By Hyunjoo Jin
SEOUL (Reuters) - Recent free trade deals have helped foreign premium-brand automakers such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz drive up sales in South Korea, previously a heavily protected market dominated by Hyundai Motor and affiliate Kia Motors.
In January-April, sales of imported passenger cars accounted for 12 percent of the market, a fifth more than last year and up from just 2 percent a decade ago. Hyundai/Kia sales were flat.
Now, the Koreans look like they're trying to push back the foreign tide. Foreign automakers and distributors say various moves by Korean lawmakers and government agencies aim to make life tougher for them. Privately, some talk of "import bashing".
"Korea is a highly protected market. Despite recent agreements to open up its market, the government is not helping ... it's actually doing its best to keep the barriers in place," said a senior global automaker executive, who didn't want to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.
In March, South Korean lawmakers proposed a bill to reduce corporate tax breaks on cars priced above 50 million won ($44,000) and bought as company cars - typically those top-of-the-range models from German, Japanese and U.S. automakers. More than half the cars imported cost more than that, and at least 40 percent are bought under corporate accounts, industry data shows. For luxury marques such as Bentley, Porsche and Rolls-Royce, over 70 percent are bought as company cars.
"It will deal a direct blow to sales of premium imported cars. It will depress consumer sentiment," said an executive at the local unit of an imported luxury marque. "We're discussing measures to cope with the potential change, but we doubt whether there are real solutions."
Min Hong-chul, a lawmaker with the main opposition Democratic Party and one of those backing a revised tax policy, said the move was not intended to "regulate foreign cars, though it may end up doing so."
In February, Korea's Fair Trade Commission (FTC) raided the offices of the Korea Automobile Importers and Distributors Association and of Volkswagen's Audi, BMW, Daimler's Mercedes-Benz and Toyota Motor's Lexus as part of a probe into possible price collusion, according to local media.
And this week, local media reported that BMW Korea was being investigated by the tax authorities. A spokesman for the BMW unit confirmed an investigation, but declined to say more.
An official at the foreign car association refuted price-fixing charges, saying this was impossible given there are 400 or so foreign models involved. Toyota, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen confirmed their sales offices in Seoul were raided, but declined to elaborate. FTC officials declined to comment.
Hyundai and Kia have over 70 percent market share in South Korea, but that is being eroded by imports following free trade agreements struck with the European Union in mid-2011 and with the United States eight months later.
Hendrik von Kuenheim, head of BMW Group's Asia, Pacific and South Africa regions, welcomes the free trade deals, which will phase out tariffs on cars from Europe with engines bigger than 1500 cc - from 8 percent two years ago to zero next year. In the late-1980s, Seoul protected its autos industry with a 50 percent import duty.
But von Kuenheim said there are still "hidden obstacles" when selling cars in South Korea, where nearly 1.6 million vehicles were bought last year.
"Local authorities, be they in Germany, in Europe or in Korea, still need to work hard and overcome the latest and the smallest annoying obstacles," he told Reuters on the sidelines of a groundbreaking event for BMW's $62 million driving education center outside Seoul. "Let the intention of a free trade agreement prevail," he said, without elaborating on what these obstacles are.
BMW's South Korean sales rose 14 percent to 14,155 cars in January-May, while Volkswagen increased its sales by 42 percent to 9,208 and Ford Motor sales jumped 50 percent to 2,712. Toyota and other Japanese automakers took advantage of the lower tariffs on U.S.-made cars, importing models like the Camry midsize sedan from factories in the United States.
A spokeswoman for Hyundai Motor declined to comment specifically on the issue, but a Hyundai dealer said he was concerned about the rising number of imported cars. "It's increasingly difficult to sell cars as consumers are turning their eyes to foreign makes," said the dealer, who works in the affluent southern Seoul suburb of Pangyo.
To be sure, free trade deals work both ways - and South Korean automakers have grabbed market share in Europe from PSA Peugeot Citroen and others - prompting measures by France that could have led to duties being imposed. Eventually, the European Commission rejected France's request.
Longer term, imported cars are expected to continue making inroads into South Korea, say industry experts, with global automakers offering a wider range of products. Imported cars have long had cachet in South Korea, and the free trade deals have made them more affordable, too.
Even if the tax bill is passed - the lawmakers hope it will win parliamentary approval as it's in line with the government's policy to increase tax revenue - "it will not stop the sales growth of imported cars," said Kim Pil-soo, a professor of engineering at Daelim University College in Seoul.
That's a warning to not only local heavyweights Hyundai and Kia, but also the Korean units of General Motors and Renault, and Ssangyong Motor, whose biggest shareholder is India's Mahindra and Mahindra.
Dealers say Korean automakers are not only losing ground to premium cars from Europe, but also to more fuel-efficient hybrid models from Toyota. While German cars account for almost 7 of every 10 imported cars sold in South Korea, Toyota more than doubled its sales in January-May.
But Koreans' love for German cars has grown strong.
Kim Ki-hyon, a 28-year-old pharmacist, drives a BMW 535i rather than a local branded car. "It's like drinking Starbucks rather than instant coffee. They both have caffeine to wake you up, but one tastes better," he said.
(Additional reporting by Narae Kim; Editing by Norihiko Shirouzu and Ian Geoghegan)