Special Coverage

Chicago Auto Show

Hyundai Motor America is counting on a mid-cycle refreshening to boost its midsize Sonata sedan’s profile in a crowded and competitive field.

The revamped ’09 model will bow next week at the Chicago auto show.

“We think the interior is the best midsize car interior – better than (the Nissan) Altima – and that’s really where the Sonata needed a little bit of work,” John Krafcik, vice president-product development and strategic planning, tells Ward’s in an interview.

Since bowing in its current form in 2005, the Sonata has had mixed success.

Sales initially surged 22% to 130,365 units that first year, then gained another 15% in 2006 to 149,513 units, Ward’s data shows.

However, sales faltered last year, forcing Hyundai to halt production for the first time at its 3-year-old Montgomery, AL, plant to control inventories.

Sonata ended 2007 down 2.6% to 145,568 in the U.S., clearly trailing the performance of the Upper Middle segment overall, which grew 3.4% to 2.3 million units last year.

Krafcik says the ’09 Sonata will get a “minor” exterior freshening but relatively significant changes to the vehicle’s two engines, the 2.4L 4-cyl. and 3.3L V-6.

“We’ve gone in and worked on both the 4-cyl. and the V-6 engine,” he says. “We’ve gone (to) dual (continuously variable valve timing) on the 4-cyl. (and) taken horsepower up.”

A senior Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd. official told Ward’s in October the 4-cyl.’s “power increase will be significant” but couldn’t pinpoint an exact figure.

A 5-speed automatic transmission also has been added to models equipped with the 4-cyl. engine, Krafcik says. Currently, a 4-speed is the only automatic transmission available with the 4-cyl.

The smaller engine now makes up 70%-80% of Sonata demand, Krafcik says, a complete reversal from the previous-generation Sonata that saw an 80/20 mix in favor of the V-6.

“I think when you look at horsepower and fuel economy together, we’re going to have the strongest competitive position in the midsize-car (segment),” he says of the ’09 Sonata.

Tom Libby, a sales analyst for J.D. Power & Associates in Detroit, says historically a mid-cycle refreshening will boost sales due to the accompanying increase in marketing and press attention, but he notes all bets are off when it comes to the midsize-sedan segment.

“It’s not like they’re going into a segment that only has a few models,” Libby says, pointing to the strong competition from the Japanese Big Three and a resurgent General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co., with the Chevrolet Malibu and Ford Fusion, respectively.

“That segment is exceptionally competitive,” he says. “It may have a better interior than the Altima as perceived by most people…but part of the challenge is that it’s a Sonata and it’s a Hyundai.” Sonata’s main advantage is a lower price vs. its key rivals, he adds.

Krafcik says production of the new ’09 Sonata already has begun at the Montgomery plant.

Also debuting in Chicago will be the Elantra Touring wagon, sold overseas as the Hyundai i30.

Although the U.S. will get the wagon version of the car, not the hatchback, Krafcik classifies the Elantra Touring as more of a hatchback and says the options mix will be “very simple – all fun and functional.”

He notes all i30s in the U.S. will be equipped as sporty SE-level models, with a 2.0L engine, and be offered in just four buildable combinations.

The model, initially designed specifically with Europe in mind, will be exported to the U.S. from South Korea. Supplies will be limited due to its success in the domestic and European markets, Krafcik says, adding HMA is likely to continue to pick from the auto maker’s overseas lineup in the future.

“That’s one of the beauties of working for a global company,” he says. “(HMA) saw the i30 developing in the studio, and we thought, ‘Well, that’s brilliant,’ and found a way to make it happen.”

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com