Hyundai is on a roll. The fact that in 2015 it had only Toyota and Volkswagen ahead of it in the list of largest automakers by production numbers speaks, er, volumes about its cars today. But unlike the other two, which had reached their top spots after decades of producing well-built, highly dependable cars, the South Korean carmaker wasn’t known for quality or reliability even as recently as a couple of decades ago.
It started off in the early Eighties building Ford Cortinas under licence, but began making its own cars soon, and the Excel was one of Hyundai’s earliest models. It had all the ingredients to be a great success, with none other than Giorgetto Giugiaro designing the body and a 1.5-litre four-pot loaned by Mitsubishi as part of a technology-sharing deal between the two brands. And being the first Hyundai to be exported to the all-important US market it was priced significantly cheaper than most of the budget cars on sale there.
In fact many fell for the attractive price, only to realise quickly that it was cheap for a reason. It soon earned a reputation for dubious dependability, with flimsy switchgear, faulty mechanicals and rust issues adding to customer woes.
Myung Oak Kim and Sam Jaffe, who summed up the car in their book The New Korea, note that the Hyundai Excel gained notoriety for having the worst repair record of any car. And they explain it by saying, “Owning an Excel wasn’t a badge of honour for someone who could otherwise not afford a car. It became a badge of shame.” While it’s definitely not a chapter in its history Hyundai will be proud of, it’s indeed remarkable that the brand has scaled the heights it has today in such a short space of time.