They came ashore in 1986, in danger of being swamped in the wakes of bigger, established imports that had been streaming across the Pacific for years.
But look at Hyundai today: it boasts annual sales around half a million, and its initial product - a dinghy called the Excel - has given way to a fleet of nine cars, including today's test car, the 2007 Veracruz Limited AWD, which is perhaps Hyundai's biggest upscale leap to date. $34,000 for a Hyundai, you ask? Shop it against competitors from Ford, Toyota, Honda, and General Motors before you decide that's too much.
Hyundai, and its Korean cohort, Kia, have been among the leaders in making safety features standard, especially multiple airbags. Even the sub-$15,000 Accent has airbags front, side, and overhead. The Veracruz comes with six bags, including front-to-rear head protection back to the third row in this seven-seater. It also comes with standard ABS, electronic stability control, electronic brake force distribution, and active front seat head restraints that push forward and up to cradle the head in a crash.
In three trim levels, with base prices from around $26,000 to $34,000, the Veracruz also can be had with front- or all-wheel-drive.
The car's interior, with faux-aluminum trim, wood accents, standard leather seating, and a complex center stack control system for audio and climate, feels richer and more elegant than its Asian competitors, Pilot and Highlander. Its roots stretch back to two other Hyundai models, the Santa Fe and the Azera sedan, Hyundai's other recent leap into the higher-end market (though its top price is around $30,000).
The Veracruz gets its smooth, remarkably quiet, 260-horsepower V-6 engine from the Azera. It is linked to a six-speed automatic that allows manual shifting, a first for Hyundai. In either mode, its climb up and down the gears is free of lurches or back-tossing downshifts. Even at highway speeds, the automatic transmission hardly lets you know it is there, and with manual shifts, you know you've shifted but hear, rather than feel, the difference.
Straight down the road, it features a pliant ride that absorbs bumps and bridge expansion joints without clunking or bouncing. It pulls out to pass with little effort, running up to well over 6,000 rpms and nearing redline without whine or complaint.
Off the highway, that same power virtually eats up long climbs. A price is paid, however, for the pliant ride described earlier.
The fully independent suspension, obviously tuned to produce a soft and gentle ride, permits a bit more body roll in cornering and lane changes than I've seen in competitors.
Interior space is plentiful, though the third row is not for long trips for larger folks, even though it's easily accessible through wide rear doors.
From the outside, the Veracruz tries to set a different course for crossover design, a tough task considering this is a tall-riding, low-slung, four-door box with a rear lift gate. But it's nicely rounded where other cars might get sharp, and its headlamps and tail lamps wrap around the fender. I particularly like the rear spoiler integrated atop the standard power lift gate.
The lift gate is one item on a long list of standard gear (in addition to safety features). The list also includes a backup warning system, a power tilt-and-lift sunroof, steering wheel audio controls, an Infinity CD changer/audio system, multi-adjust front seats, a trip computer, front fog lights, roof rack side rails, and, of course, Hyundai's vaunted and successful 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty.
The price of the test car rose to almost $38,000 with the addition of a $3,200 "ultimate package" that included an upgraded black leather interior, adjustable pedals, power tilt and telescoping steering wheel, rear seat DVD with an eight-inch LCD screen and surround sound, rain sensing wipers, and lighted rocker panel surface protectors.
Hyundai's on a roll, although its long-range goal of selling a million cars a year still seems a bit distant. Its cars should be shopped against any competitor's vehicle in the same class.
Royal Ford can be reached at email@example.com.