SEOUL — Better late than never. And better early than late.
Those are the mantras guiding South Korea's big auto brands as they scurry to align their product lineups and production capacity with surging demand for utility vehicles and try to get a head start on what could be the next truck frontier.
After years in the wilderness, Hyundai and Kia have reached a crossover crossroads. By the end of next year, both brands will be fielding full crossover lineups — from subcompacts to full-size family movers — and executives see them leading to upswings in volume.
In separate interviews last week with Automotive News, the global CEOs of Hyundai and Kia mapped out their comeback routes, pledging that the new products will boost profitability and help the brands deliver modest U.S. sales increases next year, even as overall demand slides.
The plan requires overhauling North American production. And in Hyundai's case, it may mean pioneering new ground with a compact pickup that could put the company ahead of the next big trend.
"Our strategy is to launch more SUVs," Hyundai Motor Co. CEO Wonhee Lee said at his company's global headquarters here. "We will have a full lineup. We are trying to increase our adaptability. When the SUV market grows, we will be able to match that growth."
That growth is expected to keep clipping along for at least the next five years, he said.
Still unknown is when the payoffs will come and how big they will be. Hyundai and Kia will be battling lower brand awareness in the utility segments, thanks partly to their late start. And it will be harder for both to book big gains as the new-vehicle sales boom subsides.
Lee conceded it may take three years to reach his goals for crossovers. And that's not counting the premium Genesis brand, which won't have its first light truck until around 2020.
"It's good Hyundai and Kia are moving in that direction, but they missed out on the bonanza," said Karl Brauer, executive publisher for Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book. "The conditions aren't as favorable for the next five years. And it's also a matter of brand image and recognition."
Slowing overall demand, increased consideration of used vehicles, rising gasoline prices and higher interest rates all pose challenges for a new full-size crossover, he said.
But Hyundai and Kia can't hope to compete if they don't play.
"We expect our performance in the U.S. market to rebound soon," Kia Motors Corp. CEO Han-Woo Park said at the Hyundai Motor Group corporate complex here, where the Kia and Hyundai towers stand side by side.