NEW YORK – Hyundai Motor America Chief Operating Officer Steve Wilhite says the auto maker is cautiously optimistic about the recent free-trade agreement hammered out between the U.S. and South Korea.

“We’re obviously excited about the announcement, but it’s a little premature to start making plans,” Wilhite tells reporters at the New York auto show here following the unveiling of Hyundai’s rear-wheel-drive Concept Genesis.

The new pact, reached April 1, calls for South Korea to drop import tariffs on U.S. cars, while the U.S. will eliminate a smaller import tax on Korean cars over three years and a 25% tariff on Korean pickup trucks over the next 10 years. The FTA still is subject to approval by legislative bodies on both sides.

A report in the Korean media earlier in the week says Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd. officials now are eager to see a pickup truck developed for the U.S. market. A source last year told Ward’s Hyundai had designed a compact pickup truck model but later scrapped it for unknown reasons.

However, selling a pickup truck in North America is the last thing on the minds of American Hyundai officials, Wilhite says, noting there are more pressing matters.

Among them is a clear understanding with the brand’s U.S. dealers that Hyundai’s new up-market product focus does not mean abandoning its entry-level-model heritage.

At the show here, however, Hyundai clearly spotlights its aspirations.

The Concept Genesis hints at a new production model due in the U.S. in second-half 2008. Along with the recently launched Veracruz large cross/utility vehicle, the two vehicles represent a desire by Hyundai to attract a more affluent, enthusiast buyer.

Wilhite says while Hyundai has done “considerable research” on a luxury brand, it is too early to say if one will debut in the future.

He sees the production version of the Genesis taking sales away from near-premium models such as the Nissan Maxima, Chrysler 300 and Toyota Avalon. Some luxury brand models also likely will be cross-shopped with the upcoming large sedan, Wilhite predicts.

Development of the new RWD chassis underpinning the concept rides on took about four years, longer than the normal 20-24-month cycle, a company spokesman tells Ward’s.

HMA Chief Designer Joel Piaskowski says the front and rear of the production model will be changed, but otherwise the Concept Genesis is an accurate representation of the future sedan.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com