Times have been tough for Renault Samsung Motors, the maker of SM series sedans ― SM3, SM5, SM7 and QM5.
The automaker sold 246,959 cars last year, 9 percent less than the previous year. It delivered 109,221 units in Korea and 137,738 overseas.
In the first quarter of this year, the company suffered the biggest drop in year-on-year sales among the five major players, including Hyundai, Kia, GM Korea and Ssangyong.
In order to give fresh momentum to its sluggish domestic sales, RSM is now pinning its hopes on electric vehicles, while its local rivals are more bullish about plug-in hybrids.
French auto company Renault has staked the most on emission-free fully electric cars among major car makers globally.
The Renault-Nissan alliance, headed by chief executive Carlos Ghosn, has invested 6 trillion won ($5.15 billion) in their development and production over the past six years.
Affected by the strategic partnership, Renault Samsung unveiled the SM3 Z.E., the Korean version of the Fluence model, last month during the 2012 Busan International Motor Show.
|Renault Samsung Motors’ fully electric SM3 ZE (Renault Samsung Motors)|
The company last week held a test-drive event for the all-electric SM3 for local media. Officials said the mass production of the upgraded version will start late 2013 at the company’s Busan plant.
“Electric vehicles will add an innovative image to the existing brand value of SM series,” said Yun Dong-hun, chief of EV brand management team at Renault Samsung Motors.
“At the same time, we hope to take an early edge in the mid-sized and upper segments when it comes to electric cars, benefiting from the Renault-Nissan alliance.”
The SM3 ZE, dubbed a “zero emission” model, is the second all-electric vehicle to be introduced here following the first Ray EV of Kia Motors, which was unveiled in December.
Considering Ray is a small box car, SM3 ZE is the nation’s first fully electric sedan, the company claimed.
Instead of making a drastic change in its appearance, officials said they put more emphasis on offering better technological features.
RSM stretched the body of the original SM3 about 13 centimeters so that the quarter-ton 24 kilowatt hours battery pack fits behind the rear seats without losing trunk space.
Eliminating the gas engine also gives the electric SM3 nearly 50-50 weight balance, in contrast to the nose-heavy standard models with their 60-40 ratio.
When the driver turns the key, a green “Go” light appears on the dashboard comprising a battery-charger meter, an eco-driving gauge and a conventional speedometer.
|The SM3 ZE is charged at a charging station (Renault Samsung Motors)|
Push on and the eco-meter needle locks itself in the red zone, showing the driver is burning battery capacity. Lift off, however, and the motor starts to recharge the battery and the needle swings into the blue.
A fully charged vehicle travels 172.2 kilometers at a speed of up to 135 kilometers per hour. Zero to 50 km/h takes roughly 4.1 seconds, a 31 percent increase compared to the petrol-fueled model’s 5.9 seconds.
No apparent inconvenience was noticed while driving, according to reporters who participated in the test-drive on Thursday.
Among other things, the lack of engine noise was impressive to the extent the driver might worry about the safety of pedestrians.
Company officials said the Korea-made version will be equipped with a “virtual engine sound system” to let people hear the car approaching.
Unlike the existing models, the coming SM3 ZE will have batteries made by LG Chem whose performance has been strengthened to be less vulnerable to rapid charging, the company said.
“In the next five to 10 years, it would be difficult to produce a technically more innovative model. The production of better performing batteries also will be impossible for 10 years,” said Yun.
Even the Renault-Nissan alliance is well aware of the importance of the Korean electric car market, a country where daily driving below 60 kilometers makes up 87 percent of the total, the official said.
“The distance connecting Seoul and Busan is just some 400 kilometers. The relatively short mileage of electric cars is no problem in Korea,” he said.
The company predicted all-electric cars will claim 10 percent of the total car market both locally and globally by 2020.
The carmaker, in particular, is targeting the nation’s taxi and rent-a-car markets based on its “quick-drop battery exchange system,” through which replacing a fully-charged battery takes only three minutes at stations.
The company plans to sell 500 vehicles to government offices and provincial governments this year at about 64 million won, including subsidies of 15 million won and tax benefits up to 4.2 million won.
The price is still an issue here, with the amount of subsidies for individual consumers planned to be announced late this year. The government is trying to lower the car price overall, while carmakers are lobbying to increase the subsidies.
As Renault Samsung promotes the SM3 ZE as a second family car, the price is considered still high.
Another problem is a lack of related infrastructure such as charging stations. Together with the introduction of 2,000 Ray models this year, the government plans to install some 2,500 charging stations nationwide, equating to one charger per car.
By Lee Ji-yoon (email@example.com