While the SUV in its various flavors is quickly expanding its hold on the American driver, the car isn’t quite dead yet. In fact, at Hyundai, its two best-selling models remain the Elantra and Sonata. With nearly 173,000 sold in the first ten months of 2016, The Elantra certainly appeals to a significant portion of the market and Hyundai wants to expand on that with a new variant for 2017, the Elantra Eco. Despite continuing cheap gas across the U.S. the Eco is definitely a car that consumers should consider.
As an engineer at heart, I can’t help but be excited by the technology that is likely to transform the transportation ecosystem over the next couple of decades. But as someone that actually likes to drive, the move toward autonomy is kind of depressing but realistically, that’s unlikely to affect me much for many years to come. On the other hand, the market shift away from cars toward utility vehicles is much more concerning right now. Some automakers are already scaling back their car development efforts in favor of utilities a number of the car nameplates on sale today will not be replaced at the end of their lifecycle. Fortunately, most automakers haven’t given up on cars just yet, among those is Hyundai which has just launched an all-new version of the Elantra compact.
If you’ve been following along over the past year or so, you’ve probably noticed that I’m quite enamored with the current generation Hyundai’s midsize sedan, the Sonata. Since early 2015, I’ve driven the 1.6-liter turbocharged Eco, the 2.0-liter Hybrid and now the newest member of the lineup, the Plug-in Hybrid. The Sonata PHEV is the first Hyundai-branded model sold in North America with a plug and it’s one of only two plug-in hybrids in the midsize family sedan segment, the other being the Ford Fusion Energi.
Five years after launching its first hybrid electric vehicle, Hyundai is at it again with the second-generation Sonata hybrid. Hyundai went its own way with the powertrain architecture it developed in-house. Unlike the two-motor power-split systems used by Toyota, Ford and GM when it debuted in 2010, the Sonata had a single-motor system with a fairly conventional six-speed automatic. Hyundai priced the Sonata hybrid aggressively and it sold well but it wasn’t considered as refined as some of the competition. I spent a week with the 2016 Sonata Hybrid Limited to see how it compares.
Smaller crossover utilities are the fastest growing segment of the American auto market in the last few years and Hyundai America CEO Dave Zuckowski hopes that the all-new 2016 Tucson will take advantage of that and rekindle the brand’s growth. The first batch of some 9,000 Tucsons has arrived in port from South Korea and are currently going through final quality checks before being shipped out to dealers across America for sale starting August 15. While those are being inspected, I got the chance to spend a couple of hours in a pre-production model on rural roads west of Ann Arbor.
The redesigned 2016 Hyundai Tucson will be hitting dealerships in the next two to three weeks but it won’t remain the smallest crossover in the Hyundai lineup forever. During a regional media preview for the Tucson, Hyundai America President and CEO Dave Zuchowski acknowledged that sales of B-Segment crossovers are growing fast and Hyundai wants to be in the segment. However, the new Creta that just launched in India is not suitable for the American market in its current form. Zuchowski didn’t say if the new U.S.-market CUV would be based on an updated version of the Creta or would be something different. He did say that the small crossover would probably arrive here in two to three years.
In the wake of last week’s Wired.com report where security researchers Charlie Miller and Chris Valasek remotely took control of a 2014 Jeep Cherokee via its telematics system, the auto industry is now on cyber-security high alert. During a regional press preview for the new 2016 Tucson, Hyundai America President and CEO Dave Zuchowski was asked about it. As expected Zuchowski said that the safety and security of customers is always a top priority for the company but then went on to give a surprising response to my follow-up question.
When I asked Zuchowski if Hyundai would follow the lead of technology companies such as Facebook, Microsoft and Google and establish a bounty program for responsible disclosure of security vulnerabilities, he acknowledged that it was under consideration. In addition, he said that while Hyundai doesn’t have a formal program at this time, the company has previously paid researchers on an ad hoc basis for disclosing vulnerabilities. Zuchowski didn’t offer any additional details, but the acknowledgement that the company has gone down this path is a good thing.
I first proposed the idea of a bounty program to OEM contacts back in 2011 and have done it repeatedly since then to no avail and also wrote about it here nearly a year ago.
It should come as no surprise when you check Hyundai’s monthly sales report to find the midsize Santa Fe crossover as the brand’s third-best selling model trailing only the Elantra and Sonata. Americans have fallen head over heels in love with crossovers with the segment seemingly absorbing the station wagon and taking more and more of the minivan’s sales. Now in its third-generation, the Santa Fe has grown from the compact original to a midsizer and it’s now made in two sizes. A larger three-row variant has replaced the defunct Veracruz while the shorter two-row version now has a Sport suffix. I recently spent a week with a 2015 Santa Fe Sport learning whether the badge fits.
Growing up in Canada in the 1970s and 1980s was a bit peculiar for someone that would ultimately become a gearhead like me. In those days, automotive emissions and safety regulations were not as stringent as the corresponding American rules. The Canadian auto market has long been about one-tenth the size of the south of the border and in those days it took on something of the flavor of the minor leagues.
Sure we had access to all the major league players like Ford, Chrysler, GM, Toyota, Datsun and the Europeans but we also had some up and coming players that were honing their skills in a less demanding league, others that were in their waning years and on the way out, and some just plain oddballs like TVR. We even had access to 12-cylinder Ferraris and Lamborghinis that were only available via the grey market in the U.S.
I got my first hands-on experience in a vehicle with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Hyundai had a couple of new Sonatas equipped with a new Display Audio touchscreen head unit updated with the latest software to support the in-vehicle interfaces from Apple and Google. Recognizing that drivers increasingly rely on smartphones for entertainment and navigation, the Display Audio unit lacks both embedded navigation and a CD player, something that will likely become the norm in coming years.
The upcoming launch of Android Auto and CarPlay marks the most promising advance in infotainment systems since the January 2007 debut of Ford SYNC. Apple, Google and Microsoft have made tremendous progress in improving mobile device interfaces and capabilities since the reveal of the iPhone which came just two days after SYNC. Unfortunately, for the most part, automakers are still doing a pretty miserable job of designing the interfaces of their built-in infotainment systems but Google and Apple are hoping to fix that.
From the perspective of the automakers, both CarPlay and Android Auto actually function in a pretty similar fashion. In the case of Hyundai, when an Android or iPhone are plugged into the USB port, a corresponding icon appears on the center screen. Tapping this icon, brings up the CarPlay or Android interface. In order for this to happen, automaker engineers have to add some code to their head unit that acts kind of like device drivers on a computer. The software translates the respective control inputs available in that vehicle into standard signals for the respective mobile operating system.
Whether the car has a capacitive or resistive touchscreen or a remote control device with a non-touch screen, this abstraction layer of software translates the hardware signals and sends the the same messages to the phone. This way, the mobile device doesn’t really have know anything about the vehicle hardware and app developers only have to deal with the Apple or Android extensions once instead of coding for every automotive brand. Voice inputs are also redirected to the phone for interpretation by Siri or Google voice actions rather than whatever is built into the vehicle.
Once the mobile interface is activated, the phone and the cloud actually handle all of the hard work. The interface is generated by the phone and projected to the car display which is why both systems need to be connected via USB instead of Bluetooth.
For iPhone users
CarPlay produces a simplified version of the traditional iPhone interface with each page containing a grid of eight large icons on a black background and a visual representation of the home button that can be used to trigger Siri. Most of the currently available apps are default Apple apps including music, podcasts, Apple maps and messages although the usual suspect third-parties like Pandora and iHeartRadio are on hand as well. Switching apps or making a call requires a tap of the home button, just like the phone. A long press on the home button triggers Siri and whatever you say is sent directly to the phone via the built-in microphone in the car.
Overall the interface worked smoothly although the iPhone that was connected in the Sonata seemed to struggle to get a good data connection from the Hyundai stand which was centrally located in Cobo Center. That made it difficult for Siri to process queries and maps would only half load. Songs that were locally stored on the phone had no trouble playing.
For Robot fans
Android Auto brings up a Google Now style card interface that will be instantly familiar to Android users. The car screen gets the same stylized background images that appear on the phone’s Now screen. A persistent strip along the bottom of the screen includes icons that take you directly to Google Maps, home, phone, messaging apps and audio apps. Tapping the directions icon triggers navigation via the maps available through the phone. The headphone icon brings up a list of cards with links to each of the approved audio apps which includes Google Play Music, PocketCasts and more. Acceptable messaging apps will read out incoming messages and allow replies by voice input.
Like CarPlay, Android Auto ran smoothly powered by a year-old Nexus 5 phone. The Nexus had no connectivity issues and the engineer I sat with was able to to demo the sort of contextual voice search Google showed at last year’s I/O developer conference. While sitting in a car in downtown Detroit, he asked Google how the weather was in San Diego. After the response he asked “what are the hours of the zoo?” without specifying a location. Rather than giving the hours of the nearby Detroit Zoo, Android Auto read out the hours of the San Diego zoo and provided a link to directions.
Beyond just having a clean responsive interface, this ability to anticipate what information will need next based on what has been said, where the vehicle is or what time of day it is, can enable Android Auto to dramatically reduce the mental workload on the driver and minimize distraction on the road. Currently, Google is only supporting third-party apps for audio and messaging although additional categories such as other navigation apps are likely to be included at some future date.
Hyundai did acknowledge that automakers will have some influence over what apps are allowed to appear in the two competing car interfaces. Google was not yet ready to announce exactly what the process would be for these approvals although it will presumably happen through the Open Automotive Alliance which was announced at the 2014 International CES. Apple has not responded to any request for comment on the topic but they will likely maintain tight control over the app approval process just as they do on mobile devices.
Both Apple and Google had hoped to get their systems into vehicles by the end of 2014 but the process of testing and validating software in vehicles and making sure it meets all of the regulatory requirements is far more stringent than for phones. Most major automakers have publicly announced plans to support both platforms and Hyundai said they should launch later this summer on the 2016 Sonata and other vehicles. Some 2015 models will also be able to get a software update to provide support.