auto

Hyundai's cheap, sturdy cars draw buyers

Tara Baukus Mello South Korean automaker Hyundai Motor Co., which manufactures Hyundai and Kia branded cars and trucks, has become a powerhouse of auto sales. Earlier this year, it overtook Ford in sales, becoming the fourth largest automaker in the world. Recently, it beat forecasts and announced it tripled third quarter net profits over the same period last year. In the U.S., it is only one of two automakers -- the other is Subaru -- to log an increase in sales so far this year.

The recipe for its success includes an array of inexpensive but nicely equipped cars that appeal to a wide variety of customers. It's also won numerous awards for its models. It helps that some unique marketing plans caught the attention of new buyers, including a promotion that allows customers to return their cars if they lose their jobs that continues at least through the end of the year.

In the company's earliest days in the U.S., it had a reputation for cheap cars. Then, that meant they were low-priced but also lacking in features and low on quality. Over the years, that reputation has shifted to inexpensive cars chock full of features and with vastly improved quality. Indeed, in J.D. Power and Associates 2009 Initial Quality Study, Hyundai was the highest-ranked nonpremium brand and was ranked fourth among all brands.

Today, the company has an extensive lineup with 21 models total, including nine models in the Hyundai brand and 12 models carrying the Kia label. All tend to be priced lower than their competitors, including when comparably equipped. Hyundais range from $9,970 for the Accent to $32,250 for the Genesis; Kias range from $11,495 for the Rio to $26,245 for the Borrego.

In the 2009 model year, Kia introduced the Borrego, a seven-seat SUV that is available in either rear-wheel or four-wheel drive. For 2010, it introduced three new models: the Forte, Forte Koup and Soul. Replacing the Spectra, the Forte, a sedan, and Forte Koup, a coupe, are new to the compact car segment. The Kia Soul, a boxy, wagon-like, compact car has garnered much attention with young buyers. Just recently, it introduced its redesigned Kia Sorento crossover, which will go on sale as a 2011 model beginning in January. It will be built at Kia's new factory in West Point, Ga.

Hyundai's latest product push started in the 2009 model year, when it unveiled the redesigned Sonata midsize sedan, its Elantra Touring model, a tall compact sedan, and the Genesis, a full-size sedan. It was with the Genesis, its most expensive product yet with a starting price of $32,250, that Hyundai hit a home run. Designed to compete with luxury sedans such as the BMW 5 Series, the Genesis was awarded the prestigious North American Car of the Year given by automotive journalists, as well as numerous other accolades.

The success of the Genesis has further spurred the company to venture further into the luxury segment. It will bring its flagship sedan, called Equus overseas, to the U.S. market beginning around this time next year. Expected to be priced around $60,000, the Equus will most likely arrive at U.S. dealers equipped with such luxury features as adaptive cruise control (a feature where the car automatically slows down as it approaches another car), a built-in cooler and a lane departure warning system.

Even with Hyundai Motor Co.'s success in a year where auto sales are struggling, the company is still aiming higher and has stepped up its advertising efforts to try to increase its sales even further. One way that it expects it will draw even more customers to its two brands in the future is by improving its fuel efficiency of all its vehicles, which is currently the third best fleet average, behind Toyota and Honda. But unlike other automakers that aim to improve fuel efficiency by introducing one or two highly fuel-efficient models, Hyundai will focus instead on small technology improvements, such as in aerodynamics and fuel injection to make its entire product lineup more fuel-efficient.

If you have a car question, e-mail it to us at Driving for Dollars. Read more Driving for Dollars columns and Bankrate auto stories.

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