Ask a wise and venerable old sage for advice, and he might say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. This old adage aptly describes the long and arduous road Hyundai has paved for itself in the last 30 years. The brand may be successful today, but not so long ago, the Korean automaker was no more than an afterthought, a mere purveyor of small, entry-level cars in unimportant markets. Through efforts like the first-generation Excel, Hyundai attempted to grow its reach and its brand to become more than a big fish in the small pond of secondary markets. Did it work? Well, one could say it did, but by the skin of its teeth.
To get an idea of how green Hyundai was in the 1980s, consider that the car seen here, a 1986 model, is just the second all-new car Hyundai had ever built. Prior to the Excel, the brand first forayed into car making with the Pony, a small, compact RWD car that was penned by noted Italian stylist Giorgetto Giugiario, but otherwise was as conventional as a Maytag washing machine. It was sold throughout the mid-eighties in a variety of small markets as Hyundai established itself as a legitimate automaker. It was even sold in Canada, where it surprisingly became one of their best selling cars during the early 80s. Was it a paragon of quality and reliability? Did it usher in a new era of small cars and raise the bar, change the game, and strike fear in the hearts of the established automakers? On all counts, the answer was a resounding no. Most of the positive attributes associated with the car went along with the belief that it was better than the Eastern Bloc cars of the day, but that’s not saying much.
The original Pony sold well enough, but by the mid-1980s, the Koreans realized it was time for something more fresh and up-to-date. For this second go-around, Hyundai went back to the drawing board and came up with the new FWD Excel. The biggest mission of this car was to give the brand a foothold in the United States, where the lucrative yearly sales numbers had foreign auto execs salivating with envy. To help their chances of success, Hyundai filled its new small car with many of the newly expected features for the 1980s compact class. This included an available automatic transmission, power brakes and steering, a sunroof, and A/C, among other things. The starting price to get yourself one of these Korean masterpieces? A mere $4,995, one of the lowest base prices for any car available in America.
That magical number, coupled with an extensive promotional campaign, saw a whopping 168,000 Excels move off of dealer lots in the inaugural year of 1986, making the Excel the most successful first year launch of any foreign brand that has ever debuted here in the land of baseball and apple pie. With such an auspicious start, many were feeling hopeful about the brand’s potential, but it wasn’t long before doom and gloom rained down on Hyundai and their Excel.
While RWD is a fairly straightforward powertrain layout, FWD – which was still a new concept in the 1980s – is decidedly not. Transaxles, engine packaging, and front suspensions are wholly different and more complicated when the driven wheels are up front with the motor. This newfangled design, as well as the pressure to pump out enough cars to meet demand, quickly revealed that the Excel wasn’t excellent in the reliability department. A variety of different and costly issues plagued the little cars, ranging from transmissions that decided to give up to valve guides that liked to disintegrate. It also didn’t help that the 1.5 liter engine, making 68 hp, was about as powerful and refined as a rider mower, and overall build quality was something comparable to a wet cardboard box.
All these issues saw sales of Hyundai cars tumble from their first-year high, even as more models were slowly introduced. Values plummeted, and by 1990, a used Excel would’ve been worth laughably little. Still, the Koreans pressed onward, refusing to admit defeat. In 1988, they brought out the mid-size Sonata, and followed that in the subsequent years with the Scoupe, a new Excel, and the Elantra. Though market share throughout the 90s was never more than a measly 1%, the brand learned valuable lessons from the quality and reliability mishaps that plagued the first Excel.
Eventually, it found itself in a quandary – the cars had finally improved on the quality and reliability front, but the image was still that of 1986 Excels with broken carburetors and failing valve guides. People had come to view Hyundai as the brand for people who have a credit score and income level that should subject them to their local buy-here-pay-here lot, but are adamant that they have a new car. To rectify this reputation, in 1998, Hyundai debuted their now well-known warranty, offering 10 years/100,000 miles of powertrain coverage. This was intended to put to rest the lingering stigma the brand suffered from, and it did just that – in the ensuing years, sales rose and their image improved as more people took a chance on the brand.
Nowadays, one only needs to take a quick look at a Hyundai dealership to see the strides they have made since the old days of the featured car. However, even though the 1986 Excel may not have been much better than Power Wheels when it came to quality transportation, it was successful in one crucial way – It established the Hyundai brand here in the United States. Although other foreign automakers, such as Alfa and Peugeot, waved the white flag of surrender when Americans denounced and shunned their products, Hyundai continued to persevere and weather the storm of hate, scorn, and indifference that was foisted upon the hapless company. Though they are well into their journey of 1,000 miles, it is thanks to the success of this humble car that the first step was one steady and true, a step that ultimately set the direction for where the brand is today.