By Charles Krome
Well, in Europe anyway. That’s the lowdown from the European Automobile Manufacturer’s Association by way of Automotive News. According to those sources, Hyundai and Kia have combined to ring up 521,369 sales across the pond through October, up 4 percent compared to the same time last year, while Toyota (plus Lexus) saw sales slip 17 percent to finish at 511,754. Unsurprisingly, experts pinned the blame on fallout from the Toyota Recallathon as well as improving quality for the South Koreans.
And although things haven’t swung to the same extremes in the U.S., consider this: Toyota-Lexus had 1,448,589 U.S. sales at this point in 2009, with Hyundai-Kia tallying 634,282 customers, which meant that the South Koreans had sold 43.7 percent of Team Toyota’s total. In 2010, the numbers went 1,456,790 for the Japanese and 752,926 for Hyundai-Kia, with the latter now representing 51.6 percent of the former’s total. Hyundai and Kia obviously still have a ways to go before they catch Toyota and Lexus, but just as obviously, momentum is now on their side as the industry continues to recover. Plus, even assuming Toyota now has its quality issues under control, dealing with them has left the company well behind its Hyundai-Kia competition (among others) in a number of key areas.
The most obvious one is design. Dramatic new sheet metal has helped define the Hyundai-Kia renaissance, with the two brands introducing some of the most eye-catching vehicles now on the market. I don’t particularly care for the Hyundai look, but it’s not Aztek-ugly enough to scare people away and it does represent a concerted effort to make a statement to customers. For Kia, hiring Audi’s Peter Schreyer has made a world of difference, adding an aggressive touch of Euro-panache to the lineup. Toyota, on the other hand, is still building transportation appliances.
Yes, Toyota has the Prius, and that’s still the most fuel-efficient vehicle in the country, but it has been on sale now in the U.S. for more than a decade. Toyota should have been expanding the Prius’ hybrid system across its mainstream lineup years ago; instead, we’re still months away from seeing the Prius MPV slated to show up in Detroit. And in the meantime, Hyundai has developed its own hybrid system, using its own lithium polymer technology, and will soon be fielding hybrid versions of the Sonata and Optima.
Worse, Toyota hasn’t been able to keep up with the latest advances in internal combustion engines, which still dominate the marketplace. Toyota finally announced it would start using direct injection and cutting-edge turbos in coming high-volume products, but that tech is already old hat for Hyundai and Kia, along with plenty of other OEMs. The South Korean also has had time to develop its own in-house six-speed automatic, too, and will be putting that to good use in the new 40-mpg Elantra; the 2011 Toyota Corolla, rocking a four-speed autobox, is a full 6 mpg behind that mark in highway driving.
The company’s approach to electric vehicles leaves something to be desired as well. Toyota is behind here, too, and it’s not just because the automaker still questions the viability of EVs. It’s also because Toyota hasn’t been able to focus its attention on the matter at hand and decide on a clear-cut strategy going forward. Instead, it’s had to buy Tesla’s assistance (and technology) in what looks like a pretty half-assed attempt to join the party.
Hyundai has a few of its homegrown EVs on the road in South Korea right now.
See, it’s not so much what’s happened in the past that’s hurting Toyota, it’s what isn’t happening in the present that’s the problem.