Ssangyong Motor targets U.S. entry in late 2019: CEO

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean automaker Ssangyong Motor Co 003620.KS, owned by India's Mahindra & Mahindra MAHM.NS, is preparing for a "make or break" foray into the U.S. market under a new company name as early as 2019, its chief executive said on Tuesday.

A logo of Ssangyong Motor is seen on the automaker's sport utility vehicle 'Kyron' displayed for customers at the company's branch shop in Seoul August 12, 2010. REUTERS/Jo Yong-Hak/Files

It is the first time CEO Choi Johng-sik has put a timeframe on Ssangyong Motor’s long-planned entry into the United States, as South Korea’s No. 4 car maker tries to expand overseas to help offset a slump in its key export market Russia.

But Choi’s comments appear to contradict those of Mahindra Executive Director Pawan Goenka, who told Reuters a U.S. entry was “somewhat on the back burner”, with the priority instead being plans to build Ssangyong vehicles in China.

A source familiar with the matter has told Reuters that Ssangyong Motor executives may not be on the same page as Mahindra regarding the U.S. market, which all sides agree is a tough nut to crack.

“It is true that there are many concerns about the U.S. entry,” Choi told reporters on the sidelines of the launch of the company’s Tivoli Air compact SUV.

“We think the U.S. project will make or break our company. So we’ll have full discussions with Mahindra,” he said, adding that a final decision on the date had not been made.

The company had three to four years to prepare for the entry, slated for late 2019 or early 2020 with the launch of its mid-sized SUV SIV-2, Choi said. It was also preparing to change its name to coincide with the move, with an investment of over $100 million.

Mahindra rescued Ssangyong from near-insolvency in 2011, acquiring a stake of just over 70 percent, but the car maker has since struggled to break even.

Choi said Ssangyong Motor, which focuses on sport utility vehicles (SUVs), was also in talks with several Chinese firms to make vehicles on the mainland. He cited Geely Automobile Holdings Ltd 0175.HK, Chery Automobile Co Ltd and an unidentified military truck maker in Xian, among others.

Geely and Chery spokesmen declined to comment.

Ssangyong, which currently has a sole factory in South Korea, wanted to boost its total production capacity to about 500,000 vehicles a year by making cars in China and Russia. Both countries imposed high tariffs on auto imports.

Ssangyong aimed to swing to a profit this year, Choi said, which would be its first annual operating profit since 2007.

Reporting by Hyunjoo Jin; Additional reporting by Jake Spring in SHANGHAI; Editing by Stephen Coates