How Hyundai Lost Momentum, And Will ‘Take A Few Years’ To Recover

At a near-empty Hyundai Motor showroom in the Chinese mega city of Chongqing, the store manager is grumbling about his shortage of customers and a lack of bigger, cheaper SUV models popular in the world’s largest auto market.

Even with discounting of as much as 25 percent, his dealership was selling barely a hundred vehicles a month, said the manager surnamed Li. A nearby Nissan dealership was selling about 400 vehicles a month, a store manager there said.

“The sales are simply poor,” Li told Reuters. “Look at the Nissan store next door, they have tens of customers while we just have two.”

An hour’s drive away is Hyundai’s massive $1 billion manufacturing plant, which opened last year with a target to produce 300,000 vehicles per year.

But with sales weak and the Chinese auto market slowing sharply, the factory is running at roughly 30 percent of capacity, two people with knowledge of the matter said. The sources asked not to be identified because the information was not public.

Hyundai, the world’s fifth largest automaker, declined to comment on the Chongqing plant’s production or the showroom’s sales but said it is “closely cooperating” with local partner BAIC to turn around the China business. BAIC did not respond to requests for comment.

Hyundai’s woes mark a major reversal for the automaker which was an early success story in China as it quickly and cheaply rolled out popular new models into a surging market.

In 2009, Hyundai and partner Kia’s combined sales ranked third in China after General Motors and Volkswagen.

The South Korean duo now ranks ninth, and its market share in China was 4 percent last year, from more than10 percent at the beginning of this decade.

Executives and industry experts say Hyundai conceded its once stronghold in the low-end segment to fast-growing Chinese rivals such as Geely and BYD.

Foreign rivals not only defended their turf in premium segments but also kept pricing competitive for mass-market models, squeezing Hyundai’s positioning as an affordable foreign brand, they said.

In the United States, the world’s second-biggest auto market, Hyundai’s market share fell to 4 percent last year, near a decade low.

Hyundai ran into problems in China and the United States for similar reasons: It missed shifts in consumer tastes, especially the surge in demand for SUVs, and it sought higher prices than its brand image could command, four Chinese dealers and half a dozen former and current U.S. dealers, executives and employees said.

In a statement to Reuters, Hyundai said it is addressing its problems in its key U.S. and Chinese markets, revamping designs, launching new SUVs and giving regional units more autonomy to quickly develop products tailored to local tastes.