The 2009 Frankfurt Auto Show won’t start until September 17, but Korea’s Hyundai Motor Company is already establishing itself as the company with perhaps the boldest vision for a green car future. The list of Hyundai and Kia eco-models—one of the strongest hybrid showings in Frankfurt—provides mounting evidence that the company will deliver on promises to lead the world in fuel efficiency.

Vehicles with Hyundai and Kia badges on display in Frankfurt will include hybrid city cars, a hybrid crossover SUV concept, an all-electric city car, a plug-in hybrid, diesel vehicles with micro-hybrid stop-start technology, and mid-size lithium-battery-powered sedans running on liquid petroleum gas.

Last November, when we spoke with John Krafcik, CEO of Hyundai Motor America, he said, “We’re taking fuel efficiency higher and faster than any other carmaker. We’re going to pass Toyota and Honda by 2015.” He spoke like a man on a mission, promising that Hyundai Motor America will achieve a US fleet average of 35 miles per gallon by 2015, a year ahead of the timetable for new fuel economy regulations. The concepts on display in Frankfurt give some hints how Hyundai will achieve that goal, and reach its target of selling 500,000 hybrids annually by 2018.

Hyundai in Various Shades of Electric

In Frankfurt, Hyundai will debut the Hyundai ix Metro mild hybrid concept. The futuristic small car—not as big as Hyundai’s i20 hatchback but larger than the i10 minicar—is depicted by somewhat cartoony pre-show photos. But the concept points to engine downsizing as a key strategy. The car is powered by a 1.0-liter three-cylinder gas engine matched to a mild hybrid system to produce 123 horsepower. The ix Metro gets away with just one liter and three cylinders because the car is small—and through the use of direction injection, turbocharging, a small ultracapacitor, and the mild hybrid system.

The i10 Electric, an all-electric version of Hyundai’s standard i10 city car, uses a 16 kWh battery and a 49 kW motor for a 100-mile range. The i10 electric features x-by-wire systems for steering, air conditioning, water pump and brake vacuum pump. Hyundai says the all-electric car is ready for production and will go on sale in Korea in the second half of 2010. Hyundai claims the vehicle will charge in five hours using 220V household current—but makes the less believable promise of a rapid 415V charge that can recharge the battery pack to 85 percent capacity in 15 minutes.

Hyundai Blue Will Plug-in Hybrid Concept

Hyundai Blue Will Plug-in Hybrid Concept

Hyundai will also show its answer to the Chevy Volt in Frankfurt. The HND-4 ‘Blue-Will’ plug-in hybrid, like the Volt, promises 40 miles of all-electric range—although it will use a parallel hybrid architecture rather than the Volt’s series plug-in hybrid design. The Blue Will, unveiled last spring in Seoul, combines a 1.6-liter four-cylinder gas engine with direct-injection technology to charge a set of lithium-polymer batteries, which in turn provides power to an electric motor to drive the front wheels. The total output of the system is 154 horsepower. The Blue Will also serves as a showcase for other fun peripheral technologies, including lightweight carbon fiber, the use of a solar roof to power the car’s ventilation system—like the one found in the 2010 Toyota Prius—and interior materials made from bio-degradable plant extracts, and the headlamp bezels made from recycled soft drink bottles.

Hyundai will also use Frankfurt for the European debut of the Elantra LPI Hybrid, the world’s first hybrid electric vehicle to be powered by liquid petroleum gas and the first production car to be powered by advanced lithium ion polymer batteries. In addition, Hyundai will show its popular i30 outfitted with a stop-start system and a 1.6-liter CRDi; the ix35, the European version of the all-new Tucson, with an all-new diesel engine and six-speed automatic transmission; and the updated Santa Fe also with an efficient R diesel.

Kia Also Makes Strong Green Showing

2010 Kia Sorento

2010 Kia Sorento

Kia will unveil the 2010 Sorento diesel hybrid—powered by a twin-turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder diesel engine mated to an electric motor to provide 161 horsepower. The all-new five- or seven-seater Kia Sorento SUV is longer and lower, with sleeker styling and better aerodynamics. We’ll have to wait for more details in Frankfurt.

Kia cee'd

Kia Cee’d

A mild hybrid version of the Kia Cee’d, the company’s top-selling model in Europe, will pair a 1.6-liter four cylinder gas engine running to a hybrid powertrain. The car will offer numerous exterior and interior design refinements, upgraded standard equipment, and other interior goodies—such as a new-style steering wheel and gear lever, all-red dashboard illumination, new center stack and audio system and dual-zone climate control.

The Kia list for Frankfurt is rounded out with the Kia Venga minicar, available with a diesel and stop-start combo, as well as Kia’s version of the LPI Hybrid, on sale in Korea but produced only for fleet testing in Europe.

Fuel Efficiency and Market Share

It’s hard to say which individual Hyundai and Kia models will go into production and show up in the US, but Hyundai’s showing in Frankfurt suggests that the company will offer multiple hybrids with varying degrees of electrification including plug-in cars, as it tries to gain market share in America. In the first seven months of this year, Hyundai and Kia increased their combined market share in the US to 7.3 percent against 5.3 percent for all of 2008. And August was another banner month. US sales of Hyundai soared 47 percent and Kia’s shot up 60.4 percent—setting all-time sales records for the two companies that form the world’s sixth-largest automaker. Some analysts in Seoul likened the recent growth of Hyundai to Toyota’s expansion in the 1980s.