Hyundai, though, has shown plenty of flash in its financial performance. And it plans to blaze an even bigger trail.

In 2004, the Hyundai way of offering the model with the best mix of price, warranty, and quality in its class earned it 456,000 new customers in the United States. By 2008, says Szakaly, its pedal-to-the-metal sales performance will likely zoom to one million, especially if a rumored new U.S. plant is built.

By the time the company hits that figure, as its quality rep takes hold, auto analysts expect Hyundai to raise its prices. And lest anyone think the South Korean automaker is satisfied with its growing North American acceptance, new plants are being built in China and India to cater to the car cultures that are taking to the roads of Asia.

Chris Susock, who's responsible for quality at the Alabama plants, knows just how far Hyundai has traveled. After all, when he got started in the carmaking business for Ford, the idea of going to work for Hyundai never even crossed his mind.

"Back then," he says, "it was 'Buy a Coupe de Ville and get a Hyundai for free.'?"

But the work is paying off.

"The guy who bought the Hyundai last year is all of a sudden no longer a joke," Sus­ock says.

And the company he bought it from has no intention of forgetting what it took to journey from punch line to powerhouse. When Power met with Hyundai executives earlier this year, he was shown a picture of the plaque from their Seoul headquarters that still outlines his advice.

Power's description of Hyundai's efforts today?

"Top level."