Armed with Sonata, Hyundai is in sight of Japan's giants

Rick Kranz is product editor for Automotive News

Is Hyundai's Sonata a flash in the pan or a real contender?

Recent comments from a Toyota executive and a Honda spokesman make it clear that Hyundai poses a real threat.

The redesigned Sonata went on sale in January 2010 and ended the year with 196,623 sales, a 64 percent increase from 2009. This year, sales through June are up 29 percent from the same period a year ago.

"Sonata became a very honorable contender in the market," Yoshimi Inaba, COO of Toyota North America, told Bloomberg recently. "We do have good respect for the model, and the sales figures show it's increasing quite a bit."

A Honda spokesman, meanwhile, offered more praise.

"We recognize that the Korean models are very competitive because of their good quality and affordable price," Keitaro Yamamoto, a spokesman for Honda in Tokyo, told Bloomberg. "Before, it was Accord versus Camry, but it's definitely becoming Accord versus Camry versus Sonata."

Through the first half of the year, the Toyota Camry is No. 1 on the list of top-selling cars in the United States with 147,469 sales. The Honda Accord is No. 2 with 137,146 units. Sonata sold 115,014 cars, placing it No. 9. Even at No. 9, Sonata was only 32,455 units behind No. 1 and 22,132 units shy of No. 2.

Seven or eight years ago, some in the industry openly said Hyundai had no chance of surviving here.

There's one thing I've learned about this industry: Do not try to predict an automaker's long-term future.

Seven or eight years ago, some in the industry openly said Hyundai had no chance of surviving here. Toyota and Honda were too big, too powerful and their quality was unmatchable. Hyundai will be forced to pull out of the United States.

It didn't happen.

Give Hyundai credit for huge improvements in styling, quality and reliability over the past decade, so much so that Japanese automakers are looking over their shoulders, watching Hyundai's every move.

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