October 18, 2011 10:52 AM | By Jeremy Sinek for MSN Autos

We like the cars, why don't we love Hyundai?

Its cars are already major league, now Hyundai wants its brand image to reflect that. In Canada, it already has a head start

Millionth U.S.-made Sonata (© Photo: Hyundai)

Seoul, South Korea — For a pair of such newbies on the world scene, Canada and Hyundai go back a long ways together. The Korean company only came into existence as an automaker in 1967 — coincidentally, exactly one century after a collection of frontier colonies coalesced into the freshly minted dominion of Canada.

It took another nine years before Hyundai first exported its own proprietary car, the Pony, to Ecuador. But Canada really put Hyundai exports on the map: in 1985, in only its second year here, the Pony became the top-selling car in Canada. Hyundai Canada sold 51,000 Ponys and 79,000 cars altogether.

It was too much, too soon. Other automakers accused the Koreans of dumping the Pony at below cost. Buyers soon discovered that when it comes to quality, you get what you pay for. By decade's end, Hyundai's sales were in freefall.

Related Autos links:
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No matter. Hyundai had its eyes on a prize bigger than just Canada's puny market. In 1986 it entered the U.S., and to serve that market Hyundai soon opened its first overseas transplant — in Bromont, Quebec. The plant's inaugural product was the first-generation Sonata sedan.

Hyundai Pony (© Photo: Hyundai)

A Hyundai Pony

That didn't end well, either. Between persistent quality issues, the early-'90s recession, and Chrysler's withdrawal from a joint-venture deal, Bromont was mothballed after four years. In 1996, Hyundai's Canadian sales bottomed out at just over 17,000.

But the Koreans are nothing if not persistent, and Hyundai's rebound has been breathtaking. Two decades ago, its powertrains were all built under licence from Mitsubishi. Today the company not only has a rich portfolio of in-house advanced engines and transmissions, it even licenses some of its engine technology back to Mitsubishi.

There is a contract to supply automatic transmissions to Chrysler. While some automakers are adopting bought-in eight-speed transmissions, Hyundai has an eight-speed of its own design — and is working on a 10-speed.

In 2009 Hyundai not only cornered both the Canadian AJAC and North American Car of the Year awards, it did so with the Genesis, Hyundai's first crack at the luxury segment in North America. The latest 5.0-litre version of the Genesis Tau V8 has been named to the 2011 Ward's 10 Best Engines List. Sales in Canada are on track to top 120,000 in 2011.

Hyundai reviews:
2012 Hyundai Genesis first drive
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Hyundai's plant in Ulsan, South Korea (© Photo: Hyundai)

Hyundai's plant in Ulsan, South Korea

While all these product transformations were underway, Hyundai production was going global. Beyond claiming the world's single largest auto-assembly facility at home in Ulsan, Hyundai is now building cars in Turkey, Russia, the Czech Republic, the U.S.A., India (two plants), China (two, with a third on the way) and soon in Brazil. That's in addition to design and technical centres in most of the same regions.

In 2010, for the first time, Hyundai built more cars abroad than in Korea (3.62 million in total).

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