By on October 25, 2021

The Rare Rides series has featured just two Hyundai offerings in past entries, the affordable Pony that Canadians loved, and a Mitsubishi Precis that was a rebadge of the Excel. Today’s larger Rare Ride was sold alongside those two in places outside the United States. Meet Stellar.

When the Stellar was developed, Hyundai was still in its cobbling phase as an auto manufacturer. Prior to 1983, Hyundai’s midsize sedan offering was the European market’s Ford Cortina. Built by Hyundai in Korea and sold complete with a Ford badge, Hyundai built the Cortina through four generations between 1968 and 1982. At that point Hyundai was getting up on its own two feet, and decided to make its own midsize sedan for the first time. The new car was also based on the Cortina.

Hyundai held onto the Mark V Cortina chassis they’d been using for their licensed sedans from 1979 to 1982, but wanted a new exterior design that was distinctly their own. They turned to Italdesign, and Giorgetto Guigiaro himself, and he’d later pen the Excel. Giugiaro turned in his homework – a rather uninspired three-box shape. But it would do.

Hyundai then went engine and transmission shopping at the Mitsubishi store, where they picked up a 1.4-liter inline-four (the 4G33) from the Seventies Galant, Lancer, and Plymouth Arrow. That engine was sold alongside Mitsubishi’s 1.6-liter for the first few years, and for 1987 a third engine arrived: a 2.0-liter Mitsubishi unit. The 2.0 meant the 1.4 disappeared almost immediately, and it was the sole engine option for 1990 onward. Transmissions were several, and included manual transmissions of four and five speeds from Mitsubishi, as well as three- and four-speed automatics from BorgWarner.

Unusual for the time and class (but now a Hyundai SOP), the Stellar had an unusually high level of equipment as standard on its higher trims. Luxury features like headlamp washers, power windows, mirrors, locks, and even air conditioning as an option. Across the European market and particularly in the UK, Hyundai was suddenly in an advantageous position with the Stellar.

For 1983 as the Stellar arrived, so did Ford’s new replacement for the Cortina: The aerodynamic and futuristic looking Sierra. Many conservative buyers weren’t thrilled with the Sierra change, and Hyundai was all too happy to remind them of their prior Cortina experience. So much so that Hyundai called their Stellar a successor to the Cortina in their print advertising, and showed a plastic mold of a Sierra-like shape. They stopped short of a mention of the Stellar’s Cortina underpinnings specifically. Imagine in The Current Year if Ford introduced a big new sedan and called it a serious successor to the recently discontinued Toyota Avalon. Unthinkable!

Hyundai sweetened the deal with the Stellar’s pricing, as it was priced a class down like the more compact Escort. Stellar found a market in the UK, and indeed globally, with the exception of the United States. Much like the Pony we featured previously, the Stellar did not comply with Eighties emissions regulations given its early Seventies Mitsubishi engines.

The aforementioned arrival of the 2.0-liter engine did improve the Stellar’s performance and accompanied a considerable refresh for the 1987 model year. Though it was too late, the carbureted 2.0 did meet US emissions regulations: It was the same one used in the Mighty Max and the Dodge Ram 50. Other changes for ’87 included a rework of the double wishbone front suspension into a MacPherson strut setup, a two-piece driveshaft, new headlamp and tail lamps, and a catalytic converter. It was a large enough update to warrant several new monikers dependent upon market. For most the world the revised car was called Stellar II, but Canadians disliked Roman numerals or whatever so there it was called Stellar 2.0. In high specification in European countries, sometimes it was labeled Stellar Prima. Finally, the Korean market name was a preview of what was to come later, as high trim Stellars were called Sonata from 1985 to 1987.

Through numerous trim changes (and a Seoul Olympic Edition for Korea in 1988), the Stellar ran through the 1992 model year. Hyundai had a new world car ready, this time on a new joint Hyundai-Kia platform. It was of course the Sonata, technically the model’s third generation. Hyundai headed upscale in its home market at that time too: Lower trim customers transitioned from Stellar to Sonata, while more luxurious buyers were funneled toward the new Grandeur, a joint project with Mitsubishi (the Debonair).

Today’s Rare Ride is a refreshed Stellar 2.0 GSL (the top trim) and is located in The Netherlands. It has an automatic, faux wood trim, tweedy seats, and looks in decently preserved condition. Yours for $2,900.

[Images: Hyundai]

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22 Comments on “Rare Rides: The 1987 Hyundai Stellar, Korean Midsize and Ford Cousin...”


  • avatar
    Astigmatism

    An aluminum-coated muffler _and_ “styled” steel wheels? Someone call Uncle Jed, I’m rich!

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    A close friend purchased one of these, new. Ironically he had previously owned a Ford Cortina. The Cortina upheld the British car reputation for unreliability.

    New the Stellar was somewhat impressive. Spacious interior. Well appointed. Lots of nice ‘luxury’ features. Relatively quiet and comfortable for passengers. Being a ‘frugal’ type he purchased this rather than an Accord as the Hyundai had more features at a considerably lower price point.

    Hyundai was so optimistic with this vehicle and the continuing sales success of the Pony plus the introduction of the Excel, that in 1989 they opened a a large manufacturing facility in Bromont Quebec. It cost between $400 and $500 million to construct and the plan was to manufacture in it 2,000 Stellars/Sonatas per week.

    Unfortunately my friend’s Stellar like many Hyundai products of that era/generation was not robust/reliable and did not age well. Resale values fell off a cliff. As did sales.

    Hyundai attempted to work a deal with Chrysler rebadging the Sonatas made in Quebec. That fell through.

    Less than 5 years after opening Bromont, Hyundai permanently closed the plant. They eventually sold the building/land for less than $3 million.

    • 0 avatar
      FreedMike

      Hyundai is so competent today that we tend to forget about how often they bombed in years past.

      • 0 avatar
        Lou_BC

        Hyundai and Kia both carry a stigma of being junk cars. A few friends and acquaintances had purchased them based on frugality and had regretted it. My son works at a Kia dealership and does not have a very high regard for them. He does like the Stinger. Part of his job is doing the PDI’s. He plugs in a computer and drives around for a hour or so and goes through a checklist. Most are just boring appliances.

        • 0 avatar
          dukeisduke

          Yeah, Kia dealers have a reputation for being shady, especially doing things like putting items like pulsing third brake lights on all their cars and then charging ridiculous prices for them, to pad their profit margin. One company that makes those modules advertises them to dealer F&I departments, stressing the cost per month, adding it in to the monthly payment ($5 a month sticks in my mind, which would be $300 on a 60-month loan).

          • 0 avatar
            Lou_BC

            @dukeisduke – The local Kia dealer in my town isn’t more “shady” than any other dealership in town. They all try to get away with the same sh!t.
            His dealership has had a lot of turnover in the service department mainly because the owners show up and poke their noses into everything. Staff get pizzed off and quit. Qualified tech’s are in short supply. Jobs are easy to find.

        • 0 avatar
          Arthur Dailey

          We acquired a Kia a dozen years ago. Since then 5 other vehicles have come and gone from our driveway but the Kia remains. Why? Because we just like it so darn much. And because of that I would not hesitate in acquiring another Kia.

          As for dealers, it might be different here in Canada but Kia dealers are no better or worse than dealers from any other ‘major’ manufacturer. Most dealerships are now owned by large conglomerates and their rules/policies apply to all of their outlets.

          Regarding skilled technicians, they are in exceedingly short supply and Canadian educational institutions are not adequately addressing this pressing issue.

        • 0 avatar
          ajla

          My Stinger has had 4 issues in 3 years (brakes twice, paint problem, wheel sensor). All were fixed under warranty without any argument. That isn’t amazing quality but FWIW, it is a lot better than my Charger which had about 15 issues in 4 years.

          My feeling on H/K/G is that if you’re ride-or-die with Toyota and Lexus then stick to those makes but if you’re willing to buy something like a Nissan or Subaru or Cadillac then no reason to be that worried about the Korean brand quality.

      • 0 avatar
        Mike-NB2

        Not entirely different from Honda, Toyota and Nissan, just a generation later. Some neighbours just bought a new Tucson and while I’m not a CUV fan this is one damn nice looking vehicle. The Elantra and Sonata are great looking too.

        • 0 avatar
          dal20402

          My sister adores her 2019 Santa Fe Limited. I could pick a bunch of nits with it over refinement and material durability, but she’s not picky about those details and likes the high feature content for the money and the styling.

      • 0 avatar
        swissAventador

        Yeah, and as parallel, we used to say the same about all the junk Japanese cars too.

        Now that they’ve improved, we forget how maligned or ridiculed the Japanese brands were not too long ago.

    • 0 avatar
      Mike-NB2

      I test drove one of these in the mid-80s. The equipment level for the price was the draw. I didn’t bite though and am glad for that. On the Atlantic coast these things rusted very quickly in the salt air. They rusted so quickly that the mechanical bits didn’t even have time to fail.

  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    I didn’t know the Sonata name dated from 1985, and with its roots in this car.

    The example for sale is very nice, but even $2900 feels like a stretch.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    First picture (the OEM ad): Check the back seat and trunk for extra weight. If none is found, order new rear springs, and re-aim the headlamps in the meantime.

    (Could be perspective/lighting, but it sure doesn’t appear to be.)

  • avatar
    RedRocket

    After the crude Pony made a splash among bottom-feeder Canadian cheap car buyers despite its buckboard ride and points ignition in the mid-’80s, it wasn’t a surprise to see Hyundai deliver the Stellar to Canadian shores in the late ’80s. But unlike the Pony, the only word of mouth it generated was negative. I remember hearing complaints most often about how slow and underpowered it was, and that was before they started to rust and generally fall apart. One of the more common flaws you would see after a few years of service was the large rear bumper cover dropping down at an angle as it prepared to fall off. I never did find out it it was because the plastic fasteners holding it to the body structure had failed, or if rust had rotted away the body structure. In any event, most had very short lifespans here and you never saw one past the mid-90s. Hyundai earned its reputation for junky cars honestly.

    • 0 avatar
      swissAventador

      I actually read a really interesting trivia about this story a while back.

      Turns out that what Hyundai was selling back then was actually built relatively well, and the ones exported to European and South American markets stood up nicely over time. Quality was up there, and of course the price was attractive.

      But the problem was their big oversight of Canada’s unique weather and rough conditions when they started exporting there, which caused premature rusting and corrosion. People of course prioritized negative news over positive, plus an astronomical number of these cars got sold in Canada, so unfortunately, their misstep in one anomalous market kinda unfairly skewed the narrative elsewhere during that era.

      It’s all fine and dandy now since Hyundais have an excellent reputation, so it makes me wonder how much faster they would’ve grown if they had made a few tweaks for the Canada-only models.

      • 0 avatar
        msquare

        When I visited Canada for the first time, I was surprised by how many relatively new cars had visible rust. I’m from Long Island, but Canadian winters are on another level, and it’s obvious they use way more road salt than we do.

        All manufacturers have to deal with the problem and I have to wonder if they indeed do add rust protection for Canadian market cars. Maybe Hyundai had to learn the hard way.

  • avatar
    downunder

    2.0-litres = Performance? Should have stuffed the 4.1-litre engine in it. Now that’s performance! Taxes be dammned!

  • avatar
    Boff

    There were so many crummy cars on Canadian roads in the mid-80s. The Pony, Dacia (aka Renault 12), Skoda, Lada…but the Stellar was by far the worst. I swear to god you could see them falling apart in real time.

  • avatar
    dusterdude

    Horrible car. Back in 86 my then girlfriends sister bought one , and it didn’t hold up at all. ( very poor quality !)

    I’m sure there aren’t many 1980’s Stellars on the road globally !!

  • avatar
    Sobro

    Burn.

  • avatar
    tankinbeans

    Were the pound and dollar at parity, or close to it, in the 80’s? Those prices seem kinda high for what you get from a 2nd tier automaker, especially if the pound had the same heightened value over the dollar as it has recently. Not living there, I don’t know how the recent split from the European Union has affected things.

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