If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Hyundai must be blushing.

For the second time in its relatively short history here – Hyundai only began selling cars in the United States in 1986 – the South Korean manufacturer has found a marketing gimmick that forced competitors to copy it. Ford and General Motors announced this week that they were offering their own versions of Hyundai’s “Assurance” program, which makes your payments for a while if you lose your job.

GM’s program is called the “Total Confidence” plan, and Ford calls its plan the “Ford Advantage.” Still more manufacturers may jump on the bandwagon.

The first time Hyundai rocked the market was a decade ago, when the company offered a five-year, 60,000-mile overall warranty, and a 10-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty, with part of that powertrain warranty transferable to a subsequent owner, so long as he or she was a family member.

Hyundai products had been selling well enough, but miserable resale value kept sending customers back to Honda and Toyota. The boosted warranty played a major role in nearly doubling Sonata sales in 1999. Since Hyundai showed it had confidence in its products by the strong warranty, customers began to have confidence, too. Many other manufacturers were forced to respond with beefed-up warranties of their own.

And now comes the Hyundai Assurance plan, instituted in the first week of January. Finance or lease any new Hyundai, “and if in the next year you lose your income, we’ll let you return it,” the company says. Plus, “If you lose your income, we’ll make your payments for three months while you get back on your feet, and if that’s not enough time to work things out, you can return the car with no impact on your credit.”

There is, of course, fine print, but not that much – it’s designed to prevent you from, say, buying a car on Thursday, knowing you will be laid off from your job on Friday, and driving around in a free Hyundai until it’s time to give it back. Get fired for cause and the deal is off. The maximum “benefit” is $7,500.

You must be employed when you buy the car, and “you have to make payments on the car for at least two months,” says Chris Hosford, California-based director of public relations for Hyundai. So far the company hasn’t had to take back any cars, but that’s no surprise: If you make those two months of payments, and Hyundai makes three months, it seems likely people won’t be turning cars back in until later in the year.

“We do expect to get some back,” Hosford says. “But we don’t really know how many. It depends so much on the economy and the job market.”

Has it helped? Oh, yes. “We figure it has boosted our sales by about 10 percent,” Hosford says. That, coupled with the fact that Hyundai actually increased its advertising budget for the first part of the year, including high-profile ads on the Super Bowl and Academy Awards telecasts, has helped Hyundai increase overall sales this year, one of only four brands to do so. Smart, Subaru and Kia were the other three.

So what are Ford and General Motors offering?

Ford (this includes Lincoln and Mercury) will make your payments for up to 12 months, as high as $700 per payment. You must be employed for at least 90 days before the purchase and at least 30 days afterward. You must take delivery by June 1. A couple of hybrid vehicles, the Shelby Mustang and some larger trucks are not eligible.

GM (this includes all brands but Saab, plus larger trucks) will make your payments for up to nine months, for payments as high as $500 if you “purchase or lease any eligible new 2008, 2009 or 2010 GM vehicle April 1, 2009, through April 30, 2009,” the company says. “You have to be employed when you buy the vehicle, and remain employed for 90 more days. Then, if you lose your job due to economic conditions during the next 21 months, you are eligible for benefits. If you lose your job for other reasons, you may not be covered.”

Now, the big question: Auto sales for March 2009 were down sharply from March 2008 for most everyone: Ford was down 42.1 percent, GM 44.7 percent, Chrysler 39.3 percent, Toyota 39 percent, Honda 36.3 percent, Nissan 37.7 percent. Can anything help?

“By tracking consumer behavior on our site, we can see that the company’s advertising message is clearly resonating with consumers who hadn’t previously been considering a Hyundai,” says Ray Sibulkin, senior traffic analyst for the informational Web site Edmunds.com. “The company’s Assurance Plus program provides its buyers peace of mind during an uncertain economy, and that’s proving to be one of the auto industry’s only truly motivating messages right now.”

© 2009, The Orlando Sentinel. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.