LESSON LEARNED
The sheer speed of Hyundai's transformation still elicits awe.

"A lot of people in the industry would like to know how they did it," says Szakaly. "General Motors has taken years and years of numerous product cycles, and they still can't get to that product level."

The lesson that Hyundai knows all too well, says Power, is that it's harder to salvage a reputation than it is to remake a car.

"The last couple of years, GM has come out with J.D. Power awards in their segment," Power says. "They've won a bunch. But people still have a perception that some of their cars are not as high-quality as the Japanese vehicles."

And perception sells cars.

“This effort by the Hyundai management has been almost unbelievable — to do it as fast as they have,” says Power. “We feel that it takes two generations of models to get somebody into the major top level, and it took them about five years.”


"This effort by the Hyundai management has been almost unbelievable - to do it as fast as they have," says Power. "We feel that it takes two generations of models to get somebody into the major top level, and it took [Hyundai] about five years."

A model generation, by the way, used to be six to eight years. But with Hyundai barreling ahead, even that time frame has changed, as manufacturers now look to gear up big advances in four to five years.

Maybe Korean culture can be chiefly credited with the swift pivot, says Power. The attitude from the top down has been to learn from mistakes and make whatever improvements are necessary.

"The mind-set at Hyundai was that we need to know these things, whereas some of the older players would say, 'We know all about that.' To change the management thinking is the most important thing - to have them understand that the consumer is the one calling the shots today. That's why some of the manufacturers have fallen behind the others. It's a tough thing, but I think Hyundai was out to show they could do it and they wanted all the straightforward information. They didn't come up with excuses - they said let's fix it."

If there's any one criticism that Hyundai still finds hard to shake, it's the sense of sameness in everything it puts on four wheels. Line up Hyundai cars (like its four-door Sonata) in any average mall parking lot, and they're among the first to get lost in the crowd of similar-looking models.

But even that, says Szakaly, hasn't been a big drawback. In fact, there might be a curious advantage involved.

"The people who want a high-­quality ­vehicle - especially in the area where Hyundai is competing, small-to-midsize vehicles - aren't looking for a lot of flash."