Believe it or not, it seemed both totally appropriate and totally inappropriate that Hyundai Motor America held its Northeast press event for two of its cars at the luxurious/rustic Blue Hill Farm and restaurant on the sprawling Rockefeller estate in Tarrytown, N.Y.
As the parking lot there was well-stocked with Mercedes-Benz, Audi, BMW and Porsche cars, it seems (at first blush anyway) inappropriate that one of the two cars Hyundai showed reporters is the totally redesigned Accent, Hyundai's entry car that starts at around $12,500.
But the venue was totally appropriate because the other car is Hyundai's revised Genesis near-luxury car. And the folks from Hyundai pointed out that given the price difference between the performance version of the 2012 Genesis and its AMG competitor from Mercedes-Benz, you'd have enough left over to add an Accent to your garage (for "slumming it," of course!)
The automaker can afford to be a bit lavish these days -- having, for the very first time, topped 6% of retail market share in the U.S. Also a first: In March, the U.S. was the No. 1 global market for the automaker. Sales of the company's Elantra are up 140% this year with very little of that going to rental fleets, according to Brandon Ramirez, senior manager for product planning at Hyundai Motor America (HMA).
Ramirez says that by year's end the company expects to have sold 600,000 units for the first time in the U.S. "And for the full year, we are anticipating topping 6% market share," he says, adding that the Fountain, Valley, Calif.-based HMA is seeing new buyers from Chevy and Nissan, while June incentive levels declined relative to the industry. "We are selling lots of retail with minimal incentives."
Consumers are also responding to its 40-mpg message, per Ramirez. The company has been running an ad campaign to tout the mileage as standard fuel-efficiency performance for Elantra (and Accent), while others charge a premium for their fuel-economy versions. The central image in that campaign are sentient asterisks, intended to embody the qualifications competitors add to their 40-mpg claims (It took some of us a while to figure out that the rubberized asterisks that came with our press kits were actually flash drives.)
Ramirez said Hyundai will, by the end of the year, have four models that get 40 mpg standard: the Sonata hybrid, Elantra, Accent, and Veloster, which launches later this year as a 2012 model.
According to Ramirez, the new 2012 Accent -- the first redesign in five years -- is longer than the predecessor with a lot more interior room. Citing Global Insight stats, he said the b-segment -- or subcompact class comprising vehicles like Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa and Honda Fit in which it competes for share -- grew 33% between 2010 and 2011, and will see 87% growth from 2010 to 2013.
While Ramirez said that people shopping that segment of vehicles are very tuned to mileage economy, his compadre at the high end of the lineup -- Ricky Lao, product planning manager for the Genesis -- said that that car's buyers, given their relative affluence, are more willing to trade mileage for power. Thus, Hyundai is offering an eight-cylinder version of the new Genesis, and is also hoping to take on BMW's M-series, Mercedes-Benz AMG and Cadillac V with a performance version, Genesis 5.0 Spec-R.
The new five-door version of the Accent, meanwhile, will get 30 mpg city/40 highway, which Ramirez says makes it the only five-passenger vehicle in industry to get those numbers. He adds that it is also the only subcompact to offer both a manual and automatic six-speed gearbox.
The automaker is also trying to simplify ordering for the vehicle by cutting trim levels. "Consumers had said they could not find the car they wanted at dealerships, so we have cut orderable configurations down to eight," says Ramirez.
Lao said Hyundai sees big segment growth in luxury sedans as justification for both the mid-luxury Genesis and the high-end Equus sedan, which launched in the U.S. last year. He said the car, which is positioned against sedans like Mercedes-Benz S-Class and BMW 7-Series, is exceeding sales targets -- albeit modest ones of 2,000 units, about 5% of the premium market.
In addition to the car itself -- Lao, who previously was a senior product planner at Toyota Motor, working on Lexus -- said Hyundai is making the service experience a major consideration point for prospects, particularly when it comes to time-saving CRM. "Time is the ultimate luxury," he says, pointing to the company's "your time your place" vehicle demo program and at-home valet service for dealership repair and maintenance as examples. Per Lao, Hyundai's program for Equus owners is almost an antithesis of CRM programs that base luxury on a posh dealership experience. "Does anyone really want to spend time at a dealership, even if they have a barista?"
There is an Equus-dedicated space at the 320 Hyundai dealerships that sell the car, he says, and shoppers of the car deal with a special "Equus sales champion."
So who are those shoppers? Lao says 23.4% are move-ups from within Hyundai, with 22% from Genesis. He says 21% of Equus sales are conquests from Lexus' LS. After that, in descending order: Cadillac, Infiniti, Acura, Toyota and BMW.
The Genesis -- first launched in 2008 -- was Hyundai's first foray into luxury. Lao says although the timing could not have been worse, for obvious reasons, the car has seen 24 months in a row of year-over-year increases. "In June we hit an all-time sales record, while spending less on incentives than our mid-luxury competitors." He said between 2009 and 2010, in the depth of the recession, Genesis has enjoyed 33% sales growth and is on pace to improve again this year. "The mid-luxury segment was actually most affected by recession, so we are pleased, and are really well positioned for the rebound."
Ramirez, meanwhile, says that for Accent is getting both first-time car buyers and "also lots of older buyers who recognize that today's subcompact is same as a mid-size was ten years ago, but gets much better fuel economy and horsepower." He notes that despite the youthful marketing creative the category enjoys, the segment actually has an average age of 51, which he says reflects the bi-modal buyer pattern of both young, and empty nesters who don't need the big hauler any more.