You all know about the Chevrolet Cavalier. You probably know about the Pontiac J2000/Sunbird, Buick Skyhawk, Oldsmobile Firenza and Cadillac Cimarron. There was also the Opel Ascona and Vauxhall Cavalier across the pond, and the Holden Camira down under. The Isuzu Aska may ring a gong, too. But the Daewoo Espero? Meet the forgotten J-Car, a South Korean-built version of GM’s erstwhile compact platform, styled by Bertone.
Despite the crisp styling by a design house most famous for the Fiat X1/9 and Maserati Khamsin, the Espero represents the old way of making a car in South Korea: Load a car up with kit and sell it for cheap. Like many Korean cars of its era, it owed a lot to a platform that had become obsolete. After all, the South Korean auto industry may now be a global juggernaut but it rose from humble beginnings. The Hyundai Motor Company started off making Ford Cortinas under license. Kia would sell Mazda castoffs for years after they had been discontinued by their parent company, including cars like the Kia Capital. And Daewoo’s early days were as a joint venture with General Motors, manufacturing the Maepsy (GM T-Car) and Royale (Opel Rekord).
Photo courtesy of Ilya Plekhanov
Daewoo would eventually start manufacturing the LeMans, a version of the Opel Kadett E. It was this model that would be the genesis of Daewoo’s global push, being introduced as the Pontiac LeMans in North America and New Zealand in the early 1990s. By 1995, Daewoo was arriving in Europe and Australia with the now decade-old LeMans, badged under myriad names like 1.5i, Nexia, Heaven, Racer and Cielo. The Espero would also arrive in those markets mid-decade, despite being first introduced in South Korea in 1990.
While its little brother was pitched as a budget rival to compact cars, the Espero was pitched as a blue-light special intermediate. Overall length was around 7 inches longer than the first-generation Chevy Cavalier sedan, with a 2-inch-longer wheelbase. Besides the 1982-vintage platform, the Espero also came equipped with a choice of three GM powerplants (depending on the market): 1.5-, 1.8- and 2.0-liter four-cylinder engines. Transmissions were an Aisin 5-speed manual or a 4-speed automatic.
photo courtesy of Juan Barret
Its exterior may have been a breath of fresh air in 1990, but by 1995 it was looking a little out of place amongst curvier, more organic designs. The interior, too, hadn’t aged like a fine wine. Still, the Espero appealed to bargain shoppers due to its low list price and proven mechanicals. You got what you paid for, though: Interior quality wasn’t a strong suit, and ride/handling was adequate at best.
The Espero would prove short-lived outside of South Korea. Daewoo would replace it with more clearly defined compact and intermediate offerings for 1997: the Nubira and Leganza. Like the Espero, they would also have European styling. And although they would be more fresh and modern, again, like the Espero, they would pose no credible threat to rivals other than in the value-for-money stakes.