Hyundai Excel X1 and X2
Reviewed by Unique Cars and Parts
Our Rating: 1
Average In Every Way - Every Day - Hyundai
The Hyundai Excel (X1) first appeared in 1985 (as a replacement for the Pony) – and its big selling point was that it was cheap. And that was pretty much it. It looked plain, inside and out. It was slow. It was devoid of any badge-worthy technology. It was probably the worst car available, except perhaps for some originating from the USSR. For $10,000 you got four seats, an engine, wheels and a roof over your head. And it wasn’t pretty. There were probably some who thought the savings they were making over anything Japanese worth the shame that went with driving a non-car.
Hyundai marketing research indicated that most of the great unwashed didn't associate name brands with any particular country, so as a marketing tool the country of origin turned into a fairly moot point. In the United States it was the company's first and only model, but thanks to a price of US$4,995 and being voted 'Best Product #10' by Fortune magazine, it set records for a first-year import by selling 168,882 units, helping push the company's cumulative production past one million by 1986. Similar sales success was replicated here in Australia, where it was priced at A$9,990. Sales soon dropped as serious quality problems emerged with the car.
The X2 Excel
Five years on and things were starting to change. The Excel was in a global slow decline, and the offloading of Bond Motor Corp to a Singapore investor in light of Alan Bond's financial difficulties was making things a little more difficult in the Australian market. The Japanese makers were also responding to what they saw as the emerging Korean threat, by re-visiting what they were offering at the lower end of the market. In 1990 came the X2 Excel – a much better car – although that didn’t mean it was a good car, as the original Excel had set the bar very low.
The basic philosophy behind the X2’s design was much the same: no high-tech features or any aspirations to a sporting character, but overall it was more refined, better built and easier to live with. At launch the X2 Excel was offered in two body-styles, both in two different levels of trim and all featuring the Korean-built, Mitsubishi 1.5 litre fuel injected engine. At the bottom of the range was the three-door L which had absolutely rock-bottom specification levels and started at A$12,990 with a four-speed manual transmission. The next step up the ladder was the three-door GS, which came with a five-speed manual (or optional four-speed automatic) and even had a few “luxury” items, such as a four-speaker stereo and electric front windows. It cost A$15,990 at launch.
The lower-spec four-door (LS) started with higher specifications (like the five-speed gearbox) and cost A$15,790, while the GLS was selected as the top-line model, and had all the available gear including better tyres, tilt-adjustable steering and full cloth upholstery – all for A$17,350. The four-door X2 Excel's most striking aspect was its exterior styling. Without being particularly adventurous, the Giugario-penned body was attractive and sufficiently different from some of the blander Japanese and European small cars to make it stand out. Its curvaceous, almost bulbous lines made it look like a scaled-down Sonata and heavy bumpers made it look a size bigger than it actually was. Details such as the grille and bumpers gave it an individual look, while the rear tail-lights and high boot gave it an almost expensive look. Almost.
Behind the Wheel
From the driver's seat, however, things were very much low-rent. All car interiors have plenty of plastic, but most car makers come up with ways to make it look good. The designers of the Excel obviously didn’t bother, so “plasticky” was the order of the day. The instruments were plain enough and easy to read, although the LS lacked a tachometer and instead had a lovely blank area instead. The layout of switches for air-conditioning, hazard lights, etc were strung-out in a line across the middle of the centre console and while they looked big and clumsy, at least they were easy to use. The less said about the quality of sound from the two speaker radio-cassette the better.
The Excel X2 was also a slightly larger car, making for a larger passenger space and the sedan had a boot which was, surprisingly, best of its class. The LS missed out on a fold-down rear seat, which was available for some reason only on the other three models. As with the previous X1 Excel, mechanicals were Mitsubishi-based (the Japanese company then owned a share in Hyundai Motor Corp), but this time instead of using the Colt drive-train it had all been upgraded to Lancer specs – and that meant a 62kW EFI engine, laid-out transversely and driving the front wheels through a five-speed manual gearbox. Suspension was MacPherson struts at the front and an independent trailing-arm set-up at the rear.
Despite the increase in engine capacity and the adoption of fuel injection, performance was not one of the Excel's strong points. Those 62kW were developed at 5500 rpm while torque peaked at 121Nm not much lower down the rev-range at 4400rpm. Usually it is on the open highway when you find out a car is a slug, but the Excel managed to do that in city traffic, and you would really have to work the gearbox to keep up with the traffic. The engine was willing enough, but it didn’t like high revs and tended to get a bit thrashy as it gasped for breath the closer to the red-line it went. There was a lack of low down torque which left the driver wringing the engine out in the lower gears. This could be tiring and didn’t help fuel consumption.
Suspension from Hell
The suspension was underdamped and way too soft. Sure, it made Australia’s poor roads a little less annoying on the straight, provided you were not going too quick, however it all fell in a heap if you tried to do anything at speed. The Excel's front-end was particularly edgy, the two front wheels rarely acting in sympathy, and the whole equation was not helped by the very narrow Hankook tyres
which were just not up to scratch in most situations and particularly in the wet, where they would lose traction very easily. The independent rear end should have worked better – but the damper selection must have been way off, providing the driver with little feedback and actual control.
The power assisted rack-and-pinion steering worked well enough, with just enough assistance to aid parking while retaining enough feel for wheeling through the suburbs. Torque steer was also not a problem, but that was because there was little torque to speak of. The X1 Excel was never noted for its levels of refinement, particularly in the NVH department, but thankfully the X2 was a smoother, quieter prospect to drive. Engine noise could be intrusive under high loads, but wind and road noise were suppressed and overall the Excel felt a tighter, better built car than its predecessor. Elements such as driving position, and the relationship between clutch and gear-change linkages were of Japanese standards, making the Excel simple to drive, but also typically Japanese bland.
The Excel was always a car with few pretensions. If getting from A to B as cheaply as possible was the only criteria of which to judge a car, then maybe the Excel would have made a case. But we could never forgive a car that is potentially dangerous – such was the handling issues and Hankook tyres
– so that on any objective analysis, the Excel did not put forward a compelling case. But, for the sadists among us, it offered poor performance, sloppy suspension and bugger all comfort.