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Automakers battle weak demand for hybrids

Hyundai, Kia struggle to catch up with Toyota’s Prius


Hybrid cars of Hyundai Motor and its affiliate Kia Motors have yet to gain popularity among domestic consumers.

The affiliated automakers saw lethargic sales of the fuel-efficient vehicles, such as the Sonata hybrid and K5 hybrid, last year.
Hyundai Motor’s Sonata hybrid
Hyundai Motor’s Sonata hybrid
Kia Motors’ K5 hybrid
Kia Motors’ K5 hybrid

Yearly sales of Hyundai’s Sonata hybrid and Kia’s K5 hybrid stood at 7,193 and 5,279 units, respectively.

The figures indicate that the companies’ daily sales of the two eco-friendly sedans in Korea averaged 19.7 and 14.4 units in 2011.

Though Hyundai-Kia promoted the fuel-efficient cars throughout the year, the sales were merely 10 percent of the sales of gasoline-fueled versions of the same models.

As their hybrid sales remained lackluster this year, with consumers thought to be taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the cars, Hyundai and Kia are seeking to attract consumers by lowering prices.

Hyundai launched a cheaper model of the Sonata hybrid in February and Kia will follow suit on April 2.

Kia Motors said Sunday that it will introduce a cheaper model of the K5 sedan with a price tag of 28.55 million won ($25,000).

“The model, dubbed Deluxe, is cheaper by 1.1 million won than the original Luxury model,” the company said in a statement.

To lower the price, Kia said it omitted several options, including the LED rear-combination lamp, for the Deluxe model, as Hyundai did.

The company stressed the K5 hybrid owners will enjoy a variety of benefits including the “high fuel efficiency of 21 kilometers per liter.”

In early February, Hyundai Motor initiated a 1.1 million won price cut to launch a cheaper model of the Sonata hybrid, priced below 30 million won.

While the two affiliates expect the lowered price to boost sales gradually, Toyota Motor has been more aggressive in its introduction of cheaper hybrid models.
Toyota Motor’s Prius hybrid
Toyota Motor’s Prius hybrid

The Japanese carmaker recently launched the Prius E priced at 31.3 million won in Korea, compared to 37.9 million won for the original Prius hybrid model.

Toyota Motor Korea, which launched the New Camry Hybrid in January, unveiled three models of the New Prius hybrid series ― Prius S, Prius M and Prius E ― in February.

The New Prius models are powered by 1.8-liter engines with the noteworthy fuel efficiency of “29.2 kilometers” per liter, which surpasses that of the Sonata and K5 hybrids.

Automobile dealers point out that Toyota outpaces Hyundai-Kia in fuel-efficiency technologies, and the New Prius is now almost the same price as the Sonata and K5.

“Ultimately, the key factor to dominate the fuel-efficient vehicle market is the actual mileage per liter drivers feel,” a dealer in the import car industry said.

He said there could be a huge gap between the actual and nominal mileage figures.

Last tear, Hyundai Motor Group chairman Chung Mong-koo instructed his staff to publicize at home and abroad that Hyundai and Kia have become global players with competitive technologies including in the hybrid vehicle sector.

His instruction has particularly been focused on promotion of “100-percent independent” technologies of Hyundai-Kia applied to the Sonata and K5 hybrids.

The Hyundai chief has stressed that holding high-end technologies is more crucial than any other factor in becoming competitive.

While Hyundai-Kia had introduced hybrid electric vehicles based on the compact cars Avante and Forte with liquefied natural gas-electric powertrains, the hybrid Sonata and K5 are their first gasoline-electric hybrids.

According to group spokespeople, the electric motor fitted in the two hybrid models is 18 percent smaller and 30 percent lighter than those used in hybrid electric vehicles from rival carmakers.

Under the chairman’s instruction, Hyundai Motor has the goal of overtaking Toyota Motor in sales of hybrid sedans in the U.S. The Sonata hybrid has ranked second following the Prius.

“Though we joined the growing market for hybrid electric vehicles later than rivals, the hybrid Sonata and K5 come with significant improvements to existing hybrid automobiles to give them an edge in the market,” a Hyundai Motor spokesman said.

“While Toyota’s combined hybrid system has a complex layout and requires a relatively large motor, the hybrid electric Sonata has a simpler layout where the motor is placed between the engine and the transmission,” he said.

By doing that, a smaller motor can be used, and an engine clutch is used to regulate power output from the internal combustion engine, he added.

By Kim Yon-se (kys@heraldcorp.com)
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