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Hyundai revving up production on Santa Fe

Hyundai’s Alabama plant started mass production of the Santa Fe Sport SUV this week, adding a third vehicle to the automaker’s busy Montgomery assembly lines.

The launch took place Wednesday, and the move will allow Hyundai to meet growing demand for the vehicle amid a strong U.S. market for trucks and SUVs.

Greenville-based Hwashin America is a Tier I supplier for Hyundai and produces chassis and body parts for the Santa Fe.

The Santa Fe will continue to be made at a factory in West Point, Ga., operated by the automaker’s affiliate, Kia. And on the Alabama assembly lines, workers will keep building the Sonata and Elantra sedans, which are consistently top sellers for Hyundai.

In Montgomery, the company has invested $52 million in the project, primarily for equipment and line improvements to accommodate the vehicle, said plant spokesman Robert Burns. In addition, there were tooling purchases for suppliers to support the Santa Fe.

The company also has made new investments in its Alabama workers.

“Team members have had additional training on how to assemble the Santa Fe since March of this year,” Burns said. “The early training was held at our training center with simulated build processes at various stages of completion.”

Test builds on the assembly line started in May, with just a couple of vehicles each week, he added.

Pre-production vehicles, at the rate of a few each week, began to move down the assembly line in late May and early June. Larger numbers of pre-production vehicles are being built this week, ahead of next week’s launch.

“Hyundai continues to show why it is an industry leader in innovation and productivity, as it moves quickly and efficiently to respond to consumer demand,” said Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce.

“At the same time, Alabama workers are demonstrating their skill and flexibility by helping the automaker meet production and quality goals,” he added.

The move also represents a homecoming for the Santa Fe, which was previously produced in Montgomery from 2005 to 2010, when output was transferred to the Kia plant.

“We’re very happy Hyundai has been able to make this change, which will result in more great Santa Fe crossovers available to our dealers and customers,” Dave Zuchowski, president and CEO of Hyundai Motor America, said in January when the company announced the move. “The new production will help us meet the growing demand for one of our most popular products.”

The Alabama plant is forecast to produce 36,700 Santa Fes this year. Meanwhile, output for its cars is projected at 175,100 for the Sonata and 183,200 for the Elantra.

Last year, the Montgomery plant produced more than 384,000 vehicles, just under its annual capacity of 400,000.

The $1.8 billion facility, which has 3,000 full-time workers, has an annual economic impact of nearly $5 billion, according to an analysis issued last year.

Hyundai credited its SUV lineup for driving record U.S. sales in May. The company’s 12 percent gain in overall sales bucked a trend in a month that saw drops across the industry, due in large part to two additional selling days in May 2015.

For the Santa Fe Sport, sales jumped 74 percent from a year ago, the company said, while total SUV sales nearly doubled.

The Elantra was the top seller by volume in May, followed by the Sonata.