As I write this, we're about 10 days away from a major reality check with the Hyundai Sonata. The mid-size sedan, which nearly single-handedly catapulted Hyundai into the U.S. mainstream, made its first impact on the market in March 2010. Some 18,935 new customers bought a Sonata that month, and while that was only good for fourth in the mid-size segment, the Hyundai's volume was an eye-opener.
That led to quite a nice run by the Sonata, with the South Korean mid-sizer climbing to third place in the segment by August, when fewer than 4,000 sales separated it from the second-place Accord. The picture looked the same in September, too, when the Accord's lead over the Sonata narrowed to less than 3,500 units. At the same time, the Nissan Altima was encroaching on the Hyundai from the other direction and trailed the Sonata by just over 600 units.
The Altima passed the Sonata in October sales, the Ford Fusion followed suit in November and by January 2011, the Malibu has overtaken the Sonata as well. Last month, The Sonata was No. 6 in the mid-size segment, some 3,369 units behind the fifth-place Malibu.
Some of this is certainly due to fleet sales, but there's no getting around the fact that unless the Sonata finds at least 18,936 new buyers this month'”a feat that will be difficult to pull off'”the car will report its first-ever year-over-year sales decrease.
More Models, Fewer Sales
The situation must seem particularly irksome to Hyundai because it expected to be selling three Sonata variants at this stage, with both the 2.0T turbocharged model and the Hybrid version joining the party and gathering a notable chunk of incremental sales. Well, the former has successfully launched, and I found it to be a surprisingly fuel-efficient rival to the V-6 models that make up its competition. It's no sports car, but its combination of 274 hp and better than 27 mpg in real-world Krome on Cars testing makes for a compelling package.
Yet with the price of gas topping $4 per gallon in recent weeks, it would have been nice if Hyundai dealers could have been offering the Sonata Hybrid and its EPA line of 35 mpg city/40 mpg highway/37 mpg combined. Unfortunately, supplies of the vehicle haven't been able to ramp up adequately'”in response to coming NHTSA rules, Hyundai is still fine-tuning the car's virtual engine noise functionality.
The Truck Stops Here
And while the Sonata situation is troubling, there's another Hyundai trend I've been watching that could spell further, bigger problems for the automaker. Consider: Last month, every single automaker that sells trucks (or SUVs or crossovers) in this country saw a positive year-over-year sales performance on that side of the business except for one'”Hyundai. Per the numbers from the Wall Street Journal, while even Suzuki was notching a 12.2 percent increase in light truck sales, and the industry overall realized a 31.7 percent boost, Hyundai found 27.4 percent fewer customers for its crossover lineup than it did in February 2010.
Sales of the Hyundai Santa Fe collapsed by 46.3 percent last month, wiping out a modest 21.9 percent gain by the Hyundai Tucson'”which still underperformed the industry by almost 10 percent'”and an increase of five units by the Hyundai Veracruz.
Part of this has to do with the lineup: The Tucson was actually the first of the new-school Hyundais, but its awkward styling and unimpressive interior make it a tough fit next to the Sonata and new Hyundai Elantra, and it seems to have reached its sales plateau at a bit over 3,000 units per month. The similarly sized Ford Escape found 18,005 buyers in February.
The Santa Fe received a relatively extensive refresh last year, but is still awaiting the kind of complete redesign lavished on the Hyundai cars, while the older Veracruz is simply a nonstarter at this stage in the game.
When you add everything up'”Hyundai putting its focus on 40-mpg cars instead of crossovers, the company starting to report fuel-economy data with its sales figures, the launch of its first hybrid'”it's clear that not only is Hyundai serious about this fuel-efficiency stuff, but it's more serious about it than are U.S. buyers.
And that's your problem right there.