By on October 26, 2012

I stand firm in my belief that the first-gen Hyundai Excel was the worst automobile available in America during the last quarter of the 20th century, and that includes the wretched Yugo GV (if the Austin Rover Group had imported the Metro to these shores, however, the Excel might have been knocked from its dubious pedestal). You don’t see these cars on the street, and they’re very rare in junkyards, but I’ve managed to find three of the things this year.
There was this ’87, then this ’86, and today’s find finishes out the trio. I found each of these cars in Northern California yards, which must mean something.
By 1988, some of the worst bugs had been worked out of the Excel. This one has a few luxury touches, including an automatic transmission.

Buy two!
A lot of rare-on-the-street cars sit in driveways or backyards for many years before getting scrapped, but this car has two-year-old San Francisco parking permits. You can tell from the thickness of the stack of stickers that it lived on SF streets— some of the toughest on cars in the country— for a decade or more. What stories this car could tell!
But then there’s the matter of just 36,000 miles on the clock. Perhaps it was driven sparingly.

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49 Comments on “Junkyard Find: 1988 Hyundai Excel...”

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    I’m curious, what was the last car commercial that stated it was front wheel drive?
    It seems like sometime in the early ’90s since almost every new car on the road was FWD they just stopped mentioning it.
    And now-a-days there’s almost a negative stigma to be FWD.

    • 0 avatar


      These cars had a shoulder belt only up front, and a padded “knee bar” instead of a lap belt. The idea being the shoulder belt keeps you from eating dashboard, the knee bar bashes your knees into the crumpling safety cage, holding you in place and making it easier to exit in an accident.

      In practice in a bad accident if your legs were hopelessly screwed up your submarined with no lap belt to hold you in place.

    • 0 avatar

      The negative stigma comes from RWD land yachtsports car enthusiasts who aren’t aware of the used market.

      That, and a number of the original benefits of FWD have gone down.

      Back in the day an FWD could get you a flat floor, better mpg, and more interior space. With todays “wrap around” interiors those pluses have vanished.

      • 0 avatar

        Additionally, when I was learning to drive in the 80’s in a snowy area. FWD got you around much better than RWD, even RWD with posi-traction.

        The average sedan didn’t have ABS, AWD, traction control, stability control, and tire technology was not as good. That isn’t to say you were helpless in the snow in say a Caprice Classic or Ford LTD – but FWD was far better in getting you started.

        Given the technology involved now, and improved tire tech, the wintertime advantage of FWD vs RWD is pretty thin.

      • 0 avatar
        Volt 230

        Absolutely true!

  • avatar

    Were there any other cars that were equipped with the bash bar “Restraint system” of these Excels?

    I notice this one appears to have the shoulder belt buckle. Or am I mistaken?

    Whenever I find one in the yard (rarely), I have to show my companions this ingenious feature.

    • 0 avatar

      I know some 80’s VWs (My ’88 Jetta had the automatic shoulder belt and knee bar. Thankfully, the belts had been changed out for conventional ones but the knee bar remained) had them.
      I think some Rabbits in the 70’s had them too.

      • 0 avatar

        My mother’s ’88 Jetta had them as well. The shoulder belts weren’t “automatic” like the motorized ones of some Asian vehicles of the era, but just stretched over you when you shut the door. They weirded out everyone who rode in the little car.

  • avatar

    It was probably never owned, it just took the long way from the dealership to the junk yard which is pretty typical for this vintage Korean wonder.

  • avatar
    Ron B.

    Actually they were pretty good cars, they are in fact a mitsubishi mirage or Colt,depending on which market you saw them. The two speed range wasn’t offered on the hyundai but any any mitsubishi mechanic could service them and they are still to be seen in Australia on the roads.

    • 0 avatar

      I’ve read that the Excel’s US 5-speed transmission was internally the same as a Mitsubishi twin stick, just with the shift linkage set up to engage the overdrive range in 4th when they driver selected 5th gear. Sounds unlikely, but I’ve seen it repeated time and again.

      As for them being pretty good cars, they certainly weren’t by US market standards of the mid-’80s. They arrived like cicadas and disappeared like cicadas. Perhaps ours had emissions controls yours lacked and that sent them over the edge of crumminess, but that’s not how I remember it. I drove one in 1989 with 44K miles and it was as used up as Lincoln’s brand equity. Its owner abandoned it a few weeks later. On the other hand, the Australian-made Mercury Capri of the same era was similarly sub-standard, so maybe it was just a matter of the various markets’ standards. It isn’t like American cars are paragons of quality, but the Excel and Capri managed to stand out as being below expectations.

      • 0 avatar

        >>They arrived like cicadas and disappeared like cicadas.<<

        This is the perfect description of early Hyundais in the US. In fact, they arrived in my hometown at the same time as the 13-year cicada, so that's particularly apt in my case.

        I remember that the only purchasers of these cars when they first came out were the same crowd that bought Yugos then and buy Mitsubishis now (essentially younger people with terrible credit, or frugality-fetishists), and nationalistic Korean-Americans, who probably should have waited 15 years or so to have something they could truly be proud of.

    • 0 avatar

      They were junk.

      I bought an ’88 in ’90 for $5k; “wow, an almost new car for 5000 bucks”, I thought. Interior pieces continually came lose, exterior pieces fell off. A sudden envelopment in black smoke was due to the oil pressure sensor falling out. When the transmission locked up one day the mechanic said the linkage was worn out .. in a car with less than 30,000 miles !

      Traded it in ’92 for $1000, it sat on the dealer’s lot for over a year.

      A junkyard was where they should have been sold in the first place.

      • 0 avatar

        A friend had a Yugo. I can’t imagine a worse car than that thing was. He went through a beater period with a horrible old 1960 Ford, then he went British sports car with two Triumphs, a TR-4A and a Tr-6. Both were horrible. Then he went into muscle with a ’70 Charger R/T, which was by far the best car he had ever owned, it got wrecked, and he bought a ’69 Roadrunner, another great car that was stolen down in Columbus and never found. Then he bought the Yugo, a total POS that made the Triumphs look decent. What a step down in every way, especially power. He hated it, but he was saving for a house and needed a cheap car. It was cheap only in purchase price, in reality, it was probably as expensive to keep running as both Triumphs put together. He didn’t have to hate it very long, as it rusted even faster than the bed of a Toyota pickup of that period, and was constantly being towed to the shop when it stranded him. Just about the time he got it paid off, it’s engine ate itself and seized up early Sunday morning on the way back from Columbus. I got a phone call, since I was up all night, and I took my dogs and went to pick him up and bring him home. I never saw the Yugo after that, it was replaced with a nearly new Chevy Tahoe that was only recently retired by his son who learned to drive in it.

  • avatar
    Roberto Esponja

    Wasn’t this car basically a clone of an earlier Mitsubishi Mirage/Dodge Colt? What was it that made them so awful, lousy assembly and/or component quality?

    EDIT: looks like Ron B and I posted at the same time.

  • avatar

    A buddy bought an 86 excel hatchback from a junkyard for like $500 it looked like it had been assembled out of half a dozen other hyundais. It ran like a top for two years including jumping a curb head on at 50mph,eventually he sold it to my buddy for a big bag of shrooms. He drive it till the clutch blew up, took the plates off and walked home. Good times

  • avatar
    Speed Spaniel

    How shocking that this Excel hasn’t been scooped up and lovingly restored to it’s late 80s original glory. At the time these cars represented the pinncale of cutting edge technology and masterful engineering. Oh, wait a minute, that’s right, this week I’ve travelled to the “other” parallel universe where black is really white and a Mormon is really running for president. This parallel universe jumping kills brain cells…..Sorry my bad.

  • avatar

    My dad had a white ’87 automatic white sedan for a year back in early ’90s. It was just a few years old but sold for next to nothing already. He drove it for a year replacing just exhaust and sold it off for around $1200 iirc. Can’t say it was horrible to him but I wouldn’t call it a good car either.

  • avatar

    I’m form Canada … the worst POS that we got up here was the Excel predecessor, the infamous Pony …

  • avatar

    When I was in high school in the early 1990s, I had a couple of friends with these cars–one manual sedan and an auto two door hatchback–and both held up well for their owners. The friend with the two door drove hers all the way through college. I’m probably one of the few people with knowledge of two decent Excels.

  • avatar

    I have to defend the Metro a little. It was good for its time in the early 80’s and sold well. 18 years (until the rebadged Rover 100 stopped) was just way too long.

    • 0 avatar

      While one of the high points of my 14 year old life was lapping Zandvoort in an MG Metro Cup car, they really weren’t selling because of merit from the start. They teetered around on track-widths dictated by Austin recycling the tiny Mini’s subframes and their build quality was British Leyland awful. The engines were more than twenty years old upon introduction too. The Fiesta had been around since 1976 and was still better in almost every way. The Renault R5 looked similarly advanced relative to the Metro in spite of dating back to 1972 and having many carryover components from the ancient R4. The Civic’s styling looked dated in the face of the slab-sided ’80s cars, but the mechanical spec was at least a decade fresher than the Metro’s. FIAT’s 127 had pretty much run its course, but the Uno was just around the corner and that was that for the Metro as a contemporary car.

      • 0 avatar

        The Fiesta had 20 year old engines too (Kent), and the Metro was generally thought of as having class leading interior room, sharp handling, and a decent ride thanks to the hydragas suspension. Parts of its underpinnings lived on into 2011 in the MG TF.

        Not a bad car for 1980 at all, it wasn’t the greatest era for small car refinement and sophistication, but the Metro was better than many and as good as most and was one of the few bright spots for the British auto industry during it’s nationalized period, the strength of the car actually convinced the government that BL could be saved and led to it being carved up and privatized in chunks rather than being totally liquidated.

        The only real problem with the Metro was that it should have been replaced by 1988, 1990 at the latest, but lived on through 1997, by which point it was hopelessly outdated. They had planned on building a replacement, the AR6, which would have really been a technical tour de force on multiple levels, but the money just wasn’t there. The final Rover 100 was still a much better car than the godawful CityRover that belatedly replaced it in 2003.

    • 0 avatar

      I’m quite fond of my Metro, in part because it makes such an outstanding tow vehicle:

      On a curious note, upon seeing it at Sears Pointless in 2010, Murilee described it as “a Triumph of Thatcherism” despite the fact that it’s clearly an MG….

    • 0 avatar

      I have to agree. A couple of years ago a friend bought a 1992 1.1 Metro in white. The most basic spec (blanked-off lighter socket, carburettor-fed) and I was amazed by the ride quality and the airy atmosphere. It wasn’t that quick or refined, but it was great fun and £250 with one lady owner, full service history. Oh, and it continually returned 60mpg. I drive what is the closest modern equivalent that I can see and it’s a great formula for a driver commuting alone.

  • avatar

    Why is the trunk release button so prominent? That doesn’t make sense.

    All those plastic seams everywhere, what an eyesore.

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    I actually went to buy one of these when they came out in 1986 and I recall the big sales pitch was the solid thump closing the doors, however when the salesman “suggested” I get the stick because auto. a/c and a full load my have problems negotiating No. Jersey’s traffic and hilly terrain, I moved on to a Corolla.

  • avatar

    Obviously they’re not rusting fast enough

  • avatar
    el scotto

    Truly horrid little cars often sold to those who could least afford to have a horrid little car. I Hyundai credit for stepping back and listening to their customers and becoming a “want to buy” car and not a “have to” buy car.

  • avatar

    From the article..
    “I stand firm in my belief that the first-gen Hyundai Excel was the worst automobile available in America during the last quarter of the 20th century”

    I suppose the Pony was so bad you’ve erased it from your memory ;-)

  • avatar
    Angus McClure

    Sounds like the perfect car to have if you must park on the SF streets. Another blog has made the statement that the tow lots there are run by the mob and it’s cheaper to lose the car than pay the fines.

    With this car I might almost pay someone to take it.

  • avatar

    This car was made the day after I was married. So it was a Wednesday car. Might explain some of it’s longevity.

  • avatar

    I guess I was one of the lucky ones — I bought a used 1987 Hyundai Excel with 40K miles on it in 1989 and kept it for 4 years, using it as a daily commuter car. I had a coworker who had a 1988 model. I had a few problems — a faulty $5 radiator temp sensor that controlled the electric cooling fan, synchromesh issues with 1st and 2nd gear, and some flimsy plastic pieces inside not lasting. Other than that, it was 100% reliable. It was severely underpowered –IIRC it had 67HP, and it was embarrassing attempting to merge on the highway with 4 coworkers in the car, and the valves pinged mightily when going up steep hills. It was reliable transportation, and had basically the same drive train as a Plymouth Champ (Mitsubishi Mirage) my father owned, right down to the tri-star logos on the engine and transmission parts under the hood. The interior was cheap looking, with numerous switch blanks, wide panel gaps, hard plastics, and goofy blue window cranks that contrasted horribly with the red velour interior door panels (this was a luxury feature of the top-shelf GLS trim level). After 4 years and about 50K additional miles, I traded it, and got nearly what I paid for it ($4.2K). My coworker’s car ran about 5 years and 100K miles before the original timing belt snapped and ruined the valves. So, while I hear the Excels were evidently terrible for many, I and my coworker had good experiences with them.

  • avatar
    jim brewer

    True story: A bankruptcy lawyer friend told me that the rule was that for secured creditors, i.e. cars with notes, the bankrupt person had to turn over the car to the creditor as a condition of going through the bankruptcy.

    According to my friend, for the first generation Hyundais they would call up to make arrangements to turn in the car. A slightly dejected voice would answer the phone and say: “That’s O.K. just keep it.”

  • avatar

    Yet another installment in the ‘look how far they’ve come’ series on Hyundai. This is the car they built their US presence on; get over it. Many others have tried and failed in the US market.

    Amazingly, some people won’t buy a Hyundai today because of this car built 25 years ago.

  • avatar

    Shockingly, the other day I pulled up to a red light and sitting in front of me was an Excel. Yes, it moved when the light turned green, turned the corner and went on its’ way.


  • avatar

    Love those Peterbilt style door handles. Wish those would make a comeback on any make or

  • avatar

    Lots of survivors still on the streets in NZ horrible cars better made than their donor mitsus but thats not saying much

  • avatar

    Were these the ones that supposedly had an abundance of plastic parts in the transmission that would break catastrophically?

  • avatar

    Too bad the guy with 100k, did not replace the timing belt. Likely would have gotten a reasonable amount of additional service.

    But.. Yes, the transmissions were weak. So that would have failed, if he hadn’t rebuilt it already.

    They were slow. Looked okay.

  • avatar

    My Mom had a 1986 that she bought – it was dependable and held up well enough for her to get $500 less for it in trade-in than she paid for it. I know – I acted as her “agent” on both original deal and when she traded it in on a 1989 Ford T-Bird – a sale that took three days to complete because I held the line on what the trade-in would be and what we’d pay for the new Ford. The dealer relented at the end of the month and she had her “bird” for 15 years until she traded it for a 2004 Focus Wagon which she still has and loves dearly (trouble free car).

    TTAC lambasts these Excels – I sense a distinct pro Honduh bias here which proves that there is no truth about cars being presented here.

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