The Joy of 6: Hyundai-Kia Overtake Nissan in U.S. Sales Race

By Charles Krome

There weren’t too many automakers celebrating the U.S. sales results for August, with Chrysler being the only high-volume automaker to see a year-over-year sales increase for the month. Even Hyundai and Kia fell on hard times, with the former seeing a sales drop for the first time since May of 2009 and the latter earning its first decline since June of last year.

But even when the South Korean brands appear to be losing, they’re still winning. Keeping in mind that Hyundai owns a controlling stake in Kia, the two combined to move 86,068 units in August, while Nissan (plus Infiniti) sold 76,827. Add those results to the South Korean’s very strong sales numbers from the first seven months of the year and, at this stage in the game, the Hyundai-Kia group has displaced Nissan North America from sixth place on the list of top-selling automakers here in the U.S.

The current score: 601,445 sales for Hyundai-Kia and 599,496 for Nissan-Infiniti.

It’s an amazing testament to how far both Hyundai and Kia have come in recent years: The “Big Six” (GM, Chrysler, Ford, Toyota, Honda, Nissan) has ruled the U.S. sales roost for decades, and as companies like Volkswagen have found out, breaking into this exclusive club is no easy task. And even now, there’s no guarantee that things will stay as they are through December, when the year’s sales standings become final.

It’s true that Hyundai and Kia are continuing to churn out exciting new products like the remade Kia Sportage and soon-to-debut 2011 Kia Optima family, along with the upcoming all-new Hyundai Elantra and Hyundai Veloster/Tiburon.

But on the other hand, I’ve long been thinking the story here verges on too good to be true. Yes, sales and profits have been at record levels for Hyundai and Kia, but their ability to keep pumping out extensively revised all-new products while still keeping MSRPs well below those of the competition makes me think something is out of whack somewhere along the line. That’s why I’ve had my eye on the ol’ recall lists lately.

For example, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently opened investigations into serious steering issues on both the 2011 Hyundai Sonata and 2010 Kia Soul. The Soul, along with the current Kia Sorento, have also been recalled for defective wiring. And the 2010 Hyundai Tucson was recalled earlier this year for a problem with its safety belts.

Note, too, that these aren’t old-school Hyundai and Kia models, but all products that have gone through the brands’ extreme makeover machine.

I’m not ready to say Hyundai and Kia have been skimping on quality engineering in order to put their focus on growth, but it certainly wouldn’t be the first time something like that’s happened in the auto industry.

Author: Charles Krome

Charles Krome is a long-time automotive journalist who spent more than 10 years on the inside at General Motors and Ford, and also has corporate communications experience with Audi, Porsche and BASF Automotive Refinish. As a big motorsports fan growing up in the Detroit area, Krome was lucky enough to be able to attend numerous NASCAR, Indy car, F1 and SCCA events while still in his formative years. This, combined with a childhood that included significant (passenger) seat time in cars from Lotus and Jensen Healey, made him a car guy at an earlier age. Today, he lives in metro Detroit with his car wife, raising car kids.

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