Hyundai's Popular Sonata Gets a Facelift Despite Brutal U.S. Auto Market
Hyundai Sonata 2018

Just two years ago, Hyundai Motor Co. introduced the seventh generation of its popular Sonata midsize family sedan, a handsome vehicle that earned strong reviews. Two years later, Sonata is returning with a facelift, making the car even better-looking and perhaps more likely to attract customers inclined toward crossovers and SUVs.

In a second move to reinforce sales, Hyundai is bringing out two new hatchback versions of its Elantra compact sedan -- the GT and GT Sport -- both of which are designed not to resemble typical sedans.

Hyundai Elantra GT
Hyundai Elantra GT

With a newly designed front and rear, Sonata was made to look more like a four-door coupe and less like a sedan, though with plenty of room for rear-seat passengers. Hyundai used the opportunity to improve Sonata's technical specifications such as steering response and added two safety features, blind-spot alert and rear cross-traffic warning, as standard equipment.

"Dynamic lines, strong graphics, and our new signature cascading grille come together in an athletic way," said Chris Chapman, the South Korean automaker's design director for North America.

With vehicle sales off 2.1% for the U.S. industry during the first six months of 2017, Hyundai is off a bigger 7.4%. The disproportionate decline likely is connected to the automaker's sedan-heavy mix of vehicle models. Midsize family sedans accounted for 16.1% of the U.S. vehicle market as recently as 2012; Hyundai forecasts that sedans will make up 10.8% of this year's market.

By contrast, compact crossovers accounted for 8.6% of the U.S. market in 2012; this year Hyundai forecasts that compact crossovers will grab 12.1% of the market. Elantra GT and GT Sport, designed to optimize cargo space, should provide "strong competition" to compact crossovers like the VW Golf.

But Mike O'Brien, vice president of product planning for Hyundai, noted that consumer preferences for particular categories of automobiles ebb and flow, based on numerous factors such as gasoline prices. After the global financial crisis, fullsize pickup truck sales plunged and then recovered a few years later.

"Automakers aren't giving up on sedans entirely," said Brian Moody, editorial director of AutoTrader. "Sedans still have the most variety - cars like the Honda Accord and Ford Motor Co.'s (F) Fusion have long been offered with different engines including both hybrid and plug-in hybrid, the Accord even offers a coupe version as well as a manual transmission while the Fusion is one of the few sedans that can be ordered with all-wheel drive."

Honda Motor Co. (HMC) , Nissan Motor Corp. (NSANY) and Toyota Motor Corp. (TM) are incorporating increasingly aggressive bodywork into their sedans, Moody said. The new Toyota Camry and Honda Accord sedans are good examples as is the Nissan Maxima. Even General Motors Co.'s (GM) Chevrolet Impala and the Honda Civic have a swoopy look designed to make the usual sedan profile a little sexier.

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Editors' pick: Originally published July 13.

Doron Levin is the host of "In the Driver Seat," broadcast on SiriusXM Insight 121, Saturday at noon, encore Sunday at 9 a.m.

This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.

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