TOKYO -- Call it a new opportunity in international arbitrage.
Sales of large sedans in the U.S. are in a funk. But sales of foreign cars in South Korea have never been hotter.
Now General Motors aims to capitalize on both trends by exporting the Chevrolet Impala sedan from the U.S. to South Korea. GM Korea began selling the Impala on Aug. 27.
The car, built at GM's Detroit-Hamtramck factory, will replace the Alpheon, a locally built version of the Buick LaCrosse. The Impala will be positioned as GM's flagship sedan in a market where import brands, while still a small portion of the market, have grabbed record market share from domestic stalwarts Hyundai Motor Co. and sibling Kia Motors Corp.
South Korea is the biggest market outside North America to receive the Impala. Its debut there is seen as a test bed for possible launches in other markets, such as China.
Any incremental volume from South Korea will be welcomed.
Through August, Impala sales in the U.S. tumbled 22 percent to 76,107, in a large-car segment down 17 percent.
Sales of import brands in South Korea are soaring, however, thanks partly to free-trade pacts that took effect with the European Union in 2011 and with the U.S. in 2012.
Imports accounted for less than 1 percent of South Korea's market in 2002. But this year, import sales surged 27 percent to 94,263 through July to grab 16.5 percent.
GM is not ideally positioned to capitalize on the import boom because it derives the bulk of its Korean sales from vehicles made locally. Its passenger-vehicle sales dropped 9.8 percent through July, crimped partly by the wind-down of the previous generation Spark minicar, which was replaced this summer.
Sales of the long-in-the-tooth Alpheon, which was introduced in 2010, fell 19 percent and averaged only about 330 a month.
German brands such as Volkswagen and BMW have experienced the greatest boost from South Korea's import-buying binge. But GM hopes the Impala will get better traction, thanks to several Korea-only convenience features such as power folding side mirrors, an electronic toll-paying system, a fuel-filler cap lock, rain-sensing wipers, rear audio controls, heated rear seats and a navigation system included as standard equipment.
A spokesman said GM has told Korean labor union representatives that it will consider building the Impala in South Korea, but only if local sales top 1,500 a month.