Image: Hyundai Sonata
David McNew  /  Getty Images
The new Hyundai Sonata is displayed during press preview days at the 2009 LA Auto Show at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
By contributor
updated 3/30/2010 7:45:43 AM ET 2010-03-30T11:45:43

“Diligence, frugality, harmony.” These three words adorn every conference room in Hyundai offices around the world. They might not be catchy fodder for an advertising slogan, but they have provided effective guidance as the company has emerged as a premier manufacturer of well-designed and well-built affordable cars.

These values have powered Hyundai to impressive sales growth during the recession, as it has swiped market share from established rivals.

A star for the company in the last month or so has been its 2011 Sonata family sedan, an all-new car that has more than doubled its market share compared to a year ago, achieving sales on par with Nissan’s excellent Altima sedan.

A key attribute of the Sonata is that it is lighter than its competitors, which gives it an advantage in fuel economy and performance. Hyundai’s new Sonata is in the weight-loss vanguard, its designers not only wringing pounds out of some of its parts, but also rethinking the approach to the mid-sized sedan segment. In the Sonata’s case, that meant ditching the V-6 engine that accounted for about 10 percent of sales in the previous model.

The availability of a heavier, bulkier and brawnier V-6 meant that many of the old Sonata’s parts had to be enlarged to handle the engine, even though few customers actually bought it. With only a four-cylinder engine available, the steel in the Sonata’s front frame rails can be thinner and it can use smaller brakes than if it had the bigger engine, explained John Krafcik, president and CEO of Hyundai North America.

The Sonata comes to the market at the small end of the spectrum compared to the current Accord and Camry, but with more room inside than most of its competitors. If the engine bay doesn’t have to be large enough for a V-6, then the car can be smaller while the cabin is larger.

As recently as 2005, the Sonata was a stereotypical Korean knock-off, aping the styling of the Jaguar S-Type like a sidewalk vendor’s faux Louis Vuitton handbag. In 2006 Hyundai took the conservative path with a solid, if undistinguished family sedan. The 2011 Sonata is as good as anything in the class.

Hyundai has made its astounding strides despite a few handicaps that made such progress seem unlikely. In the past, corporate bosses in Korea have seemed reluctant to trust the judgment of the non-Koreans who work in the U.S. office, despite their greater familiarity with the customers here. The resulting friction saw the company go through four presidents in the five years before ex-Ford engineer John Krafcik took the helm in 2008. Krafcik has evidently succeeded in navigating the tricky currents of Korean/American relations where his predecessors failed, with increasingly appealing and competitive products as the result.

Krafcik attributes his success to his identification with the company’s three goals of diligence, frugality and harmony. “I’m very wired to be sympathetic to that set of goals,” he said. “Everything I’ve done in the auto industry, going back to my lean production studies at MIT, have been about frugality and avoiding waste.”

The lean management organization Krafcik employs at Hyundai Motor America is able to react rapidly to market requirements. “We had eight vice presidents when I became president,” he said. “Now we’re down to four. We could have a staff meeting in my closet, so we can make decisions very quickly.”

An example of Hyundai’s lightning reflexes is the horn on the Sonata. It appeared at the media drive program for the car that there was not a horn left on a scooter in Seoul, because Hyundai must have swiped them all for use on the Sonata. Hearing criticism that the bleating horn was an embarrassment to a car as impressive as the Sonata, Krafcik and his team made the decision within weeks to replace the moped-grade hardware with a more appropriate dual-shell unit that will give the car a fuller presence when the owner needs to use the horn.

Most carmakers would consider it responsive to replace that deficient part for the next model year, but at the cost of just a few dollars per car, new Sonatas will have an improved piece in place very soon.

While the new horn is upgraded, you can be sure it comes from a Korean supplier. Just as the company has been wary of foreign executives, Hyundai has been equally reluctant to trust non-Korean parts suppliers, preferring instead to source parts from its cozy group of Korean partners, even when the cars are assembled in the U.S. The result of that is an uncommonly low North American parts content of 50 percent, even though the Sonata’s engine (and soon the transmission) are assembled in the U.S.

It is hard to argue with the results because the Sonata, like all of Hyundai’s recent products, is a top contender in its segment. But it is difficult to imagine that a company can sustain competitiveness over time with such an insular approach to management and parts supply. At some point, surely, the company will realize that a Kumho or Hankook tire selected without competition and shipped across the Pacific to be mounted on a U.S.-assembled vehicle might not be the best solution.

While the company may have initially skimped a bit on the horn, advanced features are lavished throughout the rest of the Sonata. The car’s engine is a sophisticated, powerful and efficient 198-hp 2.4-liter four cylinder. It uses direct gasoline injection which permits higher compression and more power for the size, and the Sonata successfully avoids the diesel-like racket that can result from using this diesel-like fuel injection system.

Hyundai designed and manufactures its own six-speed automatic transmission, a unit that is smaller and lighter than the outsourced five-speed it replaces. Additional gears in a transmission help improve gas mileage and performance by keeping the engine working at an optimal speed, but the challenge of having so many gears to choose from is to program the transmission to use all of those gears properly. Too many six-speeds are prone to shifting constantly. The thinking is that with closely spaced gears these frequent changes aren’t as noticeable as the less-frequent but bigger changes among fewer gears were, but that is rarely the case.

Hyundai’s programming of the Sonata’s six-speed transmission is good, though it can still seem a little busy at times. That may well be the inescapable nature of the new six-, seven-, and even eight-speed transmissions, but hopefully their programming can continue to improve.

Continuous improvement of such things falls squarely under the “diligence” portion of the company motto, so look for Hyundai’s products to keep getting better. But since they fixed the horn, it will be tough for them to find much to improve on the 2011 Sonata.

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