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2015 Hyundai Sonata: A Refined Entry In A Crowded Segment

Factory Tour: Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama

Most of the Tom's Hardware crew has been on at least one factory tour, whether to see motherboards being made, graphics cards assembled or SSDs put together. The downside to these is that they're largely the same process, regardless of which company's name is stamped on the box.

Hyundai took a page from the tech industry when it came to launching the 2015 Sonata, inviting U.S. media to Montgomery, Alabama to see the Sonata assembled and driven off the production line. Company representatives shuttled journalists from the hotel to the factory first thing in the morning to sit through an informative presentation on the Sonata. Afterwards we were asked to find a friend to pair up with for the tram tour and drive. We were asked to put on safety goggles and Sennheiser HDE 2020-D-II Tourguide headphones before proceeding into the many facilities that are key to assembling two of Hyundai’s key vehicles.

Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama, or HMMA for short, was the Korean automaker’s first U.S. manufacturing plant. The project was announced back in 2002 with a projected cost of $1 billion. HMMA opened its doors on May 20, 2005 and employs over 3000 workers, not counting new jobs created by local parts and components suppliers. The $1.7-billion plant includes three major facilities for stamping, painting and vehicle assembly. There’s even a two-mile test track that all vehicles have to endure after rolling off the production line, along with two separate engine shops.

HMMA manufactures the Elantra and new Sonata on the same line. When we were touring, the production ratio was two to one, with two Sonatas per Elantra rolling off the line. Even though the two vehicles ride on completely different platforms, they can be created this way thanks to sharing common parts and robots. It also helps that the chassis is produced elsewhere and brought into HMMA for final assembly.

Watching robots and humans build cars is quite entertaining. It’s mesmerizing to watch automation and manual intervention come together, putting the doors, glass, suspension and other components together with such precision and care.

Each vehicle is run through the paint booth with its doors on for consistency. They're subsequently removed and rejoined with the same vehicle later in the production process. The coolest thing I saw during the factory tour was a robotic parts cart that followed a car through most of its assembly. Even though it only hauls fasteners and miscellaneous small items, it’s pretty cool to see an autonomous parts cart employed in this manner.

At the end of the factory tour, Hyundai staged a bunch of new Sonatas for us to drive off the production line and onto our route. They weren't the ones we saw assembled, but rather standard press vehicles. We didn’t get to drive the Sonata on the two-mile test track either, which was a bummer. Nevertheless, the factory tour was a fun learning experience and I wouldn’t mind going on more of them.