By on November 16, 2010

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. 

The Excel was Hyundai’s first fully self-developed car, which suggests that they might well have waited a couple of years before tackling the world’s biggest and must demanding car market. Hyundai Motors itself got its start in 1967, building licensed Ford Cortinas. The next big leap forward came in 1975, when the Pony appeared (below).

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 fully Hyundai developed, although 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 (I’m still hoping to find one for CC) 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 126k 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.

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58 Comments on “Curbside Classic: 1988 Hyundai Excel – The Damn Near Deadly Sin...”

  • avatar

    Wow, I just learned a lot about Hyundai that I never knew. Quite amazing to know that a company that started out building Cortinas and BMC-marina derivates could ever be known for building high quality cars.

    • 0 avatar

      Are they known for building high quality cars? That seems like an overstatement of the facts. Their highest profile product, the new Sonata, has been recalled three times for important things like steering failures and popping oil lines.

      • 0 avatar
        Avro Arrow

        Well, if they’ve only had three recalls, then they have fewer recalls than the LEAST recalled American cars each year. How ’bout dem Yanks eh? LOL

  • avatar

    I knew a few people who owned these, and while the quality wasn’t the best, they just kept running, and running, and running.  Plus, as I recall, the sheet metal was 1960s Cadillac-thick (I remember being shocked at how heavy the hood was when I went to open it).

    • 0 avatar

      My older sister bought one of these new; it served her well.  When my younger sister’s ’84 Crown Vic wagon bit the dust, older sister passed the Hyundai down; it served her well too (until it finally became too old and was sold or scrapped.)

      I think the hood may have seemed heavy because it probably lacked any kind of bias-spring.

      (Underneath that hood was a whole-lot of parts carrying the Mitsubishi three-diamond logo.)

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    My high school gym teacher (HS years 1991-1995 had one.  His commute was about an hour 1 way everyday and he simply wanted a car that he could drive into the ground and not give two shakes about.  The Excel fulfilled that mission very well.  Bought new, drove 100,000+ miles, throw away.  Exactly what he wanted.  Not cause he didn’t love cars, but because he didn’t want to subject a car he actually liked to the daily grind.

  • avatar

    I don’t remember (not sure I ever knew) what the “issues” with these cars were, but I knew several people that had early Excels and at least two of them came to accumulate 200k+ miles. I know at least one was regarded by it’s owner of being a down-right reliable car (I didn’t know the owner of the other well enough to discuss it.) Doubt you can say that of a Yugo. I do remember it being on the cheap and tinny side, but not ridiculously so. Considering what else you could get for that price point at the time (Yugo, Chevette, maybe the Sprint?) it’s easy to see why they sold well.

  • avatar

    We had a ’93 3-door with a 4-speed manual.  Transmission died at 135,000 miles from a leak we never knew of until it stopped working at Midnight on a Saturday twelve miles from home.  Our neighbor’s mother expressed interest in the car after we mentioned getting rid of it, so we gave it to her free knowing full well she’ll need a new transmission.  She did get another transmission put in, and believe it or not she drove it to 205,000 miles, albeit with no working gas gauge and severe rust everywhere.  Proof that if you have enough money, you can drive any car a long distance.
    Mitsubishi also sold this car as the Precis, by the way.

  • avatar

    My Aunt had one in the first year production to hit Canada.
    These practically melted when they came into contact with road salt.
    It was probably a decade to undo the damage of the first rust away Hyundais.

  • avatar

    My best friend in high school had one. Get used to turning off the air conditioning when you want to climb a hill. My favorite memory of the car was when the shift linkage fell apart and i tore open the console, shifted into first with a pair of pliers and replaced the offending R-clip with a paperclip from my homework.
    All of this while waiting at a 4-way stop. A proud moment. My friend was blown away at my mechanical skill.

  • avatar

    I was in the new car market this year and in this price range was this car, the Yugo, the Festiva, the Escort and the Chevy Spectrum. I needed an inexpensive daily driver that would last two years. I didn’t expect any of these cars to last that long. 100,000 miles? No, I didn’t expect any of them to remain viable by the time the odometer read that.

    The Yugo was a no-go, because it was a Yugoslavian Fiat. Even if these cars didn’t reek of bad quality, there is no way I would expect any Fiat built in a Southern European dictatorship to be road worthy. I wouldn’t take one free. It was obviously a disposable car.

    The Spectrum was a Suzuki – an out of date Suzuki. Brand new, but out of date. And Suzuki wasn’t known for it’s cars. At that time I had just served a few years driving a Chevy Citation, a J2000 and an Escort. Only the Escort was a good car.

    The Escort was refreshed, but it was still the original design. I had enough time in one to know that I wanted something else.

    Then there was the Hyundai. It was an out of date Mitsubishi. I knew enough to not be all that impressed with the Excel. A couple of my friends bought them, and these cars were pretty frumpy – as frumpy as the refreshed Escort. Then they started having problems with them. That really stunk because the Excel wasn’t a fun car, so if it couldn’t be reliable either, then you are left with a frumpy lemon with a payment book for the next four years. That is what happened for these two frustrated acquaintances.

    I ended up with a Festiva. It was an out of date Mazda 121, built in Korea by Kia and sold by Ford. I chose wisely. Instead of lasting two years as I expected it to, it is still on the road. I was absolutely shocked that a car that small and inexpensive could be a blast to drive, ride like it did and run forever.

    So, I was never impressed by the Excel. I wasn’t impressed with Hyundai until about two years ago. I still see coral pink Accents plodding around town blowing oil and looking like the only reason they are driven is because the driver had no other choice. Until the last couple of years, I saw Hyundai as a competent company selling left-overs.

    I am pleased that they have done so well. They have definately taken the market away from Chevrolet, haven’t they? I won’t consider them, but they do seem to be a fine car for many.

    • 0 avatar

      I had one of the first US Festivas. The car was first produced in 1986 by Mazda in Japan where it was sold as…The Ford Festiva. The US Ford Festiva was made by Kia, who also sold it as the Kia Pride in Korea. The Mazda 121 was introduced in 1988. All of them were exported to Australia or Europe. A friend had an Excel. The Festiva was about a grand more with comparable equipment, although the Excel was bigger. I drove them back to back once, and the Excel made the Festiva seem like a premium product.

      I’m surprised by the number of people who have long life stories for early Hyundais. The first generation Excel went from being incredibly common to a memory quicker than practically any car I can think of. There were meaningful numbers of Vegas on the road for longer than there were Excels. People kept their TR7s running longer than 95% of Excels remained in service. Hyundai sold about ten times as many 1st generation Excels as Ford sold Festivas, but I still see Festivas from time to time. I haven’t seen a 1st generation Excel on the road in years and years. The guy I knew who had one didn’t even bother trading it in. He took his new 1989 Honda and left town with the Excel abandoned accross the street from his apartment – with 50K miles and not a single dent. It was just used up.

    • 0 avatar
      Avro Arrow

      Actually, the Chevy/Geo Spectrum was not a Suzuki, but an Isuzu Gemini (also sold as the Isuzu I-Mark).

  • avatar

    A friend had a Hyundai Excel hatchback during college.  The running joke was that the car’s value doubled every time it was filled with gas.
    It eventually died and was given a Viking funeral behind a fraternity house.

  • avatar

    My first car was an 88 Excel with a 5 speed and a sunroof.  I bought it in 1993 for $800 because it had a salvage title due to odometer issues.
    I remember trying without success to break three digits.  I believe it topped out at about 96 after 3 miles with the pedal stuck hard to the floorboard.
    That said, I only dared to race the thing once, and it pulled through, winning out over my buddy’s Renault Encore.

    • 0 avatar
      slow kills

      This is literally the model and year of vehicle that Rodney King was allegedly driving at speeds over 100 mph.  As I recall, Hyundai (which there was still confusion over how to pronounce in 1991, with many using a hard ‘i’ sound for the ‘y’ followed bu a soft ‘u’) shamefully admitted that the car was incapable of reaching such a speed.

    • 0 avatar
      slow kills

      This is literally the model and year of vehicle that Rodney King was allegedly driving at speeds over 100 mph.  As I recall, Hyundai (which there was still confusion over how to pronounce in 1991, with many using a hard ‘i’ sound for the ‘y’ followed bu a soft ‘u’) shamefully admitted that the car was incapable of reaching such a speed.

  • avatar

    my buddy had a 3-door when we were in high school. We would pile in and drive it into Manhattan from the Isle of Long. I distinctly remember him trying to parallel park it in front of McSorley’s. The car hit something and bounced forward – felt like he hit the curb…hard. But we were still a good distance from the curb. We got out to look and it was an empty soda can standing up in the street. Granted, cans were thicker in 1986, but I found it rather disturbing the Hyundai couldn’t power over an empty Orange Crush.

  • avatar

    These were all the rage when they came out. I was somewhat impressed with the design as it was practical and the car didn’t pretend to be something it wasn’t. I feel it was for that reason so sucessful at the get-go. Not long after, though, the Daewoo Pontiac LeMans came along! Oh, well, you have to start somewhere. At least Hyundai didn’t give up, as their tenacity has been rewarded handsomely.

    The Excels rusted out rather quickly in the St. Louis climate, too.

  • avatar

    I had one of these for about a year and it was awful. The engine was so anemic you could only run the A/C on long downhills. It may have had four seats, but it didn’t have enough power to carry four people. The steering was so overboosted you had no road feel at all, and the gear lever had about two inches of play in every direction.
    The only smile it gave me was when I traded it in and the smart ass sales manager, knowing he’d just screwed me on the new car deal, dropped the clutch too quickly and the transmission imploded.

  • avatar

    I worked at a Toyota dealership in the early 90’s in Metro Atlanta. Shortly before I arrived there, they had just rescinded their Hyundai franchise, but we still serviced them and had a few used units on the lot. One of my first sales there was a 4 door 1987 Excel to some middle aged guy. He was looking for cheap transportation and this was it. I had never driven one of these before the demo drive with the customer, it seemed like a sufficient enough car. The Tercels we were selling were dynamically really not much better, but a lot more money. One of the other salesmen warned me, be careful selling the Hyundais, they always come back.
    Sure enough, a couple of days later a flatbed truck comes by and drops off the blue Hyundai. With it comes the now-fuming new owner. I forget exactly what had happened to it, but we still had the ‘master’ Hyundai tech working for us; he managed to fix the car very rapidly. He had it done before the guy got done hunting me down and bitching at me for selling him a piece of crap.
    You should have seen the look on the guy’s face when we told him the car was fixed already and that we would cover the towing. I really believe he wanted to take a swing at me. Fortunately for me, the dealership manager took pity on me as this newbie Yankee car salesman was only in my first week at the dealership. After that, J.D. and I got along real well.
    I think these early Hyundais, like the contemporary Yugos, were all treated as disposable cars and in the end that’s what became of them.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve thought the same thing. In Italy they get decades out of cheap little Fiats just like the Yugo. They are driving those little cars hard and just as fast as we drive here. Here in America they can’t last 60K miles. What gives? My own observations are that cheap people treat these cars as cheap throwaways and these little cars die an early death or these cheap owners let cheap fixes go until that cheap fix becomes and expensive fix and the car is scraped. I’ve heard from many people who say – well, this big repair is so expensive I’m going to junk the car and get another. So for the price of a $700 fix they junk the car (or give it away) and got spend $4K on the next victim so they are $3300 down on the transmission repair. What it sometimes amounts to is an excuse to buy another car. I have one friend who does this everytime. Some of these folks drive through big hole, slam the door so hard the door disintegrates over a few years or runs the engine hard before it’s warmed up.
      I got a ’91 Excel for what amounted to free one time. I had an ’83 CR-X I had driven for a year and a half that I paid $150 for. Bought it from my buddy who had driven it for three years after purchasing the CR-X for $50!. Was a decent car. Anyhow a buddy came to me and needed a car to go home in (enlistment complete) and wanted to trade me his Excel. It had a noise and had been this way for weeks. He just kept on driving it. I got the car and put it on a lift. The flex plate between the flywheel and torque converter was broken. Three bolts connecting the torque converter to the flywheel. $20 later and that is fixed. Scrubbed on it for an entire weekend. It was that filthy. Washed and waxed it and it looked good. Spent time chasing all these vacuum hoses that had been cut or rerouted every which way. No wonder it ran poorly. After alot of head scratching and worries the tranny was going out (shifted soon or late, soft shifts), I put a new thermostat in and the car ran like a clock despite all of the previous neglect. I still didn’t have much faith in the tranny lasting so when my time in the Navy was up, I towed it 10 hours to TN from VA with my ’65 Beetle. That’s a whole other story involving police and some praying. Made it though without any mechanical issues. Sold the Excel a few months later.
      I have driven alot of bread and butter cars. Alot of European entry level cars like Fiat Pandas, the Mirabellas, and so forth and liked them better. The Excel seemed to be trying to be more than it was. Hiding it’s cheapness. Sort of like going into a trailer that is trying to look fancy with woodgrained contact paper cabinets and chromed plastic bathroom fixtures but obviously still has two hunge doors and seams in the walls. I’d be happier with the basic Fiat that doesn’t try to hide it’s cheapness and likely has a design robust enough to last. Or an aircooled Beetle.

  • avatar

    A girl I dated very briefly — as in, slightly longer than a weekend, but oh what a weekend — had a blue five-door hatchback. Must have been around a 1987-1988. I remember little about the car except for two things things:

    1) It was surprisingly roomy inside, even in the front seat
    2) The hood was indeed VERY durable

    Alas, that’s about as close as I get to Baruthian levels of sordid automotive tales.

  • avatar
    M 1

    I taught a lot of people to drive stick in my girlfriend’s Excel. I hated everything about that car.
    The only thing rock-solid about it was the engine, and then only after it seized-up completely. Although, to be fair, this happened the morning after a drive home at triple-digit speeds (barely) from Orlando to Jax after a Jethro Tull concert. We were keeping pace with a pack of very surprised-looking Corvette owners. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

  • avatar

    I love the dent in the pictured sedan.  Can’t see how you get a dent like that in the c-pillar, unless someone punched it…hard.  Which would be understandable with an old Excel.

  • avatar

    Several friends of mine had Ponies in high school  Total, utter and complete garbage, thoroughly biodegradable but so very, very cheap that you could buy one (or two) on a busboy’s salary.  The Excel continued the, ahem, fine tradition of “cars you buy when you can’t afford better”.
    One guy, though, had a Hyundai Scoupe.  Haven’t seen one since, didn’t see many at the time.  Probably just as well.

  • avatar

    My very first car, back in 1986, was almost a brand-new Hyundai Pony.  It was like test-driving a small tractor, except that the clutch wasn’t quite as smooth.   I bought a used Pontiac instead… a car which it turns out was built on a Monday by Lucifer himself.   It was still the right decision.

  • avatar

    The side view of the sedan reminds me of a Dodge Shadow.

  • avatar
    Eric the Red

    I worked at Ford Credit during the late 80′ to 90’s and one of our Ford Dealer picked up a Hyundai franchise.  So we had to finance them.  What an experience!  Only people with no money bought them and then when they broke early and often they were up the creek.  Try collecting on auto loans with the car being in the shop allll the time.  Even with a good warranty, it didn’t help if you had to take it in for repairs weekly.
    One particular customer really earned my respect when after calling on her for several months on late payments (but always sending me the payment eventually) she said that she was sorry for being late but having two car payments was hard.  She explained that she had given up on the relatively new Hyundai and it was sitting in her backyard not running.  She had to buy another car for transportation and noone would take the Hyundai in on trade.
    The Ford Dealer eventually discontinued the Hyundai franchise as they did not want to taint their reputation with the product.
    They were bad cars!  I am really surprised to hear some positive comments about them as I never heard a good thing about early Hyundais.
    They have come a long ways since then and are the equal of any Japanese car (or other car builders) out there.

    • 0 avatar

      I seem to recall that back then (and in some cases up to as recently as about 10 years ago) there were a number of lenders that simply would not finance Hyundais or Kias, period.  No matter how good the buyer’s credit was.

  • avatar

    Back around 1991, I took a Hyundai Elantra out for a test drive.  We hit a small bump in the road and a piece of interior trim fell off and hit the salesman on the head.  We ended up buying a Plymouth Sundance.  Strangely enough, we (my wife and I) were replacing a Toyota Corolla which was giving us problems.
    Subsequent research on Hyundai (some friends had bought them) showed that warranty work meant booking an appointment two weeks in advance because the dealers were too busy fixing them.
    It took Toyota at least 25 years to build their reputation.   It took Hyundai 25 years to build their reputation.  I suspect it might take about that long for the American car companies to fix their reputation also.

  • avatar
    Brian P

    I seem to recall that these cars were the same underneath as the Mitsubishi Colt of the same vintage … not that that’s saying much; those cars were terrible, also. Never see any of them on the road any more around here – either the Hyundai or the Mitsubishi versions – they’ve all rusted out.

    • 0 avatar

      Mitsubishi sold rebadged versions of the Excel as the Precis, I believe.

    • 0 avatar

      Confused here.  In Canada the Mitsubishi-based Dodge Colt was a solid “Japanese” car (assuming regular oil sprays), whereas the Mitsubishi-based Hyundais were crap.

    • 0 avatar

      My father bought a brand new Dodge Colt in 1986.  He went in looking for an Omni and the salesman recommended the Colt instead.  He only got rid of it in 1997 when the alernator went at 140k brecause he decided to get a new car for his long commute.  Never had any other problems with it ever.  It rusted, but it always ran great.

    • 0 avatar

      Don, Rob is correct. The Precis was a Hyundai, rather than the the Excel being a rebadged Mitsu. IIRC, the yen had appreciated against the dollar to the point where Mitsubishi couldn’t play in the low end anymore with its own products. They had little to lose rebadging an iffy car at that point. They were even then battling Subaru and Isuzu for the dregs of the US Asian car market. I don’t believe they had a successful US market car until the DSMs.

  • avatar
    Uncle Mellow

    “George Turnbull, former Managing Director of British Leyland quit in 1972 after tiring of the internal chaos there,” Quote
    Turnbull wasn’t MD of British Leylend , he was only in charge of the Austin/Morris division. He was passed over for the top job , which is why he went to Hyundai. The way I heard it , he was responsible for getting the factory built , the car designed , and production set-up.

  • avatar

    The earlier Ponys and Stellars sold in Canada where quite mechanically robust. They rusted like crazy which was their undoing. There where very simple – no emissions controls, manual choke, etc. The Pony used a Marina type unibody with a Ford Cortina mkII rear axle. The inital Stellar was based off the Ford Cortina MkIV with Mitsubishi engines. The front wheel drive Excels and Sonotas seemed less robust. The Sonotas in particular seemed to blow blue smoke.
    I owned a ’86 Stellar which was quite a nice enough car at least with the 5spd.

  • avatar

    My first car was a used  fully loaded1987 Hyundai Excel GLS 5-speed I bought in 1989 for $4300 at a Ford Dealership.  It had been sitting on the lot for months with no takers, so they were willing to bargain down from the outrageous $8000 sticker price.  I actually liked the car, despite the fact I and the one other Excel-owning coworker at the office were constantly ribbed about it.  Under the hood, it was all Mitsubishi – identical to the Plymouth Champ my father drove, except the Hyundai utilized the transmission’s vacuum actuator to select 5th gear whereas the Champ used it to switch between Power and Economy mode via a 2nd gear shift.  It was reliable, except for some synchronizer mesh issues due to previous owner abuse, and miscellaneous plastic parts inside the car breaking from time to time.  I thought it looked snazzy with the OEM luggage rack on the trunk; but, I was a geek too.  It lacked power (67 HP carburated) and had trouble getting up to highway speed with 4 or 5 adults in the car, but was reliable transportation.  Note: Fully-loaded meant manual windows & manual locks, but it did have AC, variable wipers, velour seats, and a reasonably decent looking dashboard/IP.

  • avatar

    Paul, any hope of finding a Scoupe Turbo ?

  • avatar

    The Excel certainly tarnished the name of the upstart company.  Prior to its introduction, the Hyundai Pony was Canada’s best selling car in 1985, beating out the Cavalier and the Escort in sales.   Interestingly, the picture shown in the article is actually the “Pony I”, by the time it made it to Canada in 1984, it as the “Pony II”, which was mechanically and stylistically updated.  Over the years, I’ve been exposed to three Ponies, one bought used by my parents, and two in the mid 90s, when I was in college. 
    Contrary to popular belief (formed largely by America’s rather negative experience with the Excel), the Pony (and the Stellar) were robust, built like mini-tanks, and took serious thrashing.  Door dings were unknown, as the sheet metal used were close to double the thickness of its Japanese counterparts.  The Mitsubishi mills were solid, despite a propensity to dislodge its head gaskets on a whim.  The car was simple, solid, and basically industructible.  By the time I got rid of the last one, it had well over 300,000km on it, and was still humming like a sewing machine.   Mind you, I was also adding one quart of oil to the engine every 1000km, on account of the aforementioned head gasket issues. 

    The driving dynamics were miserable, and the brakes were marginal at best, but at city speeds as a commuter vehicle, I would take the pony over any Tercel, Sentra, 323 or Escort of the same vintage…. 

    There is something to be said for simple, utilitarian vehicles which are built to take abuse.  In that regard, the Pony was on par with the Beetle, Toyota Starlet, and Suzuki Samurai’s of that generation.

    The Excel on the other hand, was basically a piece of crap…. Too bad the Americans never got the Pony, would have certainly left a different impression on the buying public than the half-baked Excel.

  • avatar

    For those who care about numbers R&T October 1986:
    Name | cost | 0-60 | 1/4  | mpgs
    Excel  |6965| 14.0 | 19.4 | 29.9
    Yugo  |4853| 13.9 | 19.5 | 29.5
    Civic   |6704| 13.6 | 19.3 | 32.6

    • 0 avatar

      Ah, the bait and switch Civic hatch. I tried buying a base Civic. This was in the summer of 1987, but the hypothetical price was still something like that. It was for a 2-door hatchback with some sort of engine, a 4-speed transmission, one outside rear view mirror, no A/C, and tires that looked to be about 145SR13s in the photos. I say photos because I never found one in the real world. The dealer didn’t want to talk about it. When pushed, they talked me out of it on the grounds that it wasn’t highway worthy without a 5th gear. They didn’t even care that they weren’t going to talk me into spending $11K I didn’t have on a ‘real’ Civic with a 5-speed, enough power to get to 60 in 10 seconds, two mirrors, a cassette deck, and tires that were big enough to be stocked by auto centers. I wasn’t Honda material as far as they were concerned, so I had to buy a Festiva L with A/C and a 4 speed for about the price of the base Civic that only existed in the brochure.

    • 0 avatar

      Thanks for posting that, it’s sorely needed what with all the faux memories of dire quality and bottom-of-the-barrel performance by people who never owned one.
      I owned a ’90 Excel sedan with the 5-speed for a year, and liked it well enough I considered bringing it with me when I moved across the U.S. Other than being underpowered it was a terrific little car (and in black not frumpy at all). But this was in the Seattle area, so rust was a non-issue. Handling was definitely good enough to find entertainment on twisty rural roads, the seats were pretty good, all the electrical stuff worked, it had a sunroof that didn’t leak, and when I bought the car used in ’99 it had only 60k miles on it. Now that being my only Hyundai ownership experience I can accept there’s a possibility I just “got lucky”, but the Excel I had was such a damned good car, I’m more inclined to believe all the hyperbole about how awful they were is just recreational bitching and not particularly related to reality. In fact, I’ll bet the real story is about teething problems with the first two years or so. :)

  • avatar

    I bought one of these two-doors hatchbacks — a Mitsubishi Precis — new in 1988, when I was younger and, well, younger.  I couldn’t get over all the standard equipment, including a power sun roof, air, auto, stereo/tape, carpet, power steering and brakes. All for about $8k. To that time, the only new-car purchase was a four-speed ’85 Escort two-door hatch with an AM radio, for about $6k.
    The little Korean Kar started falling apart with about 9k on the clock, starting with a door handle coming off. It wasn’t far from the landfill.

    The Escort, incidentally, lasted about 175k and was still going strong when I sold it to a kid, who promptly wrecked it.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    A girl I knew in high school in the early ’90s had an ’88 hatchback. Main thing I remember about it was that she was constantly adding oil to replace what went out the tailpipe. This was pretty common for ’80s Mitsubishi engines once they got over 50k or so (IIRC, Hyundai wasn’t building the engines yet).

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    It’s been a while since I looked into this stuff, but from what I recall the 1st-gen Excel used engines supplied by Mitsubishi, the 2nd-gen Excel (and the Scoupe) and 1st-gen Elantra used Hyundai-built copies of the Mitsu 4g61 and 4g63 respectively, and the 3rd-gen Excel (renamed Accent in the US), 2nd-gen Elantra, and 1st-gen Tiburon used the Hyundai Alpha and Beta motors, which were updated mirrors of the 4g61/3 designs. The Sonata, meanwhile, used the Mitsu 3.0 V6 until Hyundai made new heads for it in the late ’90s and later stroked it to 3.5L.

  • avatar

    My only memory of these cars comes as a result of being stuck at an air force base in Guam. We were on our way to vacation in Hawaii, but there was a hurricane and no flights were operating. We were forced to rent a car and try to find something to do for a couple days.
    At the base rental car, they used these little beasts exclusively. The agent said “Good thing you called, you got the last one.” and gave us the key. We had trouble finding our car. Apparently, “last one” meant last one running. The lot was FULL of excels, none of which appeared to have moved recently.
    The tale of the six of us in a rented Excel is one of many chapters of rental car failures for my family.

  • avatar

    I came out of Trader Joe’s in Cerritos a few weeks ago, and there was a mint, in cherry condition mid 80’s Hyundai Excel four door hatchback. I did a double take, and then proceded to get some pics with my phone. I was just totally stunned. It wasn’t as cool as seeing a Yugo in similar condition, but it was almost as good. When the owner came out and noticed me taking pics, I asked him and he said yes it was an Excel. He said it wasn’t a bad car, just that there were bad owners that didn’t put oil and water in them. He said he has parts to last for 50 years, thanks to all the ones in the junkyards he’s found. I’ve never seen any of these cars like that in recent years. It was mind blowing! Here’s that pristine Excel I saw that night:

    What year is it? Didn’t get that info.

  • avatar

    The only 2 Mitsu Precis cars I’ve ever seen were both abandoned; stripped of plates, tires replaced with “donut” spares ;at different times, at the same T-intersecton of the same 2 rural roads.

    A co-worker had a near-new Excel he got rid of because he drove long distance to work & was disheartened by reports from other co-workers with cushy FWD LeSabres that they were getting only about 2 mpg less on the highway than he was.

    He also got sick of,”Your damn taillights are at it again.” His taillights would occasionally work backwards, the brake filaments on with the headlights, the low filaments on with the brakes.

  • avatar

    I bought a GS 3-door 5-speed new in 1989. At the time, the ’74 Toyota Celica that had got me through high school and college was on its last legs at 130,000 miles and probably needed an engine rebuild. With an annual income of $16,000, this was all I could afford. A new Civic would have been at least $2K more, and that was with vinyl seats and no A/C (which no one in their right mind does in Phoenix). All the used cars I saw in my price range were trashed or had very high miles, and at least the Hyundai came with a warranty.
    Surprisingly, I hardly needed it. I think I had to have the remote release for the rear hatch replaced, but I can’t think of anything else. Certainly nothing major in the 45,000 miles I put on it.
    As for the driving experience, around town it was OK. Shifted nicely and had a decent ride. But out on the highway, God was it gutless. Even on level pavement, you had to keep on it to maintain 65 MPH. And going up the grades from Phoenix to Flagstaff or San Diego? Fuggadaboutit. I’d try to build some momentum ahead of the climb, but I’d still end up in second gear, struggling to hit 45 MPH.
    And the brakes were scary bad from highway speed. On on trip to San Diego with four friends aboard (we probably didn’t make it past 30 MPH on the grades, at the California border inspection station, the brake pedal went all the way to the floor (you’d think a car that couldn’t go very fast would be easy to stop), and I nearly ran over the fruit inspector.
    Only had that car for 2 1/2 years, and I dumped it as soon as I could.

  • avatar

    These and the Yugos were really the start of the cheap throw away cars. Chrysler followed with the Omni and Reliant America and GM eventually came along with VL(value leader) Cavaliers. I remember having a 1986 2 door automatic Excel traded in on a minivan at our then small  dealership. We cleaned it up, tuned it up and turned it back around as a $995 special. The only problem- it kept coming back to us with lots of stupid problems like random stalling issues, electrical gremlins, broken tranny mounts, oil consumption to the tune of a quart every 500 miles and numerous other issues. Needless to say we never sold one again.

  • avatar

    My wife had a brand new 1993 Excel when we got married. It was a load of pure garbage. We eventually just left it sitting in a pool of transmission fluid on a college campus for the bank to come and get. We owed money on that car for a long time.

  • avatar
    Avro Arrow

    So you’re saying that it’s got fewer recalls than the least-recalled American cars. How ’bout dem Yanks eh?

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