LYNN NEARY, Host:

The auto company Hyundai has cleared plenty of hurdles and is ending up to a great year for the Korean company. Despite a sluggish economy, Hyundai is on track to sell more cars in the U.S. this year than ever before.

NPR's Sonari Glinton reports.

SONARI GLINTON: You could easily think Hyundai is all about its slick marketing gimmicks. For instance, they'll guarantee the price of your car when you trade it in. Here's the deal that really got people talking from the last recession. Take it away Jeff Bridges.

(SOUNDBITE OF HYUNDAI COMMERCIAL)

JEFF BRIDGES: Right now, buy any new Hyundai and if in the next year you lose your income, we'll let you return it. That's the Hyundai assurance. An automaker that's got your back. Isn't that a nice change.

GLINTON: Those kind of new fangled gimmicks ended up not really costing much money and they worked. A lot people bought a lot of Hyundais. But Jessica Caldwell, who's a senior analyst with Edmunds.com says Hyundai is operating from a much older playbook.

JESSICA CALDWELL: What Hyundai did was nothing new. They developed the oldest formula in the book, is have a good design at a good price.

GLINTON: Caldwell says she's kind of surprised that other car companies haven't caught on to Hyundai's secret sooner.

CALDWELL: That, to me, is Carmaking 101. You would think that it's not that hard to figure out. And I just think it's interesting that people think that Hyundai's success is so surprising. But if you look at it, it's not at all. I mean, of course, people are going to buy something that looks good and is not expensive. I think, regardless if you're buying a refrigerator, a shirt, or a computer, that formula is always going to work.

GLINTON: Well, that's the formula as Hyundai follows it now.

DAVID CHAMPION: My name is David Champion, I'm director of automobile testing for Consumer Reports.

GLINTON: OK, David, when I say Hyundai, you say what?

CHAMPION: A company that has come back from the doldrums and now has a very, very competitive lineup across all their products.

GLINTON: When Champion says doldrums, he means doldrums. Back in the day, more than 10 years ago, he would have counted Hyundai at or near the bottom of the car barrel.

CHAMPION: If you saw one for sale, don't even consider it. They were pretty poor vehicles over all and they're reliability was terrible.

GLINTON: Champion says it took quite a while for Hyundai to realize that if it didn't fix it's problem with reliability, it couldn't play cars with the big boys in the U.S. About a decade ago, Hyundai underwent a massive restructuring. And about seven years ago John Krafcik came to Hyundai Motor America. He's now the CEO.

JOHN KRAFCIK: One key difference with our management structure is we see a certain level of leanness as a virtue in and of itself.

GLINTON: Krafcik learned the car industry from two of the least lean car companies. He began his career at Toyota, then went to Ford. He eventually became chief engineer for Ford's big SUVs and trucks. Krafcik says a company like Hyundai can be more innovative because they just don't have as many layers. For instance, he has five vice presidents under him.

KRAFCIK: Up the road from us is another automaker and they have about 40 vice presidents. But when you think about the difference in speed and agility and decision making, we can have a staff meeting easily in my office at the drop of a hat.

GLINTON: And Krafcik says, the fewer chefs in the kitchen means you can cook up more interesting cars, marketing ideas. And when something goes wrong it's kind of clear who's responsible. I asked John Krafcik which company Hyundai wants to beat or be like. Five years ago, Krafcik says, a Hyundai executive would have had an answer. Now, that's not really what he cares about.

KRAFCIK: If the whole industry was moving to the right seven or eight years ago, Hyundai would probably move to the right with them. Today, when the whole industry moves to the right, we'll look to the right. But we'll spend more time looking on the left and trying to understand if there is some other opportunity, some other way to differentiate our position. I'd say that's one of the biggest changes we've had these past few years.

GLINTON: So which car company should be scared of Hyundai? The answer, according to Experian Automotive, which tracks car sales is not a short list. GM, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota, Honda, and Nissan. They all lost customers by the tens of thousands a quarter to the upstart from Korea.

Sonari Glinton, NPR News.

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