Daewoo finally entered the lucrative US market in 1999 and, just as it did, its perilous financial situation caught up with it. Just a year later, the Korean automaker declared bankruptcy and its future was up in the air. Daewoo Motor America was in crisis, sales off targets and prices being slashed. Nevertheless, it had more product planned and one was this, the Tacuma MPV.
While its styling was rather oddball, the Tacuma, was an utterly conventional compact MPV in the European vein. Like a Renault Scenic or an Opel Zafira, it was a spacious, high-roofed, five-seater MPV based on a passenger car platform – in this case, the Nubira’s. There was just one small problem: Americans didn’t buy European-style compact MPVs.
The template: Renault Scenic
Not that many automakers ever bothered to try and see if Americans were receptive. The conceptually similar Nissan Stanza Wagon and Mitsubishi Expo of the past were niche players at best; the Nissan’s replacement, the Axxess, lasted just one model year in the US. Since the Renault Scenic’s meteoric rise in Europe in 1996, however, only two automakers have attempted to sell a Scenic-style MPV in the US: Mazda with the Mazda5 and Kia with the Rondo. Both sold poorly despite having a duopoly on the segment.
One could argue the Chrysler PT Cruiser and Chevrolet HHR were also compact MPVs based on their dimensions and interior flexibility but both cars were far removed from the European Scenic in style.
Nevertheless, Daewoo thought they had a shot with the Tacuma. In March 2000, Autonews reported the company was doing market tests for the “U100 crossover minivan sport-utility”, a rather convoluted way to describe what was launched in Korea that year as the Rezzo. It was to arrive for the 2003 model year, priced from $16,000. Other news outlets erroneously referred to the U100 as a car-based sport-utility vehicle but, then again, a car like this defied categorization in the American market.
Even as dark clouds enveloped Daewoo’s fledgling U.S. operations, the company persisted with their plans to launch the Tacuma. Actually, it wasn’t going to be called Tacuma – AdAge reported in April 2001 that Daewoo had enlisted an L.A.-based advertising firm in to run a sweepstakes competition to name Daewoo’s new product. 12 months later, however, Daewoo Motor America had more or less collapsed and GM was swooping in to pick up the wreckage of its parent company. There’d be no US-market Tacuma and the planned Lanos, Nubira and Leganza replacements would all be sold under the Chevrolet and Suzuki brands.
Was this a great loss? Well, the additional variety a car like this would’ve given to American consumers would have been refreshing, even if its inscrutable (to Americans) format and curious Pininfarina styling would have seen it fail. The tall-boy styling – shorter in length than the Nubira but taller in height – resulted in a capacious cabin, even if it did seat only five. The interior design was styled by ItalDesign in conjunction with Daewoo’s own designers.
Depending on the market, the Tacuma was available with either 1.6, 1.8 or 2.0 versions of GM’s Family II four-cylinder engine. The US model would have come only with the largest of these engines, producing 119 hp and 130 ft-lbs and hitting 60mph in 11 seconds; it came with either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. Per Australian and British driving impressions, the Tacuma handled tidily and felt rather solid. This surprises me given the related Nubira’s rather sloppy handling and creaky feel although Porsche allegedly had a hand in tuning the Tacuma. Critics did, however, note the Tacuma’s relatively poor bump absorption, fiddly switchgear and the use of small poor-quality plastics. That sounds more like the Daewoo I know.
This class of MPVs were almost all well-packaged and full of clever storage spots and the Tacuma was no exception. The front passenger seat could swivel to face the rear row and the second row could be removed completely. Both front seats had storage drawers underneath and flip-down trays on the seat backs. The rear middle seat could also fold flat to create a tabletop or slide forward 5 inches to increase shoulder room for the outboard occupants. There were some puzzling omissions in the cabin, however, such as the lack of side airbags and a lap-only center rear seatbelt.
GM North America could have chosen to bring the Tacuma over under a different brand such as Chevrolet. After the Daewoo nameplate was retired in Europe in 2005, the Tacuma was sold there as a Chevy. But Americans clearly had about as much an appetite for small MPVs as Australians did, the Tacuma selling poorly here and not being resurrected as a Holden after Daewoo’s closure. Remarkably, the Tacuma continued to be sold until 2009 in Europe and Korea, receiving virtually no changes along the way. Almost a decade later, the little MPV was looking very tired.
There’s precious little to ponder here. Would the Tacuma have sold poorly in the US? Almost definitely, even if its parent company hadn’t been circling the drain. Still, it was a relatively competent and well-packaged compact MPV. GM Korea’s replacement took the Tacuma’s key attributes and improved all of the rest. It was also intended for release in the US only for plans to fall through. But that’s a story for another day.