(first posted 5/7/2012) Americans are a forgiving sort, and redemption from sin is just the right gesture away. Well, that applies more to politicians and celebrities than to car companies. It can be a little more challenging to overcome the damage from a poor quality car, especially if you’re the brand new kid on the block. Just ask Yugo; they quickly walked away. As did Peugeot, Alfa, Fiat and countless other imports, even though they had been around for decades. But the Koreans are a tough and determined folk, and when they got their less-than Excellent head handed to them on a platter, they dug in their heels and figured out what it would take to be given a second chance.
Hyundai Motors itself got its start in 1967, building licensed Ford Cortinas (Full story here). The next big leap forward came in 1975, when the Pony appeared (above). Technically, the Pony was developed by Hyundai too, but with a lot of hired help. George Turnbull, former Managing Director of Austin-Morris at British Leyland quit in 1972, and as a parting gift (to himself?), took two Austin Marinas with him. Turnbull and the Marinas turned up at Hyundai, along with some other ex-BL designers and engineers. The resulting RWD Pony certainly reflects its origins, although Giorgetto Giugiaro was hired to do the final styling. At least the Marina’s ancient BMC engine was abandoned, in favor of Mitsubishi units in 1.2, 1.4, and 1.6 L size.
Hyundai’s exports began with the Pony, including Europe, and Canada from 1983 on. The Canadians took a particular shine to it, and the Pony was a big hit up north, selling over 50k units annually. When I was in Korea in 1980, traffic was a sea of these Ponys, including pickup versions. Every taxi ride reinforced the image of what it was: the developing world appliance-mobile; simple, rough riding, noisy, but rugged in that old-school RWD way.
Since it wouldn’t meet US standards, we were spared its pleasures on our home turf, although I doubt it would have compared all that poorly to the similar RWD Datsun 210s and Corollas of the times; maybe a bit less refined. After a ten year run, Hyundai was ready to take the plunge into the FWD world; a tricky transition that had tripped up more than one major manufacturer.
The Excel was mechanically heavily based on the Mitsubishi Colt, and Giugiaro styled the body again. And with their new baby, Hyundai launched a massive assault on the US in 1986. Powered by a very attractive $4,995 ($10k adjusted) starting price, the Excel arrived at an auspicious time, given that the Voluntary Import Restrictions caused shortages of Japanese cars, rapidly rising prices, dealer markups, and waiting lists.
The infamous Yugo had appeared just the year before, priced at a rock-bottom $3990. But there were serious doubts about the Yugo’s provenance and durability from the beginning, and they quickly proved to be all-too true. For a grand more, the Hyundai looked very appealing, even if the Made-In-Korea stamp back then had the the equivalent image of Made-In-China in more recent times.
Putting quality issues aside, the Excel was a steal compared to the barely warmed-over tiny ex-Fiat Yugo. The Excel looked handsome enough for the times, was fairly roomy, and its driving dynamics were adequately competitive with the lowest-end Japanese imports, while undercutting them by several thousand dollars.
The result was explosive, with Hyundai selling 169k Excels in the US that first year. That was the biggest first year sales performance of a newly introduced import brand ever. But it quickly unraveled.
The Excel was Hyundai’s GM X-Body (Citation, etc.), its builder having underestimated the challenges of a completely new FWD car with all-new engines and transaxles. Quality and reliability issues surfaced very quickly, and Hyundai was tainted with the same bad rep that killed the Yugo. I don’t know exactly what the early Excel’s greatest weaknesses were, but American import drivers had been spoiled by the Japanese cars’ well honed reliability by then, and were not about to embrace anything retrograde in that department.
And what were they like to drive? It was a highly unmemorable experience. I drove one once, fairly briefly, and my only now-dim impressions were of it being a reasonably functional appliance. It didn’t inspire in any regard, but neither did it engender loathing. The 1.5 L engine teamed with the three-speed automatic was feebler than average, certainly more so than a Sentra and Civics of the times I had experience with.
Hyundai limped along in the US, having made dubious history with its explosive introduction followed by its nearly immediate implosion. But time and continued steady progress in resolving the Excel’s issues healed some of the wounds. Whether Hyundai purposely waited some ten years before it got aggressive with its ten-year 100k mile warranty and a massive product expansion is unclear. But Hyundai is a text book case of how to redeem oneself with the demanding American consumer: hang around long enough and keep putting your face out there, and pretty soon all is forgiven. Image Rehab: an American specialty; available to Koreans too.