current Pathfinder FYI. Toyota sells 240k Highlanders AND 130k 4Runners in 2019. Nissan sold 66k Pathfinders last year, which merely matched pre-recession BOF Pathfinder sales.

          With a few interior updates, a switch to a coil sprung rear axle, lightly refreshed exterior and some “special editions,” I’ll bet you the Xterra would be selling like hotcakes right now. The Frontier sure is doing strong for how old and warmed over it is.

          • 0 avatar

            My point was turning the Pathfinder to a BOF off road king would be silly. Nissan needs to update both vehicles though if I had to choose I’d update the Pathfinder.

          • 0 avatar

            I think the mistake most manufacturers made was to walk away from the BOF offroad segment and take those nameplates and transformed them into FWD based crossovers. Toyota said “why not both?” and is being reaping the rewards right now. Toyota’s advantage of course was that the Land Cruiser Prado is a global platform that sells very strongly, so to offer a US specific SUV on an amortized platform is much easier/cheaper.

          • 0 avatar

            No, it wouldn’t be “silly”. Apparently you dont follow REAL suv sales compared to all the fwd car based fakes. Tahoe/Yukon/Escadale, 4Runner, Wrangler, Bronco and Jeep has 2 BOF’s on the way.

            Nissan screwed up, royally.

          • 0 avatar

            Ford and GM screwed up in walking away from compact/midsize BOF trucks although CAFE and such certainly pushed them in a certain direction. Losing Hummer, Ford not having anything in the segment for the longest time outside of the Ranger FXII throughout the 2000s, they now have the Raptor and Ranger FX4 which sort of cover the offroad segment. Jeep’s 4 door Wrangler has been eating everyone’s lunch.

  • avatar

    I don’t know where he’ll turn up, but with his track record it will be soon and Nissan is probably the best guess at the moment

    • 0 avatar

      Jeep also needs help, too many pho-suv’s competing for the same customers (Renegade, Compass, Cherokee). Chrysler needs serious heart surgery as well and they’ll need someone to pick and choose which french cars to rebadge / product plan and market to north america.

      • 0 avatar

        >>someone to pick and choose which french cars to rebadge / product plan and market to north america.<<

        because history repeats as farce – Franco American Motors Part Deux: Rebadges Never Work, especially French ones

        the new company will loot the American bounty from JEEP and RAM and use it for their crap Euro products just as the current company has done

        • 0 avatar

          Their cars were designed with north america in mind and were going to come here. They’re actually pretty nice, DS 7, 2008, the wagon and they have good quality too.

  • avatar

    I didn’t even realize it at the time, but my ride-along “Mike” in the Veloster N drive I took, was this guy. Nice guy; very informative of that car, and its development.

  • avatar

    “We all wish Mike clear skies and tailwinds on the next leg of his career journey.”

    Maybe he’ll be in product development at Boeing…

  • avatar

    A measly 5000 rpm redline? Color me not impressed.

  • avatar

    Twenty years at Hyundai in the US? That’s gotta be some kinda record. US sales executives (top execs, anyway) typically don’t last more than a year or two.

  • avatar

    Those big Kia and Hyundai SUVs are all over the midwest. I’ve even heard rumors of the dreaded “ADM” being applied. So whoever master minded these should get a nice bonus.

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