Hyundai Motor America began selling cars in the United States on 20 February 1986, with a single model, the Hyundai Excel, which was offered in a variety of trims and body styles. That year, Hyundai set a record of selling the most automobiles in its first year of business in the United States compared to any other car brand; total sales in 1986 were 168,882.
Initially well received, the Excel's faults soon became apparent; cost-cutting measures caused reliability to suffer. With an increasingly poor reputation for quality, Hyundai sales plummeted, and many dealerships either earned their profits on repairs or abandoned the product. At one point, Hyundai became the butt of many jokes (i.e. Hyundai stands for "Hope you understand nothing's driveable and inexpensive") and even made David Letterman's Top Ten Hilarious Mischief Night Pranks To Play In Space: No.8 – Paste a "Hyundai" logo on the main control panel.
In response, Hyundai began investing heavily in the quality, design, manufacturing, and long-term research of its vehicles. It added a 10-year or 100,000-mile (160,000 km) powertrain warranty (known as the Hyundai Advantage) to its vehicles sold in the United States. By 2004, sales had dramatically increased, and the reputation of Hyundai cars improved. In 2004, Hyundai tied with Honda for initial brand quality in a survey/study from J.D. Power and Associates, for having 102 problems per 1000 vehicles. This made Hyundai second in the industry, only behind Toyota, for initial vehicle quality. The company continued this tradition by placing third overall in J.D. Power's 2006 Initial Quality Survey, behind only Porsche and Lexus. Hyundai is ranked number 4 in World's Most Admired Companies under the motor vehicles section of CNN, after BMW (Bayerische Motoren Werke), Volkswagen and Daimler in 2011.
Hyundai continues to invest heavily in its American operations as its cars grow in popularity. In 1990, Hyundai established the Hyundai Design Center in Fountain Valley, California. The center moved to a new $30 million facility in Irvine, California in 2003, and was renamed the Hyundai Kia Motors Design and Technical Center. Besides the design studio, the facility also housed Hyundai America Technical Center, Inc. (HATCI, established in 1986), a subsidiary responsible for all engineering activities in the U.S. for Hyundai. Hyundai America Technical Center moved to its new 200,000-square-foot (19,000 m2), $117 million headquarters in Superior Township, Michigan (near Ann Arbor) in 2005. Later that same year, HATCI announced that it would be expanding its technical operations in Michigan and hiring 600 additional engineers and other technical employees over a period of five years. The center also has employees in California and Alabama.
Hyundai incorporated a new manufacturing facility, Hyundai Motor Manufacturing Alabama, in April 2002. The new plant in Montgomery, Alabama was completed during 2004, at a cost of $1.7 billion. Production started in May 2005. It employed more than 3,000 workers in 2012. Currently, the plant assembles the Hyundai Elantra, the Hyundai Sonata, and the Hyundai Theta engine. It is Hyundai's second attempt at producing cars in North America since Hyundai Auto Canada Inc.'s plant in Quebec closed in 1993.
Hyundai America Technical Center completed construction of its Hyundai/Kia proving ground in California City, California in 2004. The 4,300-acre (17 km2) facility is located in the Mojave Desert and features a 6.4-mile (10.3 km) oval track, a Vehicle Dynamics Area, a vehicle-handling course inside the oval track, a paved hill road, and several special surface roads. A 30,000-square-foot (2,800 m2) complex featuring offices and indoor testing areas is located on the premises as well. The facility was built at a cost of $50 million. An aerial view can be found here.