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Behind on hybrids, Hyundai sets high goals

Automotive New reports on Hyundai's plans for hybrids.

Automotive News

SEOUL--Hyundai Motors is a latecomer to the hybrid-vehicle race, but the Korean automaker is setting high targets for the technology as it chases Toyota and Honda.

Hyundai is scheduled to sell its first U.S. hybrid, a version of its mid-sized Sonata sedan, in 2010. Initial annual volume is expected to be around 50,000 units.

But Hyundai expects its annual hybrid sales to balloon to 500,000 units worldwide by 2018, says Brandon Yea, senior vice president for marketing. That still puts Hyundai behind the forecasts of its two Japanese rivals but it at least puts it into the same arena.

Hyundai's confidence stems partly from its partnership with LG Chem, a South Korean company that is supplying next-generation lithium ion batteries. The batteries will boost the mileage of the hybrid Sonata by as much as 70 percent over the nonhybrid version, says Hyundai research and development chief Lee Hyun-soon.

A battery 'advantage'

"Japanese battery manufacturers have been heavily relying on nickel-metal hydride technology. They are still using it," Lee said here this month at Hyundai headquarters.

"But LG Chem was a little bit late with metal hydride, so they started with lithium ion and lithium polymer a little bit earlier than Japanese companies. They jumped to the next technology. Maybe that gives us a little bit of an advantage."

Hyundai also turned to LG Chem because Japanese manufacturers couldn't guarantee Hyundai sufficient supply of lithium ion batteries, he said. Japanese companies--such as Sanyo Electric, Panasonic EV Energy, and Automotive Energy Supply Corp.--are stretched from supplying power packs to Toyota, Honda, and Nissan.

Said Lee: "They said they cannot supply enough, as much as we want. They are very reluctant to cooperate with us because they need increased capacity."

LG Chem initially has guaranteed Hyundai enough batteries for 20,000 cars a year, Lee said. LG Chem also has the battery pack contract for the Chevrolet Volt, scheduled for sale late in 2010.

Mild, full, and plug-in

Hyundai's first hybrid worldwide will be a version of the Elantra that is scheduled to launch in South Korea next year. The car will be a mild hybrid, meaning the electric motor helps the engine power the vehicle but cannot power the vehicle by itself.

The Sonata hybrid will be a full hybrid patterned after the Toyota Prius. The Sonata's battery and electric motor will be robust enough to propel the car for limited distances in electric-only mode.

Lee declined to say what Hyundai will charge consumers for the hybrid Sonata. But he said the Elantra hybrid will cost $5,000 to $6,000 more than the standard version.

Hyundai also is planning a plug-in hybrid by 2013, Lee said. That car will need even more powerful lithium ion batteries, and the supplier for that project has not been determined.

Hyundai is weighing proposals from LG Chem and South Korean rivals Samsung and SK Energy, he said.

The plug-in will have a small gasoline engine that won't turn the wheels. Instead, the engine will generate electricity and extend the car's range. Hyundai's plug-in model will be similar to the Chevrolet Volt.

Hyundai has no immediate plans to produce a hybrid-only model like the Toyota Prius or upcoming Honda Insight. Instead, the automaker will make minor styling tweaks to differentiate the hybrid versions from their conventional nameplate counterparts, Lee said. That could entail changes to the bumper, grille, headlamps and interior.

"We have little experience in hybrids," Lee said. "As soon as we get some confidence, we will study development of a hybrid-unique model."

To justify a stand-alone hybrid, the model needs sales of at least 250,000 units a year.

Said Lee: "It won't be that easy."

(Source: Automotive News)