As they redesigned their newest generation of cars over the past few years, Hyundai Motor Co. executives relentlessly cut weight and improved fuel economy. They made strong steel thinner. They rolled out smaller but more powerful direct-injection engines ahead of the competition. They even introduced crushed volcanic rock into their interior vinyl parts to lighten vehicle weight.
And inside Hyundai, a heated debate pitted traditional customer expectations against weight reduction: Would the 2011 Elantra ditch its spare tire and jack and cut 25 pounds by substituting a can of goo that squirts into the valve to fill a tire puncture?
"We had all kinds of data that told us we shouldn't do it," says Mike O'Brien, Hyundai's vice president of U.S. product planning. "We knew there would be customer-satisfaction risks."
In the end, the goo won.
"We decided we wanted every piece of mpg we could get," O'Brien says. "We have declared fuel efficiency as one of our key priorities at Hyundai. And once you've established your priority, the decisions you make about products become a little easier."
The goo's net contribution to the car's improved fuel efficiency? One precious mile per gallon.
Such white-knuckled decision-making has made Hyundai an industry darling, with fuel-efficient vehicles that are climbing the sales charts. Its 2012 Sonata turned heads with an EPA rating of 35 mpg highway.
But stand back, Hyundai. The Sonata became the target of Nissan engineers developing the next-generation Altima, which Nissan says will blow past the Sonata's mpg this summer as it prepares to challenge the Toyota Camry as America's best-selling car. Fusions, Malibus, Imprezas, BMW 528s -- most new vehicles now leapfrog the mileage of their previous generations.