Hyundai's Mission Possible: Beat the Luxury Brands

Hyundai Chairman Chung Mong Koo looks down from a billboard featuring an image that departs from the company's reputation as a
Hyundai Chairman Chung Mong Koo looks down from a billboard featuring an image that departs from the company's reputation as a "value" car manufacturer, as it prepares to compete with luxury makers. (By Seokyong Lee -- Bloomberg News)

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By Warren Brown
Sunday, April 1, 2007

LA JOLLA, Calif. The event was billed as a new- product introduction, but it turned out to be a soul-searching session. Hyundai, which entered the United States in 1986 as a corporate infant, is growing up. And growing up isn't easy.

The early years for Hyundai Motor America were downright painful, with the company made the butt of numerous jokes. The reason was the abysmal quality of Hyundai's first U.S. offering, the subcompact Hyundai Excel. One joke, from late-night talk show host David Letterman, went like this: Want to frighten astronauts in space? Place a Hyundai logo on the spacecraft's control panel.

Automotive journalists were equally merciless. There was the standard auto writer's quip: "Hey," one journalist asked another, "did you know that the Excel has a fully independent suspension system?" The straight man shook his head. "Well, it does," said the joker. "The front end goes one way, the rear end goes another."

Steve Wilhite, chief operating officer of Hyundai Motor America, who last week was here for the introduction of the 2008 Hyundai Veracruz crossover utility vehicle, suppressed a grin at the retelling of those barbs.

"Yeah," Wilhite said in an interview, "that was a rough start."

But that was then. This is now.

Hyundai Motor America is part of the Hyundai Kia Automotive Group, the largest car company in South Korea. With combined global sales of 3.7 million vehicles in 2005, a number it is likely to have matched or slightly surpassed when all of the figures are in for 2006, Hyundai Kia Automotive is now the sixth-largest car company in the world, ahead of Japanese rivals Nissan and Honda.

From 2001 to 2005 in the United States, as Hyundai's reputation for product quality increased, aided by a 10-year/100,000-mile warranty on Hyundai engines and transmissions, Hyundai Motor America's sales rose an average of 14 percent annually.

But that hot sales pace cooled considerably in 2006. In the United States, for example, Hyundai sold 455,520 vehicles last year, a scant 0.1 percent more than the 455,012 it sold in America in 2005.

That slowdown came partly for reasons completely out of Hyundai Motor America's control. Chung Mong Koo, the chairman of parent Hyundai, was convicted in February of embezzling the U.S. equivalent of $73.8 million from the company. He was sentenced to three years in jail, but is now free on appeal.

Chung's legal problems have cast a pall over the company, including its U.S. operations. All major Hyundai decisions, including those governing Hyundai Motor America, run through Chung. When he was arrested last year, the company delayed decisions on several new plants and other key product development strategies.

No Hyundai official here, of course, would comment on Chung's case or its impact on U.S. operations. Instead, Wilhite and his assistants preferred concentrating on Hyundai's U.S.-generated problems as it looks for future growth.

"It is not that we don't know who we are," said Wilhite. "The problem is that not many people outside of the company know who we are. We haven't done a good job of telling our story."

Wilhite said most people in the United States see Hyundai as a small South Korean company dedicated to making small, inexpensive cars. "We're seen as a 'value' car company," said Wilhite, using the auto industry's favorite euphemism for "cheap."

"Value" will remain a "critical part" of Hyundai's automotive mission, said John Krafcik, Hyundai Motor America's vice president for product development and product planning. "But we also need to be represented in the upscale segments" of the U.S. automotive market, Krafcik said.

How can Hyundai go upscale without chasing away "value" customers and without being labeled a luxury "wannabe"?

Wilhite and his team are crafting an audacious, exceedingly risky plan.

Bolstered by an incredible No. 3 ranking on J.D. Power and Associates' overall product quality list, putting Hyundai just behind Porsche and Lexus, Hyundai is now implementing a strategy of building better passenger vehicles than any of its European or Asian rivals and selling them at substantially lower prices.

Hyundai also will challenge the German myth of engineering superiority, mostly by developing and touting "better" engines, transmissions and safety features, such as electronic stability control, a crash-avoidance device currently installed in 73 percent of all Hyundai vehicles sold in the United States.

But taking on the Europeans and the Japanese, and a resurgent General Motors in America, is a very, very tall order. Getting American consumers to believe that the once-meek Hyundai brand can trump that crowd is complicated by Hyundai's need to avoid any appearance of arrogance, or of indifference to its original budget-minded customer base.

And another problem: Hyundai has 755 dealers in the United States, many of whom have grown up selling "value" and dealing with subprime-credit customers. Getting those dealers on board in the race for upscale clients could prove a daunting task. Some might refuse to cooperate, which means Hyundai will have to move to disenfranchise recalcitrant dealerships -- not an easy task for any car company.

But Hyundai indicated here that it is ready to take on its supposedly better-heeled rivals in a one-on-one quality contest. In an event that once would have been viewed as an act of corporate suicide, the company invited a group of international journalists here to do a head-to-head comparison of the new Hyundai Veracruz against the renowned Lexus RX350 mid-size crossover sport utility, which costs about $11,000 more.

I will give full details of the Veracruz-RX50 drive-off in a forthcoming On Wheels review. But here is an initial reading: After a day-long drive of both vehicles over many twisty California roads, most of us left the event wondering why any consumer would pay more for the Lexus RX350.

Score one for Hyundai in its mission impossible.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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