Foreign Cars Set to Rock Korean Market Next Year

Imported car sales in November rose 3.8 percent compared to the previous month and 35.1 percent on-year to a monthly record of 12,470 units, the Korea Automobile Importers and Distributors Association said Wednesday. The previous record was set in September this year with 12,123.

Sales of Korean cars in November also rose 10 percent compared to the same month in 2011, but were not enough to catch up with the explosive growth of imports.

Imported cars now account for more than 10 percent of the passenger car market. In terms of revenues, the percentage is estimated as high as 20 percent since they are normally more expensive.

"Just a few years ago, only a select group of rich Koreans could afford an imported car, but the situation has changed completely now," said Yoon Dae-sung of KAIDA.

Foreign car brands are expected to enjoy growing popularity here with more affordable new models. They plan to release a wide range of mid-sized and compact vehicles in the 1.0 to 2.0-liter engine class to tap into a new group of potential buyers, while domestic automakers like Hyundai Motor and affiliate Kia Motors have a dearth of new models set for release next year.

◆ Smaller Foreign Models

Mercedes-Benz will begin selling the 1.8-liter A Class here next year, a compact hatchback first launched in 1997 but not so far sold in Korea. Until just a few years ago, the large S Class sedans comprised the bulk of sales in Korea for Mercedes and the German automaker did not even think about selling the A Class here. But soaring sales of rival BMW's compact 1 Series and mid-sized 3 Series in Korea prompted Mercedes-Benz to change its mind.

Volkswagen plans to sell its 1.2-liter or 1.4-liter Polo subcompact here next year. Buoyed by the success of the compact 2.0-liter Golf, Volkswagen is confident Koreans will open their wallets to buy the subcompact, which costs 50 percent more than Korean models of the same size. Fiat plans to introduce the 1.5-liter gasoline 500 Cinquecento and 2.0-liter diesel Freemont SUV.

BMW, the top foreign carmaker in terms of sales and credited with increasing the size of the overall pie for foreign automakers here, will introduce the New 3 Series Grand Tourismo here next year. The GT is built on the same chassis as the 5 Series GT but features a coupe-styled roof and expanded trunk space. It will also launch a face-lifted version of its bestselling 5 Series large sedans.

Toyota plans to market the latest version of its main RAV 4 SUV, while Honda will begin selling the new Civic compact next year.

◆ Few Domestic Models

Hyundai rolls out only one new model next year, an upgraded version of the Genesis large sedan with a new engine and exterior. It also plans to launch the 2013 version of its compact Avante coupe and Santa Fe SUV with a wider interior. But those two models are not bestsellers.

The situation is similar at affiliate Kia, which rolls out new models of its boxy Soul and compact multi-purpose Carens and a hatchback version of its compact K3. But those models are not popular enough to lure buyers away from imported brands.

GM Korea plans to sell the Trax SUV next year, and Renault Samsung crossover concept car Captur. Ssangyong has no new vehicles lined up.

That means the five automakers based in Korea will unveil only five new models between them next year, leading to predictions that the attention of consumers will shift to imports.

"There are only 40 types of Korean models on the market now but more than 140 import models," a Hyundai staffer said. "And the price difference between domestic and foreign cars is narrowing."

englishnews@chosun.com / Dec. 08, 2012 08:16 KST