NAMYANGJU, South Korea – Hyundai Motor Co. emphasized improved safety features and a premium image with its fully redesigned Sonata sedan, its latest effort to regain lost U.S. market share and win back South Koreans who’re increasingly buying foreign cars.
Redesigned for a seventh time since the midsize family sedan made its debut in 1985, the latest Sonata model is Hyundai’s answer to a flurry of safety issues and customer complaints at home and abroad.
Once known as a maker of second rate cars, the South Korean automaker became among the fastest growing auto brands with premium models such as the Genesis that vied with more established German models.
But its reputation was dented recently by recalls and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s finding that Hyundai and its sister company Kia had overstated gas mileage estimates. Hyundai and Kia Motors Corp. agreed to pay up to $395 million to consumers as a settlement, which is still pending court approval.
“The new Sonata was developed as a premium family sedan,” Hwang Chung-yul, a Hyundai vice-president told reporters at the company’s research and development centre south of Seoul.
“We made this for another jump up” in the U.S. market, he said.
Hyundai’s U.S. market share was steady last year after falling to 4.6 per cent in 2012 from 5.1 per cent in 2011.
On top of quality woes, Hyundai faced a challenge from the weak yen which gave an advantage to its Japanese competitors such as Toyota Motor Corp.
Even after selling a record number of cars in 2013, Hyundai reported slightly lower profit and a 4 per cent annual decline of its car sales in South Korea.
At home, Hyundai battled accusations that it offered cars with lower quality than overseas.
In an apparent effort to placate South Koreans, Hyundai said its new Sonata model will offer nearly identical features at home and abroad.
The sedan incorporates steel that is twice as rigid as regular steel in 51 per cent of its platform, compared with 21 per cent in the previous model. The advanced-high strength steel will better protect passengers in a crash, Hyundai said.
The company demonstrated to reporters how the new Sonata performed in a frontal crash test, claiming it would score better than cars by Toyota, Audi and Passat.
Hyundai said the price would be announced in Seoul later this month. The sedan will be displayed at the New York auto show in April and go on sale globally later this year.
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