The cars we loved.
The word Hyundai today is associated with quality, you might even say world-class. That was not always the case. If you were in the market for cheap new ride, in the 80’s you had mainly two choices; a Yugo or an Excel. The Excel was a replacement for Hyundai’s Pony, a rear wheel drive sub-compact sold in places where donkey paths passed for roads. Hyundai was already the world’s largest shipbuilder in the 80’s and had a sizable market in Asia and parts of Europe. At that time, the Holy Grail for any auto builder with global ambitions was to sell cars in America. Hyundai’s ships were already at every major US port, only this time they wanted their cars on them and not just other people’s freight.
The Pony replacement would be the ideal starting point. It would be front wheel drive and derive from old Mitsubishi hardware. In fact, Mitsubishi would sell its own version of the Excel called the Precis (in 2 door hatchback form only). At less than $5K brand new, the Excel was only $500 or so more than the Yugo, a cheap Eastern European import that created quite a stir with those who formally were bus pass owners. The 1.5L with four cylinders could only make 68 hp, but no one cared. The Excel came in four trim levels and three body styles. Having air conditioning and 14’ alloy wheels in the top GLS sedan was considered living large, but even loaded the Excel was well under $6K. It was designed by Giorgetto Giugiaro , although I doubt its on the front page of his design portfolio.
The word got out that the Excel represented a big value, or the potential of it. Fortune magazine called it a “Best Product #10” from its annual list of good things. By 1986 nearly 170,000 buyers agreed, making the Excel one of the fastest selling imports of all time. People who had never considered owning a car lined up to buy (what seemed like a red) hatchback coupe or sedan.
Hyundai, realizing that it’s only product in America would be compared to many other small cars, took the high road in some of its advertising. One ad shows an Excel next to what is presumably a BMW 318. The factual tone suggested that functionally the two were equal, but the Hyundai was far less expensive, if four doors, four seats and four wheels was all you wanted and having that equated to value.
Things were going good until low quality standards began to reveal themselves. Owners were reporting all sort of mechanical and fit and finish problems at an alarming rate. The story repeated itself in other places like Australia, where the Excel sold like crazy. The in suing onslaught of negative press that followed forced Hyundai to offer a year then later two years free by the time a restyle had happened in 19893. The slightly rounded Excel’s 1.5L engine now produced 81hp and fit and finish issues were
addressed. Even though the improved Excel was better, sales had begun to cool as the 90’s approached. The price had gone up along with quality, now over $7k for a loaded GLS in 1993. The stigma of poor quality would haunt Hyundai for years. Only recently has the company recovered from the stigma of the Excel. In 1994, an all-new car the Accel replaced the Excel and thus began Hyundai long road to today’s high quality standards.
In retrospect, Hyundai could have learned a little from Yugo. Some drivers are just not car owner material. Poor quality is only magnified when owners who had never owned a car would skip service, thinking that it was not all that important. This was partly the case for many Excel owners who went from the bus to a car without any foreknowledge of how to maintain a car. The
Yugo had a poor dealer network and quality against it, but combined with owner neglect, created a bomb that they could not recover from. Hyundai on the other hand was determined to stay in the new markets it had entered and had plenty of
money to make it right in the long-term. Hyundai was forced to innovate the car ownership experience by protecting the resale value of its products by offering free service for a period longer than standard warranties.
Despite so many Excel being sold, relatively few remain on the roads today with even fewer Precis. Like many 80’s cars from Asia, rust roblems abound on top of the poor build quality. Hyundai execs today would probably you forget about the Excel, but its important in illustrating how quickly a company turned itself around when pinned to the wall. The recovery is even more remarkable that of GM and has outpaced the quality of top names in the business like Mercedes, Lincoln and Subaru. Who knows, in 10 more years the name Hyundai might really be associated with world-class as long as you skip any the references to the Excel.