An employee assembles a Hyundai Motor Co. Genesis luxury sedan on the production line at the company’s plant. (Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg)

Hyundai Faces Host of China Problems, From Missiles to SUVs

(Bloomberg) -- These are lean times for Hyundai dealers in China. 

On a recent weekday afternoon in Shanghai, shoppers thronged Honda and Chevrolet showrooms at a strip of city dealerships. Hyundai’s, however, was a ghost town. A half-dozen salespeople stood around with nothing much to do. Not a single customer had set foot in the store the previous weekend, and half the employees this year have already quit, according to a manager who declined to give his name citing company policy.

Chinese consumers turning away from Hyundai Motor Co.’s offerings in its largest market are the latest result of the problems facing South Korea’s largest automaker: a sedan-heavy lineup in an SUV market, poor brand perception and a nationalist backlash against its country’s decision to host the U.S. missile-defense system known as Thaad.

Hyundai Faces Host of China Problems, From Missiles to SUVs

Hyundai cars bound for export at a port near the company’s Ulsan plant in South Korea.

Photographer: SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg

“They’re in the worst possible situation, caught in a perfect storm,” said Lee Hang-koo, a senior research fellow at state-run Korea Institute for Industrial Economics & Trade in Sejong City, South Korea. “They have the wrong positioning in China, were late to sell new cars and SUVs, and had weak brand loyalty.”

Things took a dramatic turn for the worse in March after photos went viral of defaced Hyundai cars, purportedly damaged by people in China angry with South Korea’s decision to begin deploying Thaad. China views the move as a security threat and has stepped up economic retaliation against South Korean companies.

Hyundai Faces Host of China Problems, From Missiles to SUVs

Boycott Calls

South Korea’s biggest carmakers, Hyundai and its affiliate Kia Motors Corp. were caught up in the calls for a boycott. The backlash has hit businesses such as Lotte Group, which offered land for the missile-shield system. The Seoul-based company was ordered to shut most of its discount stores in China on alleged fire-safety rule violations. Tourists were discouraged from taking vacations in South Korea.

Hyundai Faces Host of China Problems, From Missiles to SUVs

A closed Lotte store in China’s Jiangsu province on March 7.

Photographer: AFP via Getty Images

The impact was swift. Combined sales of Hyundai and Kia plunged by half in March to cap a decline in the first quarter. Already reeling from a partial rollback of a sales-tax cut at the start of the year, the anti-Korean sentiment has compounded the automaker’s failure to catch the shift in consumer preference away from sedans to SUVs. And while Hyundai and Kia have tried to spruce up their brand, they’re still mainly associated with value-for-money models, a space that fast-improving Chinese carmakers have encroached on in recent years.

At the Shanghai car show last week, when asked about the carmaker’s difficulties in China, Beijing Hyundai Motor Co. executive Chang Won-shin said he was cautious about commenting about Thaad and that he expects the business environment to “get better soon.”

Hyundai displayed the new China-exclusive ix35, due to go on sale at the end of the year. The company has plans to introduce six eco-friendly cars in China including an electric SUV, according to Chang, who heads Hyundai’s China joint venture with state-owned BAIC Motor Corp. Kia also unveiled a China-only SUV, the K2 Cross, to go on sale by June.

Hyundai is trying to plug the gaps in its portfolio by speeding up the introduction of more SUVs. Its ix25, Tucson and Santa Fe SUV models accounted for 22 percent of sales in China last month, trailing the industry average of 40 percent.

SUV Boom

The automaker is scheduled to report its first-quarter results on Wednesday, with analysts estimating an 11 percent decline in operating profit. Kia releases its results on Thursday.

Cheaper gas and an anticipation of a baby boom after China relaxed its one-child policy in 2015 fueled sales of SUVs in the world’s most-populous nation. Whereas previously a first-time buyer might have opted for a Hyundai Sonata sedan, many are now going for roomier SUVs and minivans made by Chinese carmakers, which are pegging them at similar or even lower prices.

Hyundai Faces Host of China Problems, From Missiles to SUVs

The Hyundai ix35 SUV at the 2017 Shanghai Auto show.

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

Then there’s the branding. Hyundai and Kia are seen as being caught in the no-man’s land between Chinese brands and luxury marques introducing entry-level models. The market share of Chinese automakers increased more than six percentage points in three years to 45.9 percent in March, while Korean brands’ share of sales more than halved during the same period, to 3.5 percent, according to China Passenger Car Association data.

Budget Option

“I expect Hyundai’s China-only SUV to help, but I don’t think they fundamentally resolve the branding issue,’’ said Robin Zhu, an auto analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein in Hong Kong. “They are regarded as the budget option among the international brands -– which is problematic given that niche is being attacked by domestic SUVs.’’

Hyundai has introduced a luxury brand, Genesis, which may be available in China as early as next year, Manfred Fitzgerald, the brand’s head, said in an interview at the Shanghai motor show.

The automaker had seen its sales slump even before the March boycott as the government’s tax cut on small-engine capacity cars was rolled back at the start of the year. Hyundai and its Chinese joint venture partner cut production and supply to ease pressure on dealers in March after retail sales fell 30 percent in the January-to-February period, according to BAIC. Kia Motors’ production in China was also partially suspended in March, following a 30 percent sales drop in the first two months of this year.

Marked Departure

That’s a marked departure from October, when Hyundai opened its fourth China plant in Cangzhou, Hebei province. Chairman Chung Mong-koo lauded Hyundai’s joint venture with BAIC as a symbol of economic cooperation between the two countries and said that the Hebei plant marked a new leap for the venture by producing high-quality cars for Chinese customers. Hyundai plans to open its fifth China plant in Chongqing later this year, which will have 300,000 units of annual capacity.

Hyundai Faces Host of China Problems, From Missiles to SUVs

An anti-Japan protest over the Diaoyu islands in Shenzhen in Sept. 2012.

Photographer: Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images

In the end, there may be little to do but to wait out the storm. That’s what Toyota Motor Corp., Honda Motor Co. and Nissan Motor Co. all did after suffering their first annual sales declines in 2012 following a territorial dispute between China and Japan that led to nationwide street protests and mobs attacking Japanese businesses. All three Japanese carmakers have since surpassed their pre-dispute levels in China and gone on to set new sales records.

“We have difficulties now in China but we expect it will get better soon with our new models,” So Nam-young, head of Kia’s Chinese joint venture with Dongfeng Motor Group Co., said in Shanghai, noting that the Koreans had watched what happened previously to the Japanese. “We’ve studied the case, and we are preparing internally how to recover our sales.”