Hyundai Motor Co. has become only the world’s second automaker – after Toyota – to export more than 10 million vehicles, reaching the landmark some 28 years after Hyundai shipped six Pony hatchbacks to Ecuador in June 1976.

The company held a ceremony this week to celebrate the shipment of its 10 millionth export, a Tucson compact sport utility bound for France.

“We will do our best to increase exports by continuing to improve product quality and to develop new technology,” Kim Dong-jin, Hyundai’s vice chairman and chief executive officer, said in a speech to around 200 employees, suppliers and journalists, reported by The Korea Herald.

Hyundai attributes its export performance to successful small and lower medium sized models such as the Excel, Elantra and Accent subcompacts, which account for nearly 60 percent of its total auto exports.

But the company has been increasing its overseas shipment of larger vehicles, including Sonata mid-size sedans and Santa Fe sport utility, to compete in more lucrative segments.

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Hyundai now exports to 193 countries, compared with 38 in 1980, with over 5,000 dealerships worldwide.

This year, Hyundai expects its auto exports to exceed $12 billion, or 5 percent of the Korea’s total overseas shipments, to become a major driving engine behind nation’s economic growth.

Hyundai’s export drive suffered a major setback in 1989, just three years after the successful debut in the United States of its Excel compact. The company’s annual shipments halved to 221,000 units because of quality problems.

It took seven years and rigorous efforts for Hyundai to improve quality and exports to recover to more than 400,000 units.

“We learned the hard way how important product quality is,” the Hyundai vice chairman told reporters. “Since Chairman Chung Mong-koo began to run this company in 1999, he has been focusing on improving the quality of our vehicles. Now the efforts are paying off.”

He added that Hyundai would introduce a premium brand around 2007 to compete with BMW 5 series and Mercedes-Benz E-Class vehicles.