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A look back at the year in cars

In 2017, imports were king, eco-friendly models made headway and SUVs flew off lots
Dec 30,2017
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The Korean auto industry had a tepid 2017. Sales are forecast to drop by 20,000 cars compared to last year, according to the Korea Automotive Manufacturers Association, and most to blame are domestic automakers. This year, the industry is expected to sell a total of 1.82 million cars, compared to 1.84 million in the past two years.

Despite faltering sales abroad, Hyundai Motor, the nation’s largest carmaker, managed to expand its domestic market share by 2.7 percent backed by new model launches. Its market share grew from 36.1 percent in 2016 to 38.8 percent this year.

Renault Samsung Motors, which didn’t release a single new model this year, recorded a sales drop of 6.6 percent and sold 90,584 cars as of November, yielding its fourth spot in the local market to SsangYong Motor, which sold 96,030 on the back of the continued popularity of SUVs.

GM Korea, which faced rumors of withdrawal from the Korean market, took a sales hit of 25.6 percent, falling to 120,526 cars sold this year.

Import automakers, though, were flying high. Their market share went up by 1.5 percentage points this year to 15.8 percent, with a vacancy left by scandal-ridden Volkswagen offering opportunities for other import brands.

Old stars never fade

The Grandeur IG, a revamped version of Hyundai Motor’s popular large sedan which launched last year, took the gold crown this year, selling more than 120,000 units. It is the only model to surpass the 100,000 mark this year in the domestic car market. Last year, none of the models were able to meet the mark.

The IG’s consumer demographic has skewed younger, a major hurdle that Hyundai Motor has been trying to cross with its flagship large sedan.

According to the carmaker, those in their 30s accounted for 14.7 percent of the 97,000 Grandeur IG sales, a 3.6-percentage point increase from the previous HG. While the Grandeur was popular among Korean drivers, it also had the cachet of a car for ajeossi, or middle-aged men.

A diversified engine lineup consisting of gasoline, diesel and hybrid options also contributed to the IG’s popularity with an increasing number of consumers interested in eco-friendliness and fuel efficiency.

Among import brands, Mercedes-Benz Korea scored several achievements this year. It took the top spot for two consecutive years, selling 64,000 cars as of November, a 28 percent increase from last year. No other import brand has sold more than 60,000 units in a year in the past.

BMW Korea trailed its German rival with 52,817 sales as of November, according to figures from the Korea Automobile Importers and Distributors Association.

The E-Class sedan led growth for Mercedes, selling 31,109 as of November. BMW’s flagship 5 Series, which had a fully overhauled version released early this year, sold 20,307.

Last month, BMW Korea reclaimed the top spot in the import car market on the back of increasing demand for the 5 Series, heralding a head-to-head match with Mercedes-Benz Korea.



Filling the VW void

Audi and Volkswagen, which once held court in Korea’s import car market, were nowhere to be seen after the government banned sales of their cars in the middle of last year for rigging emissions figures. Their absence dragged down the overall market share of import cars, from 15.5 percent in 2015 to 14.4 percent in 2016.

This year, import brands jumped on the vacancy, releasing new models and ramping up their marketing push. As a result, the market share of import cars regained to the 15 percent level this year.

Japanese brands showed momentous growth. Toyota, which catered to the middle ground of consumers who prefer imports but can’t afford premium, recorded year-on-year sales growth of 28.5 percent, selling 10,660 cars as of November. Its premium Lexus models sold 11,294, up 23.2 percent from last year.

Swedish automaker Volvo also seized on the opportunity and posted 35.4 percent year-on-year growth, selling 6,417 cars. With revamped designs and continual focus on safety features combined with smart technology, Volvo’s main lineup, including the new XC60, was able to enjoy exponential popularity in Korea.

A number of top celebrities, including singer Lee Hyo-ri and actress Kim Tae-hee, have purchased Volvos in the past few years, raising the company’s profile in Korea.



Battle of the SUVs

In line with global trends, small SUVs are selling like hotcakes in Korea. According to the Korea Automotive Manufacturers Association, Korea’s small SUV market jumped by 30 percent this year as of November to 125,000 cars.

SsangYong Motor was an early pioneer in the market, releasing the Tivoli in 2015, and it was joined by two strong players this year. The Tivoli, though, was still the segment topper, selling 50,395 as of November.

Hyundai Motor’s first global small SUV, the Kona, which launched this summer, followed with 20,904. Its sales goal for the year was 26,000.

Hyundai’s affiliate, Kia Motors, released the more affordable Stonic SUV alongside the Kona and sold 7,320 of the model this year.

Despite faltering sales in general, GM Korea’s Trax managed to sell 15,001 this year, and Renault Samsung’s QM3 sold 11,107.

Midsize SUVs remained popular as well. For Kia Motors, the Sorento was the best-selling model among all segments, selling more than 70,000 units. SsangYong Motor’s revamped Korando also sold 27,611 this year.



Going green

Growing interest in environmental issues and saving money on fuel propelled sales of eco-friendly cars this year.

According to the Korea Automotive Manufacturers Association, sales of vehicles with electric, hybrid, plug-in hybrid and fuel-cell engines recorded 88,713 as of November. Last year, it was 68,826.

The most popular eco-friendly model was Kia Motors’ Niro, which comes in both hybrid and plug-in hybrid versions. It sold 20,721 this year through November.

The hybrid Grandeur followed with 16,190 units, a notable figure considering it only launched in March. Hyundai Motor’s Ioniq electric vehicle and hybrid sold 11,237.

Such trend was apparent in the import car market, as well, which partially explains why Toyota and Lexus models were able to enjoy rapid sales growth.

According to the Korea Automobile Importers and Distributors Association, sales of hybrid vehicles recorded 20,644 as of November. Last year, the figure was 16,259, and in 2015, there were only 9,786 sales.

Toyota, with its heavy lineup of hybrids best represented by the Camry, sold 6,663 hybrid models this year. Lexus, with its ES300h sedan, sold 10,525.

Toyota and Lexus accounted for 83 percent of the entire hybrid import market.

The eco-friendly car market is expected to get more competitive next year. The Kona and Niro are scheduled to launch with pure electric versions in 2018, which will add new options to the affordable electric car market.

Hyundai Motor’s fuel-cell vehicle is also set to launch next year.


BY JIN EUN-SOO [jin.eunsoo@joongang.co.kr]