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Thanks to "Tony," Hyundai owners may now come out of the closet.

You remember Tony. He's the guy in the TV commercial who walks timidly to the podium at what appears to be an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and guiltily admits he owns a Hyundai.The audience then rises to give Tony a standing ovation as another man - apparently another Hyundai owner - walks onto the stage and hugs him. I'm OK, you're OK, is the message. Driving the South Korean car with the odd name is not a sin.

Since Tony has come clean, I might as well confess that I, too, am a former Hyundai owner. In 1991, I owned a 1987 Excel four-door that I drove for a few months and then traded for a '92 Honda Civic.

If you think I got rid of the Excel so quickly because I didn't like it, give yourself high marks for shrewdness. Its engine was just powerful enough to run the car or the air conditioner but not both at the same time.

But after driving a 1994 Hyundai Elantra GLS for the past week, including a three-day trip to St. George, I have had to readjust my attitude about Hyundais.

Once formed, negative impressions are hard to erase, but the longer I drove the Elantra the more I liked it. It's quick and handles surprisingly well on independent suspension and stabilizers front and rear.

Its fit and finish are comparable to Japanese models, and it has more luxury goodies than you expect to find in a sub-$14,000 car. It's quite roomy for its class, has a 12-cubic-foot trunk and looks more expensive than it is.

If your experience with Hyundais is limited, like mine was, to the older Excels, you will be very pleasantly surprised.

A bit of Hyundai background may be in order. The company entered the U.S. market in February, 1986, with the subcompact Excel. According to the billboards of the time, you could buy one for $5,000 and change, but in the real world it was hard to find one for under $7,000.

But $7,000 was a bargain for a new car even in 1986 (the Yugo was cheaper but money isn't everything), and Hyundai dealers couldn't get enough Excels to satisfy the demand. By the time the feeding frenzy had died down, Hyundai had sold nearly 169,000 Excels, an industry record for a launch year and some 70,000 more than Hyundai executives had expected in their most optimistic scenarios.

The car company that no one had heard of and whose name they still couldn't pronounce, was suddenly the hottest game in town.

Not surprisingly, quality control, the car's weak point from the beginning, suffered even more as Hyundai stretched to meet demand. In 1987, it sold nearly 264,000 units, but that was to be a record. As problems began cropping up, owners began to understand that you really do get what you pay for. When they tried to trade their cars in, they understood it even more.

Hyundai's long slide from the World Series to the minor leagues was under way.

Meanwhile, the company was working hard to make itself into a full-line car company, adding the Sonata full-size sedan, the Scoupe sport coupe and the Elantra compact sedan. But the new models did little to stop the slide. By 1993, total Hyundai sales of the four models had dropped to about 100,000 total, little more than a third of the number of Excels, alone, it sold in 1987.

But Hyundai is no Yugo. It has hung on, made big changes and is now producing cars that have little in common with the Excels it was blowing out the doors eight years ago. J.D. Powers, the company that bestows those coveted quality awards, says Hyundais are the most-improved cars on the market. True, they had a lot of room to improve, but let's not be petty.

One thing's for sure, the '94 Elantra is no '86 Excel. The 1.8 liter DOHC 4 cylinder engine with dual balance shafts is a surprisingly potent little powerplant (124 hp at 6,000 rpm) when mated to the 4-speed automatic transmission with overdrive and lock-up torque converter. (The double overhead cam makes a wonderful Indycar sound when you wind it up past 5,000 rpm.)

With three adults, three sets of golf clubs and all their assorted luggage on board, the Elantra performed extremely well on the St. George run. The cruise control held a steady (censored) miles per hour over the mountains around Cedar City with nary a whimper. No, I didn't run the AC in January, but I don't think it would have made much difference.

The EPA rates the Elantra's fuel mileage at 23 mpg city and 28 highway. My actual mileage was almost spot on at 27.75 mpg in mostly highway driving.

The test car was painted "Ruby Pearl," a color that some described as "burgundy" and others said was "purple." My wife thought the color just a bit garish, but I liked it. The interior was color keyed to the exterior, including the dash and steering wheel, another classy touch for a car in this price range.

The GLS is no bottom feeder despite a base price that, by today's standards, is considered entry level: $11,684. For a total of $13,800, including options and destination charges, my test car was equipped with AC, cruise control, power windows and mirrors, alloy wheels, intermittent wipers, center console, a sound system better than I've found in cars costing thousands more, and a driver's side airbag - the only Hyundai, so far, to offer one.

I kept thinking that a main-line import similarly equipped, a Honda Accord LX, for example, costs several thousand dollars more. True, the Honda has an impeccable record for reliability and maintaining its value (as well as a passenger air bag), but when it comes to the car, itself, the Elantra is dead-on competitive.

For '94, the Elantra has gotten a face lift - new nose, headlamps, reshaped fenders, new tailights and such. The car is scheduled for a complete makover in 1996, including dual airbags.

The Elantra has a basic three-year, 36,000-mile "bumper to bumper" warranty plus a 60-month, 60,000-mile powertrain warranty. Buyers are being offered two-year/24,000-mile free service and maintenance or $250 cash and free emergency towing and roadside service for three years or 36,000 miles.

The base Elantra has a smaller, 1.6 liter engine with a 5-speed manual transmission only; no automatic available.

Hyundai has provided Elantra buyers with some bragging rights: Last July, a modified Elantra driven by the legendary Rod Millen set the all-time qualifying record in the Open Division of the Pikes Peak Hill Climb race and came in second in the race, the first time it had entered.