Korean cars sure have come a long way, haven’t they? My sister just bought a brand new Hyundai i30 (Elantra GT) that, even at the end of its generation, is still earning plaudits from the Australian motoring press. The build quality is superb, the interior stylish and quiet, the drive smooth, and the doors close with a solid ‘thunk’. While she had a mid-1990s Excel (Accent) many years ago that was alright, she also had a first-generation Kia Rio that was absolute garbage. I loathed that Rio so much that I’m going to struggle to say one nice thing about it. Let’s see how you all manage.
Oh, the Rio. Cheap and cheerless, the first Rio was Kia’s first homegrown subcompact after years of using Mazda castoffs. With the cheapest, nastiest interior I’ve ever sat in, a lack of performance and refinement, and a pervasive sense of cheapness, the Rio felt like a step down from my sister’s ’96 Excel. The Korean automakers were not equals then: Hyundai didn’t purchase a majority stake of Kia until 1998 and both Kia and Daewoo’s offerings always felt underdone compared to similarly-priced Hyundais. To Kia’s credit, they did attempt to style the Rio and the wagon-esque hatch was practical. Furthermore, despite the first Rio’s deficiencies, Kia committed to the nameplate and turned the Rio into a solidly competitive car by its third generation.
At the other end of the lineup, Kia had the 2002 Amanti. A typical, old-school Korean executive sedan, the Amanti looked luxurious inside and out. But to make it sufficiently quiet and smooth, Kia added weight and the Amanti was a porcine 4100 pounds, a whopping 600 pounds heavier than a Toyota Avalon. Despite the enduring popularity of cushy cars like the Buick LeSabre in the US, Kia tweaked the car’s handling compared to the Korean market model and yet reviewers found the Amanti still handled like a boat. With its Frankenstein’s Monster mish-mash of luxury sedan styling cues, the Amanti was ridiculed by many. It was an early bird special on wheels, right down to the price: feature for feature, the Amanti undercut the Avalon by around $4k.
The Daewoo Nubira is another car I’ve had experience with. My mother used to own one and, well, let’s get the good things out of the way first: it was cheap and it looked okay. On the outside, that is. The interior was a creaking, plasticky mess. The car crashed over bumps but ploughed through corners with severe body roll. The manual transmission was mediocre; the overall refinement was low.
The Daewoo Kalos is best known to North Americans as the Chevrolet Aveo. The Aveo receives a lot of scorn for its subpar performance, surprisingly poor gas mileage and cheap interior. But it was in a class of very few in North America, so try imagining how the car stacked up in Europe and other markets. Hint: not well. After a brief stint with Daewoo badges in Australia, General Motors sold it as the Holden Barina, replacing a rebadged Opel Corsa. There was outrage from many for what was seen as a hugely retrograde product decision but there were still many loyal Barina buyers out there. Perhaps the nicest thing about it, then, was its badge. Ultimately, the Kalos/Aveo/etc wasn’t a terrible car, it just wasn’t really very good.
The idea of recycling a competitive vehicle and then selling it at a lower price point is compelling. Production costs are amortized, buyers get a lot of car for their money – everyone’s a winner! Or are they? Case in point, the Daewoo Racer, another Daewoo sold under multiple brands and nameplates. North Americans will know this best as the Pontiac LeMans, an insulting marketing decision by General Motors to re-use a proud nameplate on a cheap, entry-level vehicle. The original donor car, the Opel Astra, was a good one. Somehow, South Korean production managed to turn it into a car with uninspiring dynamics and subpar quality and reliability. One nice thing? Well, it still looked good on the outside.
Hyundai doesn’t get a pass in this challenge. It’s easy to bash the original FWD Excel/Pony but it was so cheap that many overlooked its flaws. But what happens if you take the same car, put a slightly swoopier body on it and try to sell it as a sport coupe? The daftly-named SCoupe had the same base engine, the same poor ride quality, the same lack of handling resembling anything near “sporty”. A turbocharged 1.5 four-cylinder was offered, producing 115 hp and 123 ft-lbs of torque, but it was simply more power added to an underdone chassis. To the car’s credit, it gave small coupe buyers a tantalizingly low cost of entry into the segment.
There are no conditions this time around other than to simply say one nice thing. Anything. Still, I imagine this will be the most challenging edition yet of “Say One Nice Thing”.