Imports shift to smaller engines

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Imports shift to smaller engines

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More imported cars are appearing on the market with smaller engines that offer greater fuel efficiency as foreign automakers, especially those from the U.S., move to combat the widespread perception of their vehicles as gas-guzzlers.

According to data from the Korea Automobile Importers and Distributors Association (Kaida), 49.4 percent of the imported cars sold in the first 10 months of this year had engines smaller than 2 liters.

Previously, imported cars with engines of between 2 liters and 3 liters were dominant, accounting for nearly 60 percent of foreign cars in Korea in 1994. This dropped to 33.2 percent in the first half of this year.

Foreign cars with engines of 2 liters or less have been growing in presence since 2004 but sales really took off last year, with their share of the import market jumping 10 percentage points on-year as cash-strapped consumers struggle with still-high gasoline prices.

“As fuel economy is more on the radar now, automakers are releasing cars with smaller engines to meet the demand,” said Yoon Dae-sung, an executive managing director at Kaida.

Yoon added that since foreign automakers are now trying to target young customers with compact-sized cars, the market share of cars with smaller engines will likely keep growing.

“Imported cars are becoming more accessible to, and more affordable for, young drivers,” he said.

Among the 10 best-selling imports from January to October, only three had engines above this threshold: The Toyota Camry (2.5-liter) Mercedes-Benz E300 (3.5-liter) and Audi A6 TDI Quattro (3.5-liter).

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German automakers have especially benefitted from consumers’ changing tastes, as nearly all of the most popular foreign cars with small engines this year were German.

Among the 10 best-selling imported cars with engines of 2 liters or less this year, BMW, the best-selling foreign brand in Korea, swept the top three spots with its 520d, 320d and 528i. It was followed by Volkswagen’s Tiguan 2.0 TDI BlueMotion (fourth) and Golf 2.0 TDI (fifth).

New technology allows automakers to roll out smaller engines while improving the overall performance, experts say.

“The point of engine downsizing is not only about reducing engine capacity, but boosting power as well,” said Choi Jae-kwon, CEO of engine developer Tenergy. “Boosting devices like turbos, superchargers and direct-injection technology maintain the power [and are still fuel-efficient].”

More foreign automakers are now starting to release midsize cars or SUVs with 2-liter engines.

Ford Korea in January introduced its Explorer, a midsize SUV, with a 2-liter, 4-cylinder EcoBoost engine. It also released the Taurus sedan in September with the same engine. Previously, both models were sold with 3.5-liter, V6 engines in Korea.

Ford Korea said the new engine generates 243 horsepower, 49 less than the bigger engine, but delivers 37.3 kilogram-meter (270 feet-pound) of torque, a slight improvement.

“Our EcoBoost engine fares no worse than the V6 engines in terms of power and acceleration, and this will appeal to customers,” an employee from Ford Korea said. “We are planning to introduce more models with this engine.”

Audi, the No. 4 player in Korea’s imported car market, in August added a smaller 2-liter diesel version of its A6, a midsize luxury sedan.

“The release of the A6 2.0 TDI was to embrace more customers,” said an employee from Audi Korea. “So far we’ve received a lot of positive feedback.”

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For its Q5, a midsize SUV, Audi Korea said the 2-liter model sells better than the 3-liter version. The company said it sold 650 of the Q5 2.0 TDI Quattro in the first 10 months of this year, which easily outnumbered the Q5 3-liter’s sales of 252 units.

BMW experienced a similar trend this year. Its 2-liter diesel X3 sold 1,391 units in the first 10 months, 15 times more than combined sales of the 3-liter and 3.5-liter versions.

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

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