I love underdogs, the people chosen to lose. It stems from my belief in the human spirit, the faith that persistence, intelligence and imagination can turn anyone into a winner.

Underdogs, in that regard, actually have an advantage. Opponents tend to play them for fools, to discount their intelligence and imagination, to underestimate their desire to succeed. That allows underdogs to win by stealth.

Hyundai Motor Co. is a case in point.

Once the butt of jokes on late-night talk shows, the company saw its U.S. sales rise by 82 percent last year. Nobody laughed at that. Everybody took notice.

Hyundai's comeback from its failed days of the early 1990s was powered by new products and marketing savvy.

The products are represented by this week's test car, the completely redesigned 2000 Hyundai Accent GL subcompact sedan, one of the best cars available at a base price under $10,000.

Hyundai's marketing smarts are in its warranty plan, which is the best in the business. But more on that later. Let's look at the Accent.

The new car is a bigger version of its former self. Hyundai borrowed techniques from its rivals and placed the Accent's wheels at the farthest corners of the car. The effect was to create more legroom and headroom and more seating comfort for driver and passengers.

Overall, the Accent's wheelbase — the distance between the front and rear wheels — increased by 1.6 inches, to 96.1 inches. Overall width increased nearly two inches.

Other improvements were in body strength. Previous Accents felt flimsy. The new model has discernibly more substance and rigidity. Credit stiffer windshield pillars (A-pillars) and center pillars (B-pillars). Hyundai also filled those pillars with foam to increase crash protection and reduce vibration.

The company also stiffened the beam supporting the dashboard and related structures. Thus, vibrations in the steering wheel and instrument panel have been eliminated. Wind and road noises in the car have been reduced by the use of double seals around the doors and more sound-deadening materials in floor panels.

Clearly, Hyundai's strategy is to give consumers much more than they'd expect in a $10,000 car. In most cases, the company delivers.

Standard equipment includes a stereo cassette sound system, a very decent five-speed manual transmission, comfortable seating for four people, a well-designed instrument panel and, of course, all the federally required safety items, including dual front air bags and three-point safety belts.

But there are reminders that the new Accent is a bargain ride. Though fit and finish generally are excellent, cheap plastic remains noticeable, especially in the covering around the ignition-lock assembly. The car's 13-inch-diameter tires discourage anything except the most sensible driving. And if the tires don't send you that message, the Accent's 1.5-l iter four-cylinder engine will.

Forget 0-to-60 times. You start your engine and move slowly through suburban or city streets, and by the time you reach the expressway the Accent is ready to roll — after a stint in the right lane.

The engine, with three valves per cylinder, develops 92 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 97 pound-feet of torque at 4,000 rpm. The test car was equipped with an optional, electronically controlled four-speed automatic transmission, which seemed to add more drag to the process.

But, hey, the Accent is a commuter, not a racer. It's a good, fuel-efficient city car that offers reliable transportation, with many amenities, at a very good price.

Winning often involves sticking to the basics and beefing up performance in areas that give you advantage. Hyundai has done that here.

Nuts & Bolts

2000 Hyundai Accent GL Complaints: Poor acceleration. Do not cut in front of trucks or more power ful cars in this one.

Praise: One of the best city cars available.

Head-turning quotient: Mainstream attractive. Low "wow" factor.

Ride and handling: Good ride and handling. A four-wheel, independent suspension system is standard.

Brakes: Power, ventilated front discs and rear drums. Anti-locks are optional.

Capacities: The Accent can carry 10.7 cubic feet of cargo. Fuel tank holds 11.9 gallons of regular unleaded gasoline.

Mileage: About 30 miles per gallon, combined city/highway.

Warranty: Basic bumper-to-bumper coverage is for five years or 60,000 miles. Powertrain coverage (for original buyer only) is for 10 years or 100,000 miles. Coverage includes 24-hour roadside assistance coverage — no extra charge, no mileage limit — for five years.

Price: Base price is $9,699. Dealer invoice on base model is $9,078. Price as tested is $11,384, including $1,250 in options and a $435 destination charge.

Purse-strings note: This is an economy car. Don't go nuts with options. Compare with Chevrolet Cavalier, Ford Focus, Toyota Echo, Daewoo Lanos, Kia Sephia and Honda Civic.