By on July 26, 2012

Sometimes designers become super stars in the car biz: just ask that dude who made the Ford GT, or the other dude responsible for the Chrysler 300. I am sure both made other vehicles which they truly hated.  Perhaps the 300’s designer shares some amount of blame for the last Chrysler Sebring?  I am sure that Ital Design’s Giorgetto Giugiaro has the same problem, but Hyundai wrote him a check and he made it happen.  Quite honestly, the original Hyundai Excel here in the USA wasn’t a bad car at all.  Bad looking, that is.

And honestly, after walking around this example at a historically savvy Hyundai dealer (next to a Lamborghini Dealership that bored me after 20 minutes) I suggest to you, dear reader, that the Excel sold so unbelievably well on both price and design. Because this machine could look much, much worse.



Boring and Boxy?  Yes, but the Excel is also very clean and well-integrated, when you consider the design confines of a low asking price.

Note how the signal lights are cleanly and very deeply sunken, instead of screwed on top. There’s an overabundance of parallel lines, which shows a bit of “big picture” thinking by a wise design team.  And every seam and cut line is remarkably well placed. Today’s cars could learn A LOT from the Excel.


The grille is the Excel’s best work: the one piece black plastic affair elegantly stores an emblem, headlights and is a natural extension of the parallel lines in the bumper and the slight curvature of the signal lense. And the grille ends at the same point where the hood and fender meet.  It may not have Italian flair, but someone sweated the details…on a tight budget.


You can see the harmonious lines here.  You can also see the less than perfect panel gaps and the tacked on side marker light, but this is anything but offensive to someone in dire need of cheap wheels.


When is the last time you saw a car that the hood, fender and lighting pods began and ended so logically? Even the grille’s modest and purposeful slats just makes sense (get it?) on this face. If Hyundai installed flush fitting headlamps in 1986, this Excel would look like a proper 1970s concept car from damn near any high dollar design firm. Which is a compliment, of a very high order.


Too bad the white lense couldn’t wrap around juuust a little more.  This would extend the grille’s curvature and make the Excel look a little less static.  Then again, this is a very static and boxy design from any angle outside of the grille, so perhaps Ital Design was on to something.

Once again, note the purposeful and super cheap signal lights.  Something about them screams “honest” like no car can today.


The hood crease doesn’t line up with a natural place in the grille, rather it comes from a place inside the headlights.  This probably keeps the Excel from looking like it was designed using a T-square at every angle…probably a good move by the Italians.


A tiny cowl with a similarly small dashboard.  Does it look cheap, or do you wish history could repeat itself?  Honestly, I don’t know the right answer.


Note the lack of DLO fail: the fender and A-pillar meet in such a logical manner. If only modern cars could replicate this.  That would mean abandoning today’s truck like nose swooping back to a wanna-be sports car greenhouse.  The Excel has a small nose and plenty of tall and upright glass.  It’s almost impossible to mess this one up.

Another shocker: wrap around door pillars on a Hyundai Excel?  This bit of 1980s aerodynamic kit was available on a car this cheap? Surely this door was far more expensive to pop off compared to a Yugo portal!


No, I am not pointing at the stain.  The crease in the fender turns into a large fold after it crosses the mirror.  This fold becomes a very important part of the Excel’s profile.  While the transition is far from organic, it works.


Another fold in the sheet metal. This not only gives the Excel a bit of negative area to break up the (still) very boxy side, it also makes for a logical place to insert some door guards.

More importantly, they put that guard on the fender?  That’s not a cheap item for such a cheap car.  Put it this way: the Ford Crown Victoria had this bit of plastic from 1992 until the mid-2000s, which Ford decided to thrift it out and let the fenders not match the doors.  Nice job Hyundai, you had something to prove while Ford had something to slowly kill for no good reason.


I can’t adequately explain why, but the rubber and chrome guards on this Excel integrate well with the door handles.  It says “cheap, yet cheerful.”  I also like how the side view mirror is by no means an afterthought…even if the wheels and signal lights need a lot of help.


One reason this Excel is in such good shape is because it sits underneath an awning, with an annoying pole right  in the middle! Luckily the B&B will fix it for me using some madtite photoshop skillz.


That problem resolved, there’s nothing wrong with the Excel from this angle.  It’s the classic “three box” design for a sedan. But the fender crease turns into a big crease under the door’s glass, and quickly merges with the rear door’s vent window.  The lower trim isn’t out of place.  The C-pillar is almost fast, yet there is so much greenhouse you are guaranteed not to feel claustrophobic in this machine.

Okay, maybe that last bit was going over the top.  No matter, this isn’t a bad piece of work for an Italian design firm. Not great, but certainly not bad.


The urge to grab a Testor’s paint marker (flat black, ‘natch) and remedy this odd showing of bling was tough to overcome.  Because it does detract from the smooth B-pillar, and the gentle (but present) use of wrap around door pillars. Not a cheap bit of stamping for a super cheap car.


The greenhouse is gigantic on this Hyundai!  It’s hard to dislike this angle when you consider every car looks like a submarine these days, but 1980s econoboxes looked cheap for a reason…and this is it.

Still, I love how the door cutline follows the natural line of the wheel well, then goes up and “back” to shadow the curve of the C-pillar. And no stupid black plastic triangle!

Oh crap, I’m starting to like this shitty little car.


The steel wheels are plain but somewhat easy on the eyes.  Someone bothered to put a flat plane around each vent hole, and they have a nice “dish” to the rim like most rims from this era.  The center cap is clean and modern, if a bit oversized for a car this size.


A locking gas cap?  I am not entirely sure of this Excel’s trim level (it was repainted and debadged and I’m not buying a brochure on eBay to verify) but this highline model has a nice touch that you never see anymore.  For good reason?  Perhaps, but this is another “honest” design element that I can appreciate.


Just like the front, but red. And it’s poor, but very honest!


The rear window matches the C-pillar’s angle quite well.  And there’s a slight amount of tumblehome, which looks out of proportion with the door’s relative straightness.  Dare I say it, can someone chop the roof down so it won’t overpower the doors?

Nah, I take that back.  This makes up for all the Chrysler 300s I’ve seen this past year. It’s refreshing, dammit!


Most of its Japanese and American competition had nicer side contouring, but they were all much more expensive.

Whoa dude, check out the logical trunk cut line, just like the hood!  The current Hyundai Elantra could learn a thing or two from its Excel forefather.


I like the hard bend to quickly and definitively transition from the C-pillar to the back of the roof.  Even more important, there’s another hard bend that accentuates the wrap around doors.  How much did this car cost when new?


Since I couldn’t get a decent shot of “my” Excel, this factory shot shows off the roof’s hard bend and the creases in the side.  You didn’t think the Excel could make the shadows dance with the light, did ya? Another thing you will see (in brutal detail) is the pure and functional design of the tail lights.  Simply put, they blend very well with the design.


More excellent usage of parallel lines.  The tail lights wrap around the quarter panel fairly nicely.  There are several bends that keep the boxy trunk and bumpers from looking like (just like the photo of the hood crease) the Hyundai Excel was designed using a T-square. That’s proved further by the negative area on the bumper and between the taillights. Even the trunk lock/handle is well thought out…at this asking price.


A gigantic wart of a lighting pod with exposed screws. Cheap, but who cares?  The Excel is now a museum piece.  It shows how things used to be done, and how lucky we are today!


Every line is in its right place, if only the trunk’s panel gaps were consistent.  And is it just me, or  are those tail lights a little on the Ferrari Testarossa side?


A ribbed, staggered tail light profile?  Don’t look now, but every Mercedes from the 1980s is blushing!


I swiped this photo (credit given) since I couldn’t get this far away from my example.  The Excel is boxy and chunky (never mind that aftermarket spoiler) but there’s no shame in being a cheap but purposefully designed three-box sedan.


This model came with the luggage rack, which is now mostly missing.  Not surprisingly, it doesn’t detract from the mystique of the Hyundai Excel.


Even their license plate graphics conveys the unabashedly cheap demeanor of the Excel. Very kitch, but the trunk lock/handle is definitely a cool bit of cheap car design.


Unlike so many modern cars that chrome out this feature in hopes of looking larger than life, the Excel’s exhaust pipe doesn’t overpromise. Honesty is a good thing, in this case: the motor never really delivered for the Amercian market. Oh well! Goodbye dear Hyundai Excel, I learned much from your logical Italian design. And I hope you did too.

Thank you all for reading, have a great weekend!




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55 Comments on “Vellum Venom: 1986 Hyundai Excel...”

  • avatar

    Why does that side shot scream Lancia Thema to me?

    • 0 avatar

      I was going to say Saab 9000, but then I realised that the 9000 & Thema share the exact same platform. Both were great pieces of 80’s design though.

    • 0 avatar

      Because Giugiaro designed both the Thema and the 9000, as well as this Hyundai. Almost at the same time, even. The Thema/9000 share the same four doors, though Giugiaro only did half of the Saab, the front end. The Swedes wasn’t happy with the rear end and carved one out for themselves. That’s why the front and the rear of the 9000 really don’t mix that well. It actually looks like it was designed by two different parties, meeting halfway in. Which it actually was.

  • avatar

    Design-wise, I always thought the original Excel was pretty decent. I miss large greenhouses…one of my ultimate favorites is the 88-92 Civic…talk about large window expanses and drop-away hoodlines.
    Reliability-wise, the Excel left much to be desired.

    • 0 avatar

      this problem with big glasshouses and slim pillars is they have the structural integrity of a tissue box or an avg. modern Chinese car

      although this car is a deathtrap, i do admire spartan and purposeful engineering… this car does what is was designed to do and nothing more, there are no design flourishes

      they are apparently rusty and have bad reliablity though?

    • 0 avatar

      I think the ’88-’91 Civic 4-door is such a refined design. It’s so delicate and elegant with just enough of everything and not an extra ounce. And that windshield! The visibility was amazing. The ’84-’87 was great too, but the ’88 took it even farther. Back then, I thought those Civics (and Accords and Preludes) were the ultimate — the Excel seemed crude in comparison. In fact, I remember back then (high school/college years) reading about how the famous Giugiaro designed it and wondering about who designed the poor anonymous, but wonderful, Hondas! However, it’s great to see this analysis of the Excel now. I certainly like it more now than I did then.

  • avatar

    This was a contemporary design for time. People thought Asian = Japanese when these first hit our market.

    I think the 323 sedan of the same year was much better looking. It must have cost more but does anyone know how much more?

  • avatar

    I knew the original Excel was penned by Giugiaro, but I always thought that meant “Hyundai paid him so they could say he did.” Taking a good long look at this, it seems some actual time and effort was spent! New car designs are so often fussy and illogical – even staid VWs and Audis look ostentatious next to the stoic simplicity of this car and others of the 80s. I wish automakers would return to this simplicity, but radical change is rarely rewarded, and that’s what would be needed to step back from the bustle-butts and gun-slit greenhouses so en vogue right now.

  • avatar

    The windows are UNDER the hood and trunk lines!?! How could anyone ride in something like that? You could fall right out in hard cornering!

    Seriously though, it’s amazing to get into 20-30 year old cars and realize how much visibility and interior space we’ve lost. My ’93 MPV lines up pretty well with an (original) Escape for size (MPV is 2″ wider, 1″ longer, and 3″ shorter), and suffers from being a longitudnal/RWD platform, yet it packs 3 rows of comfortable-for adults seats, gets the same fuel economy, and feels like piloting a (literal, plant-growing) greenhouse compared to the Escape’s “signal-mirror-hope-for-the-best” rearward visibility.

    Plus, on a rainy day like today, I can buckle my kids into the second row, and climb into the driver’s seat without getting out of the van.

  • avatar

    Reminds me of my ’87 Sentra. So much effort went into executing a balanced, compliant, willing machine to look that way too. Clean designs age well too. Like this Excel, they appear timelessness.

  • avatar

    Wow – it’s amazing how much Mk2 and Mk3 VW Jetta is in there…

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      I was going to say the same thing. The hatchback isn’t all that close to a Golf of that era, but the Excel sedan is very much Jetta-ish.

      The license plate tags are a latter-day creation, as Hyundai didn’t use the oval-H logo until the early ’90s.

  • avatar

    Awesome analysis. I am finally at peace about this car. As awful as it was there was always something I liked about it.

  • avatar

    My dad bought a white ’87 sedan in ’93 and it looked similar to this car. Ours was the fancier version with a spoiler and mirrored door panels. It was a bit of a dog but relatively reliable for that one year he had it. Incidentally, it was the first car I ever drove by myself.

    My uncle talked my dad into selling it and buying an ’85 Nova and that was the last Korean car my dad bought so far despite it not being totally awful.

  • avatar

    This study of the Excel encapsulates well why I think some of the cars from 1985 to 1990 were the finest of the modern streamlined era.

    They all had rounded corners and soft features, without the chrome, crease-and-tuck styling, and other bling of the automobiles of the 1960s-1985. The low window line moved the side mirrors below the hoodline; this cut down on wind noise. The greatest source of wind noise on the 1986-1995 Ford Taurus was the turbulance rolling off of the cowl and hitting the mirrors square on; the wind tunnel people working on the 1996 Taurus wanted to move the mirror mounts down to the door and leave a triangle where the mirror usually goes; but the styling people would have none of it. Nowdays, mirrors are mounted on a low strut with the mirror away from the side of the car; they also fold in now. (So you can’t rip it off when backing out the garage, which also happened when a family member was backing the ’95 Taurus out one day.)

    The windows are nearly flush, even on this economy car. Flush headlights would have really completed the look of the front cap.

    Audi 5000S. Ford Taurus. Merkur and Mercedes from this era. They all had the same soft clean lines, smooth sides, flush windows and glass, tasteful use of chrome and trim, smooth hubcaps. Even this Excel and the Chryslers from that era were clean, logical, purposeful designs; never mind the panel lines and less than completely flush glass.

    I really think designers started losing their way in the slant-eye, organic styling of the later generations of cars. The side-impact beams required since the mid-1990s made them safer in side impacts; not all of them had to have the bulging sides of the 1996-2007 Ford Taurus to accomidate them. And just how often do you see cars sitting upside down; I think it is debateable whether the decreased vision and increased rollerover protection is “safer” than the larger greenhouses and thinner pillars of these cars. And no relying on active measures like a backup camera and sensors that could fail; just turn your head and look, or look out the mirror.

    It never occured to me that driving a 1985-1990s car today would be like driving a late 1950s car when I was in high school in the 1970s; but here we are. Now, to take the ’95 Taurus into the shop to get the radiator cap pressure tested.

  • avatar

    Your Column is really fun and I have learned so much from you and Robert Cumberford. The minor criticisms you note on this design such as the side marker and tag lights seem to arise from post-design efforts to federalize the car for USA sale.

    • 0 avatar

      Ditto for the non-flush mounted headlights; Ford managed to get the Feds to drop that requirement when they released the new Taurus with its flush headlights in 1986.

      That is why I think this style peaked starting in 1986; all the car makers were able to fit flush headlights and side marker lamps starting that year. It enabled them to complete their already smooth designs that started with the original Audi 5000s, Ford Tempo/Mercury Topaz, and Ford Thunderbird/Mercury Cougar (just to name a few.)

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    When they first came out, I recall the salesmen shutting the doors with authority to make a stron THUNK sound and point out how solid they were built.

  • avatar

    These were a decent car; low price and good fuel economy. Unfortunately, they were saddled with a prehistoric power train that despite being a “big chunk of iron” didn’t hold up very well. Blown head gaskets sent many of these to the recycler; not economically feasible to repair considering the cliff-drop value of these things.

    A good idea gone bad due to Hyundai not having it all figured out completely before letting this thing escape. They weren’t worth saving, so they’re almost all exercise weights and bicycle frames now.

    A couple of years ago, I relocated to Southeast Asia. Things are quite different here and the cars are quite different, too. I’ll try to write more about them and why they are superior here in the near future.

    • 0 avatar

      Hyundai was only concerned with volume in the 80’s and early 90’s. IIRC the uncle of the current head of Hyundai was running things then and pushed maximum volume over all other considerations. When the son of the founder took over he publicly acknowledged that they were making garbage and laid out a plan of massive investment and gradual improvement of quality. I started following that skeptically in the late 90’s and have since watched every generation make a massive leap forward. Hyundai set benchmarks to meet American equivelant quality first, then finally match the Japanese.

      • 0 avatar

        It was also the era where they were using Mitsu licensed powerplants. Until they got their own designs off the boards they had trouble. The cars themselves were fairly solid, well engineered and average in assembly. If you got one with a good engine, they lasted very well.

  • avatar

    Years ago, my circle of friends included a worker at a Hyundai dealership, so we were privy to some good deals. One of us bought a used Excel, and he says that it’s the most comfortable car he’s ever had to this day.

    Of course, the reliability problems were a nightmare for him, and
    the last straw was the a front wheel collapsing in the wheel well as he drove across the Mission Bridge.

    Four of us drove Ponys, and they were far more reliable (though mine had heater core problems). My aforementioned friend drove his Pony across Canada several times over several years, putting 200,000 kilometers on it over with no major problems.

  • avatar

    It’s alright. I have a soft spot for the Daewoo Lanos and Nubira myself. I thought they were great looking cars for their era.

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    When they first came out, I recall the salesmen shutting the doors with authority to make a strong THUNK sound and point out how solid they were built.

  • avatar

    It would be interesting if you could do a Vellum Venom of the Nissan March MY 2010. It is one of the most sold cars here in Mexico, yet its design is kind of polarizing.

  • avatar

    The commercials, as I remember, involve a man opening a garage door to reveal an Excel, and telling his wife that it only cost $12,000. His wife said something like, “It’s beautiful, but what am I going to drive?” He then opened the other garage door to reveal the another Excel, just for her.

    Two for $12,000 . . . which was just above the average price for a new car back in the late eighties.

  • avatar

    What a fascinating approach. I never thought about the Excel in these terms… However, in side profile, the the length of the engine bay looks dated by today’s standards. Short engine bays mean more passenger room, I can only hope it’s not getting more cramped for our mechanics, though.

  • avatar

    Annoying pole removed!

    Yes, I really have got that little going on today.

  • avatar

    Thanks for pointing out the high points in what was such a crappy car. Not a great car, but a good solid design from Giugario. Taking from a recent “Down on the Junkyard” featuring the unloved Daewoo Nubira, imagine if the Korean tech had been able to match the Italian design that was the go to for these upstarts? We’d have probably been speaking better of Hyundai, Kia and perhaps Daewood in 2000 and not 2010.

    I too miss the large greenhouses of the asian cars of my youth. I can’t even sit in a new Camaro or Taurus without feeling like I’m in the tank in Indiana Jones.

    • 0 avatar
      Athos Nobile

      Daewoo used Giugiaro designs for the second gen Nubira (or Suzuki Forenza), the Lanos and Leganza. The Matiz was also an Italdesign project, initially rejected by Fiat.

      The Kalos/Aveo is another Giugiaro design.

  • avatar

    I do enjoy the plain but honest and modest styling of compacts in the 80’s, its good to know that the people who built your car were more concerned with money and decent design than “organic, sporty, aggresive looksugly pokemon things”.

    Honestly, the perfect Hyundai for me would be a Genesis but with Excel styling, something akin to an old muscle car.

  • avatar

    Thanks for this post Sajeev, it brought back memories for me of my “second ever” new car, a 1987 Hyundai Excel GLS 5-speed in Wine Red with beige velour upholstery. (photo link below)
    I was attracted to the Excel’s style and price, it looked to me like a smaller squatter version of a Mazda 626 sedan of the day, esp. with those wheel covers. Also I made the mistaken association of Hyundai with “Asian” workmanship, but I learned the hard way that these were nowhere near Japanese car quality standards of the day. Plus I was just recovering from ownership of a used car, a very crudely made “world car” 82 Ford Escort Wagon, and the Excel seemed the personification of Asian sophistication by comparison.

    The 87 Excel GLS had a silver-painted plastic grille instead of the standard black plastic. It also had adjustable-angle front seat headrests using a turning knob (a great feature) and manual driver’s seat height and lumbar adjustment. Makes me cringe now to see those those rocker panel vinyl appliques, but they were popular at the time and I installed them along with the pinstriping one summer afternoon. My disposable Excel lasted all of seven years before I donated the remaining hulk to charity. During those seven years I always kept a spare clutch cable in the trunk at all times as they would break routinely, so no matter where I was towed I’d not have to wait to order parts. Another time the front wheels inexplicably locked up, luckily while I was driving through a parking lot — the dealer later explained that some kind of “pin” had broken loose and dropped into the transmission. Can only imagine if that had happened during a vulnerable manouvre on the freeway. Also that was the only time I ever had a car where the wiper motors failed during use, unfortunately during a messy winter commute home. Ahh memories…

    I will say that no matter how pretty the new Hyundais are that Excel turned me off their products. Besides there are so many alternatives these days.

    Photo of my old car here:[email protected]/7651443580/sizes/h/in/photostream/

    And a 1985 or 1986 Mazda 626 for comparison:[email protected]/7651665572/in/photostream

  • avatar

    Instead of all this wonderful write-up the author could just say “83-87 Mitsu Lancer”.
    ‘Nuff would be said, and the less the better.

  • avatar

    That would mean abandoning today’s truck like nose swooping back to a wanna-be sports car greenhouse. The Excel has a small nose and plenty of tall and upright glass. It’s almost impossible to mess this one up.


    But aerodynamics, which is the only reason for the change – fuel economy.

    (On the rest, yes. Like the ’64 Perfect Year American cars, clean lines. Straight lines.

    No swoopy, no flare, no poorly-aging bullshit.)

    • 0 avatar

      I’m pretty certain you could apply modern Aero technology to the Excel (flush lights, maybe a rethink on the mirrors, etc) and its fuel economy would be stellar because of its miniscule frontal area…including the tires.

      Cd is only one part of the equation. Not to mention gearing and engine. I betcha the Excel got pretty lousy mileage at USA highway (70+ MPH) speeds, and aero has nothing to do with it.

  • avatar

    > Cd is only one part of the equation.

    Yep, drag is cD times frontal area. But for the most part, it seems that city mileage is a function of weight rather than aerodynamics in a modern car. Of course, there are various factors like gearing, but you have sorts of different shapes in today’s cars, but similar horsepowered and weighted cars tend to return similar city figures. For highway aero, the Excel would need reworking to hit the 40ish figures, I’m guessing… not so much the nose that needs reworking but the tail.

  • avatar

    Why don’t you like the 300, Sajeev?

    • 0 avatar

      Never cared for many of the exterior design bits, interior was beyond horrible, we had one of the first 300Cs and I didn’t even care to drive it. Sold it 9 months later for a far less crappy car: a Cartier Town Car.

      One day I will VV up a 300 for TTAC.

  • avatar

    I had the ’87, same color with alloys, 5-speed and a sunroof (loaded!). Actually was a reasonably fun car to drive with lots of natural light. Of course on-ramps were an adventure.

    Got it to about 95k miles until it stopped going into 5th gear and I could afford a decent replacement. No issues with clutch, gaskets or anything mechanical, although the battery ground wire rusted through.

    Come to think of it, it was more reliable than my wife’s 2003 A4.

  • avatar

    Excellent article (which means I thoroughly agree with it). Hurrah for three-box designs and upright greenhouses. You know, like the baroque rectangularity of the ’88 Town Car I bought last week. A hood on which a small plane can land!

  • avatar
    Petrol Blue

    Great job pointing out the thought process that went into this simple, economical car. Until new cars can rediscover the attributes of great visibility and clean, functional design, I’ll stick with my classics, thank you. Honda’s advertising once boasted of their double-wishbone setup’s ability to make the hood lower for increased visibility. On their Japanese Fact Book site somewhere I found a graphic, for the Prelude, showing the driver’s angle of vision in all directions. I’d like to see how modern cars compare; it would definitely be a substantial loss.

  • avatar

    The first car I purchased for myself was a used Hyundai Excel, a base model 5-door hatch. $-spd stick, hard vinyl seats, roll up windows, no power anything, just AC and a crappy stereo. I wanted a Civic Si but couldnt swing the price, I was a dumb teenager. Even back then I loved the hatchbacks. It was a decent car though, me and my friends beat the crap out of it and it kept on going until I wrecked it in a spectacular 5-car pileup.

  • avatar

    another really excellent design of the era was the AMC/Eagle Medallion.I have never seen a sedan with such perfectly slim B pillars. A beautiful greenhouse.

  • avatar

    Its great looking, and proof that you can make a small inexpensive car without it having to look like an Anime character.

  • avatar

    I find it hard to believe Sajeev, that you made it an entire article on the Excel without ever mentioning its most celebrity moment of going over 100 mph in a high speed LA car chase with Rodney King at the wheel.

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