Hyundai hits the rink to tailor SUV to consumers

IDEA SP0TTING: Unusual field trips show designers the way to new Santa Fe

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Their brief was to create a vehicle that's "assertive yet graceful."

So naturally, one of the first moves by Hyundai Motor America's team of engineers and designers was to head for a skating rink and scoot around the ice in their shoes.

Thus began a series of weeklong "Touch the Market" activities with 16 engineers, designers and planners in Southern California as Hyundai set out to fashion its second-generation 2007 Santa Fe. The team was charged with designing a crossover vehicle that's sleek, car-like and sophisticated-"no cute ute" in the words of Scott Margason, national manager-product planning.

Doug Mottram, Hyundai's national manager-advanced product development, decided outside activities would best convey to insiders the vehicle's soul. "You can do PowerPoint slides all day long," said Mr. Mottram, "but we felt we wanted a real-life metaphor."

The median buyer age of the outgoing model was 53, and 40% of buyers were college graduates, with an average household income of $56,000. The 2007 Santa Fe, meanwhile, aims for a median age of 45, an average annual household income of $70,000 and 56% of buyers having received a college education.

a living example

To offer engineers and designers a living, breathing example of "assertive yet graceful," Hyundai hired Olympic speed-skating medalist Rusty Smith, and the group watched him warm up, race against a training partner and fall. The athlete gave the group demonstrations about his training techniques and talked about the sport before Hyundai's team took to the ice sans skates. "We scooted on our shoes," said Mr. Mottram, to gather a perspective on how close Mr. Smith's skates were to the ice and the sleekness of Mr. Smith's racing profile.

Next on the agenda was a visit to model homes in a community-style housing development of the type favored by the target. The team then drove to Palm Springs and checked into the Estrella Hotel, named by focus groups of potential Santa Fe buyers as a place they'd like to stay. "It has a little touch of glamour but a modern look to it," Mr. Mottram said.

The Hyundai group then split into four teams and visited the homes of Santa Fe's new target of young families. There they eyed the homes' design themes and materials as well as the interiors and places, such as stores and restaurants, that potential buyers traveled to with family members.

The result was a Z-shape profile for the Santa Fe that mimics a speed skater's race stance and gives the vehicle a sense of speed. From the model-home visits, the team got the idea to match high-tech-looking metals with wood grain for Santa Fe's interior.

After all their hard work, the moment of truth is at hand for the Santa Fe team. The 2007 model will be introduced with an ad blitz next month from Richards Group, Dallas.

The automaker hopes to sell 90,000 of the new Santa Fe SUVs annually, nearly three times what the older model sold so far this year. Santa Fe sales fell this year to 32,216 units through July compared to 47,036 a year ago, Hyundai reports.
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