DETROIT – Hyundai Motor America President John Krafcik calls this year’s North American Car of the Year award for the Hyundai Elantra a validation of the auto maker’s rise to among the industry’s engineering heavyweights.

Krafcik admits Hyundai’s previous generation of products was meant to compete with Toyota, Honda and Nissan entries, while its most-recent passenger cars focus on leadership.

“We wanted to lead in design; we wanted to lead in fuel efficiency, and that recipe has played very well,” Krafcik tells WardsAuto after introducing the Hyundai Veloster Turbo at the North American International Auto Show here.

Hyundai grabbed the NACOTY award for its Genesis luxury sedan in 2009 and last year saw the midsize Sonata finish as runner-up to the Chevy Volt. This year’s NACOTY marks a first for one of the Korean auto maker’s high-volume products.

Krafcik says Hyundai will use the award to further advance awareness of the brand. “It’s not something we’ll use just exclusively for the Elantra, but for something to talk about at the brand level and how far we have come.”

Hyundai has traveled far. Annual U.S. sales have grown from 467,009 units in 2007 to 645,691 last year, according to WardsAuto data. Its share of the market during that 5-year span rose from 2.9% to 5.1%.

Krafcik confirms the auto maker’s success in the U.S. will compel it to eventually sell trucks here, a long-time topic of industry speculation. However, he insists the time still is not quite right. “You have to hone your business on the car side first.”

He balks at the idea a small pickup might work for Hyundai, a segment dominated by Toyota and Nissan and receiving fresh attention from General Motors with a coming redesigned entry in the segment.

Ford dropped out of the segment by discontinuing the Ranger in the U.S. last year. Krafcik sees that as an ominous sign. “I think it is very curious the world’s best truck maker does not have a compact pickup,” he says.

Krafcik earlier announced at the auto show a new lifetime battery guarantee on the Sonata Hybrid’s lithium-polymer battery pack, an industry first.

“Lifetime means forever,” he says, adding Hyundai decided to make the guarantee because battery life is the single-greatest worry for owners of electrified vehicles.

“And because we could do it,” he says of the guarantee, citing the Sonata Hybrid’s accomplishment of  logging a total 275,000 miles (442,558 km) without a battery failure. Plus, the cost of replacing the battery is “relatively low.”

jamend@wardsauto.com