SUV war to heat up this summer

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SUV war to heat up this summer

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Automakers are aggressively unveiling new lineups of minivans and SUVs in hope of drumming up demand, as the summer vacation season is just around the corner.

Similar to summers past, industry sources say sales of vehicles in these auto segments are likely to get a boost at this time of year.

Hyundai Motor dominates the local minivan market, but foreign brands are stepping up to the challenge with higher-end SUVs.

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Changing lanes

When the vacation season rolls around in the last week of July and highways become congested, minivans enjoy a clear advantage by having access to bus lanes to escape tailbacks. Under Korea’s road traffic law, nine-passenger vehicles can use these lanes if they have at least six people on board.

However, at present, only domestic brands sell nine-passenger vehicles in the country, which are namely Hyundai’s Starex, Kia Motors’ Carnival and Ssangyong Motor’s Rodius.

The former, which comes in 11-and 12-passenger models, is marketed as combining the characteristics of a minivan and a minibus. It is often used as a base model for tuned-up camping vans in Korea. The second-row seats can be folded up and used as tables, while those in the third row can be flattened out to create sleeping space. The top-class Grand Starex HVX even has a cooling box for beverages.

The Starex has been a steady seller, with Hyundai shifting 53,242 last year. Last month, it sold 4,509 units, up 3.3 percent from May.

Hyundai’s sister company, Kia Motors, is also seeing sales heat up for its Carnival, which also comes in two versions for nine or 11 passengers. Kia sold a combined 2,974 units in June, almost 600 more than in May, and 15,032 units in the first six months of the year.

The sales figures show that the Carnival outsold Kia’s seven-passenger Carens at a rate of 10 to one over this period, and the car maker says the law relating to bus lanes is a decisive factor.

Meanwhile, Ssangyong Motor has higher expectations this summer of its Rodius Euro, which was released earlier this month. The 11-passenger multi-purpose vehicle (MPV) is equipped with Mercedes-Benz’s five-speed E-Tronic automatic transmission and a more environmentally-friendly engine that meets Euro 5 emission standards. It also uses four-wheel drive technology, marking a new first among domestic minivans.



Battle of the SUVs

Importers of foreign minivans, which are often seven-seaters, are emphasizing comfort and luxury to try and stay competitive.

Toyota’s Sienna minivan, which was introduced at the end of last year, is doing well in the Korean market, selling 60 units a month on average. It features ottoman seats and a broad wheelbase.

But for most importers, SUVs are their best hope this summer in the war against Korean vans.

Infiniti, Nissan’s luxury brand, began selling its JX crossover SUV last month. The seven-passenger model adds substantial space and comfort for passengers. It is also the first Infiniti equipped with continuously variable transmission (CVT). There is also the slightly larger QX, an eight-seater SUV.

Rivals in the seven-seater category include the Land Rover Discovery 4, Audi Q7, Cadillac Escalade, Chrysler Grand Voyager and Ford Explorer.

Domestic SUVs released this year tend to be smaller, but they are fast closing the gap in terms of new technology and comfort, according to local auto experts.

Kia last week introduced its New Sorento R, which is basically its Sorento given a facelift. It comes with an improved blind-spot warning system and a revised dashboard featuring a seven-inch color screen and a new TFT-LCD instrument cluster. Both are installed for the first time among local SUVs.

Hyundai is still pushing ahead with its new Santa Fe, which sold 10,432 units last month in Korea to top monthly sales among SUVs. It even has a power converter installed so users can charge their electronic devices while on the go.

Renault Samsung Motors hopes the 2013 version of its QM5, released earlier this month, sells well in the second half, while SSangyong has high hopes for its Rexton W, also an SUV.

By Joo Kyung-don [kjoo@joongang.co.kr]

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