Today, South Korea manufactures hundreds of thousands of high-quality, competitive sedans, hatchbacks and crossovers. GM’s Korean operations, for instance, produce the Chevrolet Spark, Sonic, Cruze and Malibu. Not too long ago, though, GM Korea was known as Daewoo and had a far less compelling lineup.
Daewoo’s time in the US market was fleeting. Introduced in 1999 as part of an ambitious global expansion, their American sales arm was effectively born into uncertainty due to their corporate parent’s rapidly deteriorating financial situation. Daewoo exited the market in 2002.
In Australia Daewoo had launched earlier, in 1994. Their first two models were the 1.5i (Pontiac LeMans) and the Daewoo Espero, which rode atop the GM J- platform.
For 1997, the dated lineup would be swept away and replaced with a new, three-pronged range. The subcompact Lanos, compact Nubira and mid-size Leganza all had smart, European-designed exteriors (IDEA designed the Nubira, and Guigiaro the others), sharp prices and long features lists. Daewoo seemed to have turned a corner.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and fledgling automakers don’t nail it in two generations. The Nubira was a much more modern offering than the 1.5i/LeMans, and it offered a choice of sedan, spacious wagon or pert hatchback, but it was still dynamically off the pace and lacking the quality and refinement of its rivals. Daewoo’s global troubles were also conspiring to slowly drag down sales, too.
The stench of death that loomed in the air didn’t stop my parents from purchasing a silver Nubira CDX sedan in 2003. The Nubira had been facelifted for 2000, with those oversize headlights that were in vogue as well as larger taillights with very Opel-esque plastic trim underneath. The visual revision kept the Nubira looking fresh, and perhaps that, as well as standard alloy wheels, made the Nubira stand out to my folks. A sub $AUD20k driveaway price and free leather trim was what sealed the deal, as well as the assurance that, as GM had taken over Daewoo sales, buyers would be taken care of with regards to servicing.
The Nubira completely underwhelmed me. As a child, I recall suggesting all kinds of cheap, well-equipped Korean cars for my mother, even recommending at one point that she buy a Kia Credos. By my teens, though, I realized there was more to a car than its features list. The Nubira was more luxuriously specified than the Astra it replaced, with power windows and the aforementioned leather trim, but it was inferior overall.
Inside was a mess of hard, black, plastic trim. There were creaks and moans, and a seat that would not stop rattling. The dash panel had give when you pushed it, and everything felt cheap and nasty. The leather was acceptable, but the seats themselves were not. You felt as though you sat atop them and not in them, and they offered no support in corners. The stereo was a crude, aftermarket-looking unit with fiddly buttons. After a while, it broke.
If the interior was bad, the drive was worse. Engine noise was not too bad, but the car had a bewildering combination of a poor ride and sloppy handling. The Nubira would crash over bumps and felt like it would tip over in corners due to body roll. The manual transmission was loose and unpleasant to use, too. The seating position left you peering over the hood and added to the sensation of lacking control. Overall, it was not a car you wanted to drive.
The remarkable thing was the 1997 Astra it replaced in my family was first launched in 1992, but it ran rings around the Nubira in every way. It had a more attractive and smartly designed interior, with colorful fabrics, better visibility and soft-touch plastic, although build quality was average at best. It was also leagues ahead of the Nubira to drive, with a better-damped ride, zippy handling and an excellent manual transmission. Despite the Nubira having the newer GM Family II engine (the Astra had the Family I), it didn’t seem noticeably more powerful despite its 15 hp and 13 ft-lb advantage.
Reliability was average. Nothing major really happened with the Nubira, other than a troublesome battery. It provided a decade or so of service to my parents, and neither of them complained too much about it. But the telling thing is, Mum never spoke of the Nubira fondly. The Astra was affectionately known as her “little red car” and she still thinks highly of it today, despite it having had a few mechanical maladies and abysmal paintwork.
When the parents finally replaced the old Nubira, they went Korean again, with a 2013 Hyundai i45 (Sonata). It feels impressively solid, like most new Hyundais, with a smooth and extremely quiet ride. It has a much higher-quality interior, and looks sharp both inside and out. It’s still no road rocket, but it has plenty of get-up-and-go and competent handling. South Korea, you’ve made it.
(Photos of the beige sedan are courtesy of resident Curbsider Sean Cornelis. Thanks, Sean!)