LOS ANGELES -- Way back in 1999, executives at struggling Hyundai Motor America dreamed of bringing the Equus luxury sedan to the United States.
"We had an Equus demo," says Finbarr O'Neill, who took over the reins of the U.S. company that year. "It was fun to drive to soccer games. People would say, 'What is that?' But we knew we couldn't do it at that time.
"Hyundai had a bad reputation in the '90s. There was a lot of snickering about us, and we had to fix that."
O'Neill, now president of J.D. Power and Associates, says internal measures showed Hyundai's quality was improving even then.
"But it takes a long time to establish a brand," he adds. "Now they've earned credibility in the marketplace with value, quality and styling, and I see Hyundai being even more competitive in the coming years."
Is Hyundai now a bona fide Tier 1 brand? Or has it merely benefited from being a value brand in a weak economy -- to be kicked to the curb when consumer confidence returns?
Evidence persists that, despite its market share surge in the recession, Hyundai still has work to do to shed its past reputation of selling cheaply built cars. Dave Zuchowski, Hyundai's top U.S. sales executive, admits that the brand needs to improve key factors such as residuals and dealership quality. He says Hyundai is moving aggressively to upgrade them, just as it did with vehicle quality.