MONTEREY, CA — Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd. leads the charge in the Korean automakers' climb up-market with its new-for-North America '01 XG300 sedan.

The XG300 imparts a look and feel more tailored to the Korean domestic market than for export “tastes” — unfortunate, since the car is Hyundai's first export foray into the luxury market.

The reach — and Hyundai officials acknowledge that it indeed is a reach — is a timid one. It is bringing only 15,000 copies of the XG 300 to the U.S. in the first year, hoping for modest success.

The automaker, known for its, ah, “affordable” line of products, has seen sales skyrocket, up almost 50% last year. Its total U.S. sales figure for 2000, an impressive 244,391 units, puts luxury outfits like Audi, Mercedes, BMW, Cadillac Lincoln on the trailer. So maybe the idea of a high-end Hyundai isn't so goofy.

As Hyundai's new flagship, the $23,499 XG300 seeks success by taking a page from the company's low-end game plan: It's priced a few thousand dollars less than other V-6-equipped cars in the middle/near luxury segment. It also is dressed to the nines with standard features like leather seating, automated climate control, 15-in. alloy wheels and a 5-speed dual-gate Shiftronic transmission — not exactly standard fare in Hyundai's usual market.

The vehicle is powered by a 3L DOHC V-6. Producing 192 hp at 6,000 rpm and 178 ft.-lbs. of torque (241 Nm) at 4,000 rpm, the XG300 is adequately powered. Adequate, but its horsepower still registers at less than its supposed competitors.

Hyundai officials are quick to draw parallels between the XG300 and the class-leading Nissan Maxima. The two vehicles, for example, measure up with virtually the same dimensions, inside and out. The 240-hp Maxima, however, would leave the Hyundai in the dust.

But company officials say the XG300 hopes to take sales away from U.S. producers and admit that the vehicle took its styling cues from the domestics. “There is not a lot of innovation in this car from a design point of view,” admits David Ossenmacher, director of product and strategic planning.

Styling, Hyundai says, is “classic,” “understated.” The imitation wood and brushed-metal interior touches paint the XG300 as a Buick on a budget.

Where some aspects of the vehicle — such as a virtually unreadable digital radio readout — didn't work at all, others, such as its smooth ride and easy handling, give the XG300 a luxurious feel.

But will upscale customers ever be able to accept Hyundai outside of its entry level reputation?