Korean automakers enter stable phase

Ryan Beene covered the South Korean auto brands from Automotive News' Los Angeles bureau from 2010 until this year. He now reports from Washington, D.C.

Having filled out their rosters, Korea's automakers are working on improving their game.

During the past several years, Hyundai and Kia dramatically expanded their vehicle lineups with several new nameplates and body styles. Once specialists in tiny, cheap economy cars, both now field a full range of vehicles, from subcompacts to large premium sedans, plus crossovers and some quirky models for good measure, such as the Kia Soul and Hyundai Veloster.

By comparison, the next few years will be relatively boring. Neither Hyundai nor Kia has confirmed any new nameplates launching in the United States in the near term. A few new models, including a rear-wheel-drive sports sedan and a subcompact crossover at Hyundai, are getting a close look, but nothing is set in stone.

Next-generation products primarily will feature new sheet metal and interiors but will ride on reworked versions of current platform designs, with substantial engineering updates, and carryover powertrains. Sources say that advancements seen with the 2015 Sonata's launch -- including greater use of high-strength steel, structural adhesives and hot stamping for stronger bodies, and redesigned suspensions -- will be applied broadly across the Hyundai and Kia lineups in coming re-engineerings. 

Ed Kim, vice president of industry analysis at AutoPacific, says a stable cadence of product launches is a healthy direction for the Korean brands and something they likely will seek to continue. He doesn't see cause for concern in their reliance on carryover platforms. 

"Changing platforms isn't necessarily critical to the job of increasing market share or being successful," Kim said. 

But design remains an area of concern. At Hyundai, Kim says, executives in the United States and Korea are wondering whether the new sheet metal on the 2015 Sonata -- which replaced the outgoing model's swoopy curves with straighter, subtler creases -- made a strong enough visual statement. 

"I think they're very cognizant of that issue, and I wouldn't be surprised that with subsequent launches if they [resumed] pushing the envelope a bit more," Kim said.

You can reach Ryan Beene at autonews@crain.com



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