Hyundai Grows Up

No more snide jokes. With its reliable vehicles, the South Korean car maker is a serious contender

Ki Ho Park for TIME

Chung Moo Koo.

Chung Mong Koo, Chairman of South Korea's Hyundai Motor, carefully scrutinizes a newly designed gearshift lever for the automaker's Sonata sedan while his entire senior-management team hovers around, anxiously awaiting his approval. The execs are justifiably edgy. Engineers added a plastic plate beneath the shifter to prevent spilled coffee and other flotsam from falling into the mechanism and gumming it up.

It's a minor change, but no one treats it that way, least of all Chung, a hard-nosed, detail-oriented boss with a penchant for micromanagement. ("He still makes the decision on how big a Christmas tree to put in the lobby,"...

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