NAMYANG, South Korea – From mudflaps and forklifts to high rises and ocean-going vessels, the Hyundai brand name is inescapable here on the Korean Peninsula.

Americans have come to recognize Hyundai and its Kia sister brand in recent years as up-and-coming auto makers racking up steady successes and accolades for vehicles such as the Hyundai Sonata and Genesis and Kia Optima and Sorento.

But here in its home market, Hyundai Motor Group is more than just the largest employer in the country. Through many subsidiaries, it is an economic force that:

  • Owns at least half the domestic new-car market
  • Fills highways and ports with small and large commercial vehicles and shipping containers
  • Owns a chain of gasoline stations
  • Transforms the countryside with backhoes
  • Produces steel
  • Manages logistics
  • Transports the masses with buses
  • Manufactures robots and vehicle parts
  • Provides financing
  • Runs a hotel and resort
  • Helps fortify the nation’s defense

With a mild alteration, a famous saying that once applied to General Motors now fits the Hyundai parent company like a workman’s glove: As goes Hyundai, so goes South Korea.

Hyundai’s rise, although a work in process for years, seemingly has happened overnight. Within the past eight years, Hyundai has asserted a new styling language; opened research-and-development sites in Russia, Japan, Germany, India and metro Detroit; opened a proving grounds in California and two vehicle assembly plants in the U.S.; introduced a world-class V-8; upgraded its interiors; and opened additional plants in Russia, India, China and Czech Republic while two more new plants are under construction in Brazil and China. A plant in Turkey has been assembling vehicles since 1997.

And yet, the automotive beginnings were quite humble with poorly executed cars such as the Excel compact, which arrived in the U.S. in 1986. Back then, it would have been impossible to consider a Hyundai brand vehicle in the running for North American Car of the Year, an award bestowed on the Genesis luxury car in 2009.

Last week, Hyundai hosted an international powertrain conference here, and a key takeaway is that the auto maker will continue a phase of rapid development with new engines and transmissions intended to meet strict new fuel-economy regulations.

Among these new engines will be a turbocharged version of the direct-injection gasoline 1.6L Gamma DOHC 4-cyl. engine recently introduced in the Hyundai Accent and Veloster, as well as the new-for-’12 Kia Rio subcompact.

Which vehicles will receive this twin-scroll turbocharged variant and when remains a subject of speculation. The Veloster, a sporty and uniquely shaped 3-door hatchback, could use the additional power, but that application has not yet been confirmed.

The turbocharged variant is stout enough to power larger vehicles as well, says John Juriga, director-powertrain Hyundai/Kia America Technical Center (HATCI) in Superior Township, MI.

Hyundai says the turbo 1.6L, which integrates dual continuously variable valve timing, can produce 201 hp and 195 lb.-ft. (265 Nm) of torque and is capable of city/highway fuel economy of 26/37 mpg (9-6.3 L/100 km).

On the V-6 front, Hyundai soon will launch in the U.S. a direct-injection 3.3L version of its Lambda engine that currently powers the Genesis with a displacement of 3.8L.

The 3.3L Lambda will appear first in the U.S. in the new Azera front-wheel-drive sedan when it launches sometime in 2012. The Azera is meant to fill the gap between the Sonata sedan and more expensive rear-wheel-drive Genesis sedan.

The previous-generation Azera in the U.S. was a conservatively styled sedan, but the new model will be based on the all-new Grandeur, which launched in January here at Hyundai’s Asan plant and demonstrates the sharp-edged styling and flowing lines of the “fluidic sculpture” design philosophy that began with the current Sonata.

Output data for the 3.3L Lambda is not yet available, but the recently introduced 3.8L DI engine makes 333 hp in the ’12 Genesis.

Also unveiled at the powertrain conference here is a new R 2.0L turbodiesel that integrates both high- and low-pressure exhaust gas recirculation, solenoid-based direct-injection common rail, variable-geometry turbocharger and diesel particulate filter aftertreatment.

The new engine’s peak torque of 283 lb.-ft. (383 Nm) arrives at about 1,700 rpm and doesn’t taper until 2,500 rpm. Output is rated at 147 hp.

Potential applications for this engine have yet to be confirmed, but a Powerpoint slide at the conference says the Sorento cross/utility vehicle equipped with the engine would meet Euro 6 emissions requirements.

There are no immediate plans to introduce the diesel engine in the U.S. market, Juriga says.

“We build a lot of diesels around the world, and we’re taking another look at the U.S. market,” he tells WardsAuto. “We’re trying to position ourselves as very quick to implement if this seems like it will make a good business case for the customer.”

If the engine were to enter the U.S. market, Juriga says it likely would integrate selective catalytic reduction aftertreatment.

Boosting fuel efficiency in the face of pending regulations is a top priority for Hyundai, as it is for all auto makers.

In the U.S., Hyundai must improve its fleet fuel economy at least 3.8% annually to meet a 52.3 mpg (4.5 L/100 km) fleet average by 2025, says Kwang-Yeon Kim, who leads Hyundai’s energy efficiency engineering team, in his presentation at the conference.

In Europe, Kim says Hyundai must improve fuel economy 1.9% per year by 2015 to meet current carbon-dioxide emission regulations and a further 6.1% per year by 2020 to meet expected regulations.

In his presentation, Kim highlights these other fuel-saving powertrain technologies as under intensive study by Hyundai:

  • Idle Stop & Go micro-hybrid, which is offered on the ’12 Kia Rio and Soul
  • Stratified GDI with fuel injection pressures above 200 bar
  • Cylinder deactivation
  • 2-stage turbocharging
  • Supercharged hybrid-electric vehicle
  • 10-speed automatic transmission
  • Rankine cycle exhaust heat recovery

Kim also says Hyundai will introduce an electric vehicle in 2013 with a 24kWh lithium-polymer battery pack that boosts energy density 30% over the previous generation and provides a driving range of 99 miles (160 km).

Power for the EV will come from an 80kW (107-hp) induction motor capable of propelling the vehicle to 62 mph (100 km/h) in 12 seconds. Maximum speed is 87 mph (140 km/h).

Daeyoon Oh, who has worked 26 years for Hyundai, has witnessed vast changes at the auto maker. Today, he leads powertrain development at HATCI in the U.S. and soon returns to Korea for a new assignment.

Oh hired in when Hyundai purchased engines from other auto makers and set out to build its own. The first, a 1.5L 4-cyl. arrived in 1992.

Since then, he has learned to embrace a corporate culture dedicated to rapid change and continuous improvement, especially on the powertrain side.

“We had been using multi-port injection, and now we have to move to gasoline direct injection,” Oh says. “Everyone (at Hyundai) is focused on fuel economy rather than horsepower. In previous years, we focused on power, but recently we’ve had to change.”

Growing up in Seoul, Oh says he has seen Hyundai emerge as a brand of great national pride – an image he hopes will remain intact as new powertrain technologies reach production.

“I think all our people are very proud of Hyundai Motor,” he says. “When people have to go outside to other countries, and then they see the many Hyundai Motor cars on the road, it makes them very proud.”

tmurphy@wardsauto.com