A decade ago, I wrote several columns urging readers to take seriously Hyundai Motor, Korea's largest automobile manufacturer.
I was impressed by the willingness of the company to adapt, and by the speed with which it shifted gears to meet the changing realities of the marketplace.
It is a story now turned cliche: The Hyundai that entered the United States with motorized junk in 1985 — the Excel subcompact — is now a bona fide competitor in the global automobile industry.
Even high-end companies, such as Germany's BMW, are looking in their rear-view mirrors, checking the Korean manufacturer's rapid progress with models such as the high-quality, high-performance Hyundai Genesis sedan and coupe.
But the Genesis models don't pose the biggest threat to Hyundai's rivals. That, instead, comes with models such as the 2009 Hyundai Elantra Touring.
Hyundai's strategy in the family car category is as simple as it is complicated: The Korean company wants to beat its top Japanese rivals — Honda, Nissan and Toyota — by offering better products at a lower price.
"Better," as illustrated by the Elantra Touring, means giving people much more car than they expect for the money.
The subject vehicle, for example, is a five-door compact hatchback wagon. You expect a certain amount of utility in that kind of vehicle. But you don't expect cargo space — a maximum 65 cubic feet with the rear seats folded — that matches the room found in many mid-sized sport-utility models.
You expect a manual transmission as standard equipment. But you don't expect a short-throw, five-speed manual gearbox that shifts with the precision of something found in a vehicle set up for weekend track racing. You certainly don't expect a car that is loads of fun to drive. But that is what you get in the Elantra Touring, a car that offers so much for the money, it makes you suspicious.
You start trying to figure out where Hyundai has cut corners.
I thought I had found it in the suspension work, which did not seem to fare terribly well over potholed and pock-marked city streets. But now I'm not so sure.
I drove two versions of the Elantra Touring — one with manual transmission and 16-inch radial tires and the other with automatic transmission and 17-inch radials. The model with the bigger tires felt more stable over roads bad and good. It was absent the sometimes irritating choppiness I felt in the car with the smaller tires.
Check out standard equipment. Hyundai offers four-wheel disc brakes (ventilated front/solid rear), antilock brakes, electronic brake-force distribution (which automatically increases brake force to the wheels that need it most) and electronic stability and traction control. Also included are side and head air bags — all in a car with a base price well below of $20,000. That's a bargain!
Interior materials weren't the best in the world — a bountiful helping of bargain-priced vinyl there. But everything appeared stitched and assembled perfectly, as good if not better than anything found in a Honda, Nissan or Toyota — for several hundred to a couple of thousand of dollars less.
With an in-line four-cylinder, 138-horsepower engine, there's more than adequate power for most commuter transportation needs. Fuel economy is good at 23 miles per gallon in the city, 31 on the highway.
On top of it all, Hyundai has given car sales a slight boost in a dreadfully dismal market with its Hyundai Assurance Plus program, designed to relieve consumer anxiety by promising to take over car payments within the first year of a vehicle purchase for buyers who lose jobs through no fault of their own.
Could it be that Hyundai, once the laughingstock of the car world, will be the company that leads the automobile industry out of recession?