And then Hyundai management pulled a leaf directly out of Lee Iacocca's old playbook from the time he engineered the Chrysler turnaround - and did him one better: They offered consumers a 10-year power train warranty. It was twice as long as any other carmaker's warranty.

They understood perfectly that the big, boisterous U.S. market was where big money could be made. And the new warranty was a simple guarantee to that market that Hyundai's new talk about quality was no joke - even though it came from one of the longest-reigning clown acts in the auto trade.

"It was no small feat to figure out how to make it right," says Bruce Bezlowski, assistant research scientist at the University of Michigan Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation. "To [Hyundai's] credit, they were able to learn quickly and adjust quickly. I've seen very few companies turn around as quickly as they have."

In the space of one year, from 2003 to 2004, Hyundai jumped from tenth place to second place in J.D. Power's initial quality surveys. Making that kind of leap requires managers who are willing to learn and who can be relentless at teaching the rest of the organization how to improve.

"In the last 20 years, they've gone from dead last to a dead heat with Toyota," says Steven Szakaly, an economist with the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan. "Every single product life cycle, they've made some improvement. It's an amazing company. Just the growth and improvement in quality is amazing."

Hyundai's reward: Some of the best press a car manufacturer has ever seen. Consider the reviews when it introduced the new Sonata, made in Alabama. Dan Neil, the Pulitzer prize-winning auto columnist for the Los Angeles Times, wrote: "Stravinsky said lesser artists borrow, great artists steal. Hyundai is turning out to be the Rembrandt of affordable transportation."