CC & Vintage Review: Pontiac LeMans and Daewoo 1.5i/Cielo – Kadetts Reporting Rather Late For Duty

Pity the pretty and poised Opel Kadett E, a crude facsimile of it years later having conditioned consumers the world over to wretch at the mere sight of it. At least GM spared Australian consumers the indignity of seeing a heritage nameplate crudely affixed to a cut-rate Korean rehash, although the insultingly inappropriate Pontiac LeMans name was used in New Zealand. Instead, Australian buyers had to wait even longer for the dubious pleasure of being able to purchase a new, Korean-built Opel Kadett E. By the time it arrived in Australia, the Daewoo 1.5i – as it was unimaginatively titled here – was based on a ten-year old design. As you can imagine, it was even less impressive than the LeMans had been in North America six years earlier.

More’s the pity as the Kadett E, also known as the Vauxhall Astra, was quite a looker in its day. Subtly aerodynamic, the Kadett E was the height of style in the European C-segment of the mid-1980s even if it wasn’t the absolute class leader. At least the hatchbacks were – the sedan and wagon were boxy and unadorned to the point of being austere. There was even a convertible plus rorty GTE and GSi hot hatches powered by 1.8 and 2.0 four-cylinder engines, as well as the Combo/Astramax van.

Daewoo commenced production of the Kadett E in 1986, although it didn’t arrive in North America until 1988. It didn’t exactly astound North American consumers with its brilliance then and, when it finally arrived in September 1994 in Australia, it was looking decidedly ancient. The modest facelift bestowed upon the LeMans in 1993 was skipped for Australia for reasons unknown, leaving the Daewoo 1.5i looking much like an ’84 Kadett. And, in a puzzling twist, the 1.5i had a very Pontiac-esque arrowhead badge in its grille.

In Wheels’ 1995 Annual Quality ratings, the 1.5i came 19th out of 20 cars. Scorn was levelled at its inconsistent and broad panel gaps and poor-quality interior. Despite this, sales for the fledgling Korean brand got off to a good start in Australia. There was a memorable ad campaign featuring a trusty Kelpie, an excellent three-year/100,000km warranty, and a low, low drive-away price of $AUD14,000. That wasn’t bad for something that was closer in size to a Toyota Corolla but closer in price to a Suzuki Swift.

It’s a credit to the basic goodness of the Kadett E that, even when it was ten years old and indifferently assembled, the 1.5i wasn’t completely horrid. There was the aforementioned roomy cabin and low price and, reassuringly, a trusty, Holden-produced, fuel-injected 1.5 SOHC four-cylinder engine under the hood. It wasn’t the last word in refinement but it was rather peppy for its class with 77 hp and 93 ft-lbs.

The real Korean hero was the Hyundai Excel (Accent), launched at the same time, which soared up the sales charts and was even briefly the best-selling car in Australia. It had fresher styling inside and out and, like the also Korean and almost as hot-selling Ford Festiva (Aspire), it better appealed to young buyers. The defunct Which Car? magazine put the three Koreans to the test, throwing in a Seat Ibiza and Suzuki Swift for good measure. This was actually the first car magazine issue I ever bought – Which Car? became a treasure of my childhood – and this is the only issue I ever drew in, so ignore the doodles!

Volkswagen introduced the Seat brand to Australia in 1995 as a budget counterpart to Volkswagen, and tried with little success to sell these Spanish cars here before giving up in 1999. Owing to its European production, VW couldn’t get prices down low enough to make a dent in the market. The German-engineered Ibiza naturally stood above its rivals but, with a $2k price premium over them, that was to be expected.

As Which Car? was marketed as more of a buyer’s guide for Australian consumers, covering both new and used cars, comparison tests often featured sections on safety…

…and ergonomics. Not everything is 0-60 times and slaloms!

While North American buyers had a new Suzuki Swift for 1995, buyers in other markets were left with the 1988-vintage model. And, having driven one, I can attest the Swift Cino with its manual steering was a rather miserable thing to drive. Like the testers, I was loathe to take it onto the highway.

At the same price as smaller, tinnier cars like the Swift, you can somewhat see the appeal of a larger, seemingly more substantial car like the 1.5i.

That is, if you ignore the much more impressive Excel. It, too, was a bit bigger than most its rivals and it was even more powerful than the 1.5i, already quite sprightly for its class. The Hyundai also came with the option of a driver’s airbag.

The Excel completely shaded the Festiva in every respect, too. The Korean Ford was also bog slow with a 0-100 km/h time of 16.6 seconds, lineball with the breathless Ibiza. At least the Ibiza felt well-composed to drive, the Ford managing the trifecta of tippy handling, unsettled ride and gutless performance.

It’s no surprise, then, that Which Car? found the Hyundai to be the victor of this comparison. Rival magazine Wheels put the exact same cars to the test the same year – with a Mazda 121 thrown in for good measure – and had the exact same order of results. They praised the 1.5i for its engaging value and for being a “big and solid lump”.

Both Aussie magazines, however, found the 1.5i to be deficient in quality, refinement and style. A similar verdict was rendered by Consumer Guide just two years prior when the 1.5i’s counterpart, the Pontiac LeMans, was exiting the North American market. Curiously, the Pontiac’s engine was also a Family I unit with almost identical power and torque figures but which displaced 1.6 liters.

The lines between the B and C-segment were more blurred in the US and Canada than in Australia. Down here, the 1.5i was a good $5k cheaper than a base C-segment offering like a Nissan Pulsar or Mitsubishi Lancer (Mirage). In the US, however, the LeMans’ value proposition evaporated. It may have offered the lowest sticker price in the Pontiac showroom but a base ’93 LeMans was only $200 cheaper than the more modern, powerful and refined Ford Escort; there was a similar price difference between it and the Plymouth Sundance. The redesigned 1993 Dodge and Plymouth Colt even undercut the Korean Pontiac and if you truly wanted a dirt-cheap hatchback, the Ford Festiva cost just $6914.

Ignore the modest facelift for 1993 and the LeMans was looking old and tired, which was ironic as it had yet to even be introduced to Australia at that point. So, how did it fare with critics earlier in its run?

In 1989, Consumer Guide reviewed the LeMans and… well, the story was much the same. This was an Opel that had the Germanic goodness sucked out of it and yet its Korean build couldn’t even get the price low enough to make it a good buy. North America may have gotten a sprightly 2.0 in the top-line GSE but the LeMans made even less sense at that end of the model range.

At least the base ’89 LeMans – the Value Leader Aerocoupe – undercut almost everything except the Hyundai Excel and the wretched Yugo. You had to forego power steering but it was the same story on the base Dodge Colt which cost $300 more and had the indignity of vinyl seats. Even the aged Plymouth Horizon was more expensive than a LeMans. Alas, that value advantage eroded during the LeMans’ run even as it became older and less desirable. Even as Hyundai Excel sales plummeted from their initial heights (260,000 annually from 1987-1988 to just 40k in 1992), Hyundai still managed to outsell the LeMans by 2-to-1. Sure, the Hyundai had no showroom competition (yet) but that was still a poor showing for the Pontiac. Their best year was 1988 with 64k units, sliding each year before crashing at just under 8k units in 1993.

Just a year after its launch in Australia, the old lump 1.5i was replaced with the Cielo. Don’t be fooled by its revised and more era-appropriate styling—underneath, this was still the same old car. There was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it interior freshening and an optional 1.6 twin-cam four with 88 hp but the Cielo still looked mighty old. At least Daewoo had the sense to hire Porsche to try and tidy up the ride quality.

The stodgy Daewoo looked like a car for cheapskates. And Daewoo sold it as such, even dropping the four-speed auto for a three-speed unit halfway through the car’s run and making power steering an option.

Daewoo’s sales performance was nothing to scoff at, though. In 1996, just over a year after its Australian launch, the brand posted 12,750 sales. While only a quarter of Hyundai’s number, it was only 2-4,000 units off of Honda and Nissan’s figures. Never underestimate a low price and a long warranty, no matter how old your product is.

And if you want to talk old product, consider this: the Cielo was discontinued in Australia in 1998, a whopping 14 years after its forebear was first introduced, but it continued to be produced elsewhere in the world. The last market the Cielo was sold in was Uzbekistan, where it was offered until 2016 as the Nexia. That was one of the more common names for this reclothed Kadett, known in other markets as the Racer, Fantasy, Pointer and Heaven.

While the LeMans’ lifespan was mercifully cut short in North America, GM went as far as developing clay models of a replacement model that would have continued using the aged platform.

The sedan’s styling is fairly innocuous and 1990s-generic but the hatch borders on cute with its fresh and curvaceous styling. GM evidently decided the Sunfire was sufficient as an entry-level product for the Pontiac brand and the car never reached production. These photos are from GM via the wonderfully informative Vauxpedia.

While the 1.5i/Cielo’s lifespan was short in Australia, Daewoo managed to use this old hand-me-down platform as a diving board here as it had throughout the world. It may have been thoroughly outdated and built to a low, low price but it still had some glimmer of competence hidden under its ageing sheetmetal and plasticky interior. And without the 1.5i/Cielo/LeMans/etc, Daewoo wouldn’t have become the thriving Korean automaker… that financially imploded and had to be bailed out by General Motors.

Cielo photographed in Brisbane CBD in November 2015. 1.5i photographed in Toombul, QLD in June 2018.

Related Reading:

Curbside Classic: 1987 Hyundai Excel – The Damn Near Deadly Sin

Curbside Classic: 1995-99 Hyundai Accent/Excel – A Strong Foundation

Curbside Classic: 1996 Ford Aspire – OMG, I Found Another One