SEOUL - Buoyed by surging domestic sales and exports, Korean auto production for the nine months through September rose 47 percent from a weak period a year earlier to 1,991,696 units.
The surge puts the industry on track to produce more than 2.6 million cars and trucks this year. Already, industry analysts are predicting output of more than 3 million units next year - a mark never before achieved.
All three principal makers have participated in the boom this year.
Hyundai Motor Co. output was up 64.5 percent to 888,553 units.
Kia Motors Corp., now a Hyundai subsidiary, rose 63.6 percent to 477,128 units.
Daewoo Motor Co. was up 24.9 percent, to 616,204 units.
Samsung Motor Inc., which is in liquidation proceedings, produced 9,769 units for the period, down 70.6 percent from a year earlier.
Propelled by strong sales of its Carens and Carnival minivans and Visto minicar, Kia led the domestic sales re-bound with an 87.4 percent increase, to 234,300 units. Hyundai was up 81 percent, to 406,780 units, while Daewoo rose 39.7 percent, to 237,804 units.
Hyundai's exports rose 40 percent to 450,205 units, and Kia was up 43.6 percent to 276,103 units. But Daewoo exports were off 6.6 percent to 353,366 units.
Korea's market rebounds
This year's performance marks an astonishing comeback for Korea's automakers. Sales last year plummeted more than 50 percent over 1997 as the Asian financial crisis battered consumer confidence and dragged the economy into recession.
But according to the Bank of Korea, the economy grew by 4.6 percent in the first quarter and 9.8 percent in the second quarter. The central bank is now forecasting 11 percent GDP growth for the third quarter, signaling an end to the recession.
Reflecting this year's buoyant mood, the Korea Automobile Research Institute predicts that production in 2000 will surpass 3 million units. According to the institute, exports next year will climb to 1.63 million units, while domestic sales will reach 1.43 million, approaching pre-crisis levels. Domestic sales reached a record high of 1.65 million in 1996.
Big Sonata is top seller
Nothing better signals the return of consumer confidence than the climb of the Hyundai Sonata back to the top of the domestic best-seller list.
At the height of the crisis, Korean consumers shunned larger cars in favor of economical minicars such as the Daewoo Matiz and Hyundai Atos, which reigned as the leading sellers during the crisis.
The Korea Automobile Research Institute forecasts that passenger -car sales will grow by 14.4 percent in 2000, while commercial vehicle sales will see a lower rate of growth of 5.5 percent. Minivans and sport-utilites will constitute the fastest-growing segments.
According to the institute, combined sales of minivans and sport-utilities will reach 370,000 units in 2000, a 45 percent increase.
Kia fields two compact minivan models, the Carens/Joice and Carstar, in addition to the Carnival minivan. Hyundai recently introduced the Trajet compact minivan, while Daewoo is preparing to roll out the U100 in the new year.
LPG fuels minivan sales
The phenomenal popularity of minivans is due in part to the temporary availability of liquefied petroleum gas, or LPG-fueled, models in Korea.
LPG, which is mainly propane, is less heavily taxed than gasoline and has been selling for about one third the price of regular gasoline.
Bowing to pressure from automakers, the government has given the industry a year's grace period to continue building LPG-fueled passenger minivans.
Beginning in 2001, they will be permitted only to build commercial vehicle versions.