DETROIT – A diesel engine may be in the cards for the new Hyundai Veracruz cross/utility vehicle longer term, if Hyundai Motor America executives get their wish.

And broader application of 6-speed automatic transmissions also is on tap for the brand in North America, a top official tells Ward's.

The new Veracruz, unveiled here at the North American International Auto Show, comes standard with a 3.8L DOHC gasoline V-6. But it will be sold in Korea with a 3L diesel engine as well, and HMA executives say they would like to get their hands on the oil burner for this market.

“I love that diesel,” John Krafcik, vice president-product development and strategic planning, says.

Hyundai is working hard at meeting U.S. emissions requirements with an eye toward making the diesel available for the Veracruz here once technical hurdles are overcome.

“I would love the diesel here,” Chief Operating Officer Steve Wilhite says. “The market is ready for diesel.”

Neither Hyundai official would speculate specifically on when the engine might be available in the U.S.

Wilhite expects to sell 16,000-17,000 units of the Veracruz CUV this year and about 25,000 annually in succeeding years. It is slated to hit U.S. dealerships in March and will be priced “well below” $30,000, he says.

The Veracruz is packed with features, including Hyundai’s first-ever 6-speed automatic. The transmission is built by Aisin Seiki Co. Ltd. and comes with a manual shift mode.

Six-speed automatics ultimately will be offered throughout most of Hyundai’s lineup, Krafcik says.

“We think it is the most cost-efficient way to improve fuel economy,” he says, declining to pinpoint when the migration to 6-speeds will be completed.

“We think six is a good number of gears for mainstream models,” Krafcik says. “Some luxury brands are offering 7-speeds, 8-speeds, but for us, six speeds is the right amount.”

Standard equipment in the Veracruz includes a bevy of safety features: six airbags, active head restraints, antilock brakes with electronic brake-force distribution and electronic stability control (ESC), which Wilhite says now is offered as standard on 73% of the cars and trucks Hyundai sells in the U.S.

Hyundai is looking to increase sales this year to 550,000 vehicles, after falling short of its targets in 2006, a disappointing performance Wilhite blames on labor issues in South Korea, a ramp up of Hyundai’s new Alabama plant that hampered supplies and currency fluctuations that pressured pricing. Hyundai sold 455,520 cars and trucks in the U.S. last year.

Labor strife continues in Korea, where Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd. President and CEO Youn Yeo-chul recently sustained injuries in a scuffle with union workers in Ulsan.

But Wilhite says the auto maker is “optimistic” issues are behind it and vehicle supplies will flow uninterrupted to the U.S. in 2007.

dzoia@wardsauto.com