SANTA BARBARA, Calif. -- Never mind that Hyundai's Ioniq is the most fuel efficient car in the industry without a plug. That's not how the automaker plans to sell it.
Instead, Hyundai will stick to a more basic pitch: The Ioniq is a capable compact car that just happens to have a degree in eco-friendliness.
Hyundai's reasons are simple. While the green-car market is small, there's gold -- in the form of conquest opportunities -- in the overall compact-car market, an important entry point where consumers' brand loyalties begin to form.
Despite shrinking 5.2 percent in 2016, the compact-car segment remained a behemoth: more than 2.1 million cars sold in the U.S. alone, accounting for nearly a third of the entire car segment.
But Hyundai's plan also speaks to the difficulty in launching a high-profile and high-stakes green-car lineup globally when hybrid and electric vehicle sales have tanked and cheap gasoline and new entries have crossover sales booming.
Sales in the alternative-fuel segment (dedicated green vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, Toyota Prius and Ford C-Max) fell 19 percent in 2016 to 242,619 vehicles.
Better to aim the Ioniq (eye-AHN'-ik) line at a giant segment that's shrinking slowly than a tiny segment that's falling precipitously, Hyundai figures.
"If we did our very best at conquesting the king -- we'll say the Prius -- that's not a lot of sales," Mike O'Brien, vice president of product planning at Hyundai, said last month here at the press launch of the Ioniq. "So instead of focusing on a competitor, we're looking at the 1.1 million people that came very close to buying [a green car] but then bought something else."
Upfront cost is a big reason for those missed sales. Seventeen percent of people who rejected a green vehicle did so because of cost, compared with an industry average of 10 percent for all vehicles, according to data Hyundai presented at the event.
This means Hyundai will still need to explain away the significant price premium that comes with choosing an Ioniq, a tough challenge in a segment already losing customers to crossovers.
The compact segment is overflowing with models that start well below $20,000. Hyundai's ultraefficient Ioniq Blue model starts at $23,035 while the mainstream SEL version starts at $24,785, including shipping.