(first posted 8/23/2016) How do you build a brand and raise it from a fledgling budget line to a global juggernaut? It takes patience, perseverance and some canny business decisions. Hyundai showed the world how to do it.
They started small, with a keenly-priced subcompact, the Excel/Pony. They improved it, before replacing with something slightly larger, more refined and yet still priced to sell: the 1995 Accent. The Accent surged to the top of the sales charts in Australia in the mid-1990s on the back of its attractive styling and an AUD$13,990 drive-away price that rattled Japanese automakers struggling with a rising yen. Everybody seemed to have an Excel, as this generation of Accent was known here, and when they sold their Excels a generation of young used car buyers bought these surprisingly well-built, reliable vehicles.
My sister was one of those buyers, purchasing a used, white 1998 Excel 3-dr in the early 2000s. It provided several years of faithful service, with no mechanical problems to note. Not all Korean automakers were as dedicated to quality and reliability, however. My sister swapped cars with her mother-in-law when my first nephew was born. The Excel’s replacement was a more practical, first-generation Kia Rio wagon. It was rubbish and soured my sister on Kias for years. This year, having only one car that could fit car seats became too much of a hassle for my sister’s family. They wanted a second car, so they bought a brand new Hyundai i30 (Elantra GT).
So did my friend Betsy. And my friend Iggi. The i30 is at the end of its generation but is still a competitive and crowd-pleasing compact with excellent build quality and impressive refinement. And although Hyundai is expanding upmarket with well-specced Santa Fe crossovers and Genesis sedans, they still now how to price a car sharply. The streets of Brisbane are littered with i30s as a result.
Now, there are cheaper cars out there. Malaysian automaker Proton has been peddling bargain basement cars here since the mid-1990s. Chinese automakers Geely and Chery have introduced compacts to the Australian market. But none of those brands are having any success, while the pricier Hyundai sells like hotcakes. Why?
Because Hyundai is no longer seen as just a value brand, that’s why. It’s not the brand you go to when you want the cheapest thing with a new car warranty. Cars like this Excel laid the groundwork for Hyundai to become one of the most popular brands in the world and the 3rd best-selling brand in Australia. People may have bought this Excel because it was cheap but they liked what they had bought. And now, those buyers are returning to Hyundai for a mid-sized sedan or a 7-seat crossover. Some of them are even returning for a luxury sedan.
Automotive journalists worldwide had praise for the 1995 Accent. Even British publications, notoriously critical as they were (and remain), begrudgingly admitted the Excel was an excellent value car even if they argued it wasn’t terribly fun to drive. Autocar said it had the “space of a [C-segment car], the build quality of a Toyota and the price of a [B-segment car].” That Toyota comparison was telling: here was an upstart Korean offering the driving excitement and size of a Corolla for much less money and with more style. Still, Hyundai has taken longer to find acceptance in Europe and the Accent was outsold more than 4-to-1 by similarly-priced if smaller rivals like the Ford Fiesta and Volkswagen Polo.
Although the B-segment was flatlining in 1990s USA, the Accent came to dominate the segment, beating the Chevrolet Metro in the sales race and continuing to increase its sales figures even as other automakers introduced rival subcompacts. The Accent was a faithful warrior and helped create loyal customers. In the second last year of this generation, 1999, Hyundai sold 164,190 cars in the USA, mostly its bread-and-butter Accent, Elantra and Sonata models. Last year, 761,710 Hyundais were sold in the USA.
While the Accent made an impact in North America and Europe, it was Australia where it truly shone. In fact, the Excel was briefly Australia’s best-selling car, managing to beat both the Holden Commodore and Ford Falcon. In 1998, the Excel had a 5.5% share of the entire passenger car market. Hyundai was brutal with its pricing, offering rebates and driveaway deals that had rivals scurrying to match. At the end of last century, the B-segment in Australia was a hotbed of free air-conditioning and three-year warranties, with Hyundai truly having created a buyer’s market. It’s worth noting, however, that most Excels sold were base model three-door hatches; higher-spec four-door sedans and five-door hatches (the latter of which were not sold in the US) were decidedly less common albeit still keenly-priced.
If Hyundai had lazily engineered the Accent, the bloom may have come off the rose and buyers would have chosen rival subcompacts. But the Excel’s all-independent suspension allowed for a pleasingly smooth ride, even if it wasn’t the sharpest handler in the segment. The standard 1.5, 12-valve four-cylinder produced 87 hp and 96 ft-lbs and had a 0-60 time of around 12 seconds, competitive for the segment. A smaller 1.3 was offered in European and Asian markets, and some critics found this little mill to be a more pleasant engine.
For 1999, a twin-cam, 16-valve 1.5 replaced the existing 1.5 and produced 99 hp and 99 ft-lbs, reaching 60 mph in 2 fewer seconds. The Accent was available with either a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual, the latter of which was chided for having a notchy shift feel.
The previous Excel had been handsome enough, but the 1995 Accent represented a visual departure as Hyundai embraced a more expressive aesthetic. Curves abounded, including on the wheel covers and in the taillight elements. The color palette was vibrant, appealing to young buyers; pinks and turquoises were common selections. The interior featured a center stack canted slightly towards the driver, with good fit-and-finish but hard plastics. In Australia, airbags were always an option on the Excel and one many buyers didn’t see the point in shelling out money for. Anti-lock brakes were also only an option, and all Accents featured front disc and rear drum brakes.
The Accent was screwed together much better than its predecessor, and proved to be a fairly reliable little car with a solid powertrain. Common maladies are mainly electrical in nature, although there was a significant recall for suspension defects during the car’s run. Despite this recall, the car continued to sell well and many remain on the roads today.
In 2001, Hyundai introduced a new Accent (Australia finally ditched the Excel name). The styling was more angular and conservative and sales dropped considerably in both Australia and the US, although Hyundai would return to A-grade sales in the B-segment with later Accents and, in Australia, the Getz. Hyundai may have upmarket pretensions but it still offers a keenly-priced Accent line.
It’s easy to think Hyundai wants to shake its image as a purveyor of drive-away priced subcompacts, but that ignores one crucial part of the brand’s history. This Accent introduced a whole generation of new buyers to the brand, and their ownership experiences have encouraged them to return. Hyundai gave buyers exactly what they wanted and the Accent was enthusiastically received. There are many reasons Hyundai continues to grow and grow, and this Accent was one of the earliest and most prominent building blocks.