Small is beautiful, and high tech

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Small is beautiful, and high tech

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From left: Hyundai Avante, Kia K3 , Renault Samsung SM3, GM Korea Cruze


After Kia Motors unveiled its compact K3 last week with some features only seen in its luxury cars, experts predict the competition heating up among local automakers may even cause those interested in mid-size cars to migrate over the small car market.

The newly-released K3, Renault Samsung’s face-lifted SM3 and GM Korea’s higher-powered Cruze are now all set to challenge Hyundai Motor’s Avante, the nation’s top-selling compact. It is known as the Elantra in the United States.

As automakers have installed their leading technology in their small sedans, more customers are flocking to this market segment, and fewer are straying from it.

“People who have been thinking about upgrading to a mid-size car from their current compact may consider buying another small size car with better features simply because it is cheaper,” said Chang Jin-taek, president of CarMedia, one of the nation’s most popular online car magazines.

The domestic market also serves as a litmus test for whether these higher-quality compacts have a chance of becoming hits overseas, he added.

“As big-name global automakers focus on large-size cars, Korean carmakers are sticking to the small-size car segment to bolster exports,” said Jang, adding that this is why they are installing a variety of high-tech features normally seen only in luxury sedans.

Kia Motors has injected over 300 billion won ($268 million) in the last four years to introduce new technology never before seen in domestic compacts.

The K3, the only totally new model that has been released by local carmakers so far in the second half of this year, is equipped with Kia’s UVO infotainment system, which can receive commands from a driver’s smartphone or other IT devices. The system, which responds to both voice- and touch-activated commands, was previously installed in Kia’s bigger vehicles, including the K9. This is the first time the company has added such features to one of its compacts, enabling drivers to start the engine and control the air conditioning before they get inside the vehicle.

Its LED daytime running light is another new feature. Moreover, the model has adopted Hyundai’s Vehicle Stability Management (VSM) system, which improves the brake performance and gives more steering-force assistance when driving in rough road conditions.

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The car is also around 30 millimeters longer and 5 millimeters wider than the Avante as the K3 aims to dilute the stereotype of compacts having very restricted cabins.

“From our own customer surveys we have learned that consumers do not want to pay more for a bunch of new features they feel they don’t really need,” said Lee Hyoung-keun, Kia’s vice president, at a press viewing for the model in Gangwon last week.

“So we added features [they want] and took out that which was considered unnecessary to keep the price down.”

The K3 ranges from 13.4 million won to 19.2 million won, and the company has set a domestic sales target of 55,000 units for next year. The company is set to export 63 percent of all the units it manufactures next year as it aims to sell roughly 30 percent of the total, or 150,000 units, in the United States, and another 33 percent in China.

Kia’s sister company Hyundai Motor has also positioned its new 2013 edition Avante as being superior to a regular compact since its release last month. New features like shock-absorbing seats and better air ventilation were previously only installed in its large size sedan, the Grandeur. The Avante has been the best-selling compact in Korea since 2000.

Renault Samsung, the fourth-largest automaker in Korea, launched its new SM3 early this month, having given its flagship compact that was first introduced in 2002 a makeover.

It is appealing to consumers with its high fuel efficiency, as it delivers 17.5 kilometers per liter (41.2 miles per gallon). This was made possible as the carmaker has adopted a new Nissan engine that was designed to enhance torque at low revs, and an Xtronic Continuously Variable Transmission for smoother gear changes.

The company is targeting annual sales of 35,000 units for an 18 percent share of the domestic compact market. It now owns about 11 percent, while the Avante controls a whopping 64.1 percent.

Kia’s former compact, the Forte, held 13 percent of the market as of August, according to the company.

Meanwhile, GM Korea’s Chevrolet Cruze, which was commercially released in June, offers more powerful engines of up to 2 liters, which compared favorably to the 1.5-liter to 1.8-liter engines offered by its rivals. It is also the only model available in both gasoline and diesel versions.

The Cruze is also equipped with GM Korea’s My Link infotainment system to attract young drivers. My Link connects a driver’s smartphone to a 7-inch touch screen embedded in the vehicle so that content from the handset can be played and shown on the larger screen.

By Lee Sun-min [summerlee@joongang.co.kr]

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