NEW YORK — Not a moment too soon, Hyundai has introduced a new, improved Excel. It is just a bit longer, more powerful and a little more expensive than last year's model.
It is better basic transportation, but still not quite equal to the Japanese competition. Then again, neither is its window sticker.
The Excel was the first South Korean car to be sold in the United States when it was introduced in 1986. Few Americans had heard of its manufacturer and few could pronounce the company's name correctly (it rhymes with Sunday). The car caught on, though, and more than 800,000 Excels have been sold.
But the Excel's prices, which once began at just under $5,000, have crept upward to a base price $7,294 (including destination charge) because of currency exchange rates and inflation. Meanwhile, the demand for small cars has declined.
The result was predictable: Hyundai's U.S. sales have fallen by almost 30% so far this year below last year's level. Hyundai is hoping that the 1990 Excel and the larger Sonata introduced earlier will change that.
The new Excel has smoother lines that reduce its wind resistance and make it more contemporary. But perhaps the most important change is a 20% increase in horsepower, attributable mostly to electronic fuel injection. With a 1.5-liter, four-cylinder engine producing a claimed 81 horsepower, the Excel still won't outrun a Corvette, but it is better able now to keep up with the pack.
The five-speed manual transmission, standard in certain Excels, is new and shifts easily. The clutch was easy to get used to, though our time with the Excel was cut short when, without warning, the clutch began slipping badly. Last we heard, the car was being trucked to the West Coast where Hyundai technicians will try to diagnose the problem.
For such unhappy times, every Hyundai comes with free membership for one year in the Cross Country Auto Club.
A four-speed electronically controlled transmission, available optionally, also is new.
The Excel is available as a two-door hatchback, four-door hatchback and four-door sedan. It comes with four levels of standard equipment and trim: plain, GS, GL and GLS. Only the four-door sedan can be ordered in GLS version, which begins at $8,774, including destination charge.
Most Hyundai controls are similar to those found in Japanese economy cars. The Excel is, in fact, derived from the Mirage made by Mitsubishi, which owns 15% of Hyundai.
Hyundai claims better handling for the new Excel, thanks to front suspension revisions. But, even with those changes and with rack-and-pinion steering and front and rear stabilizer bars, the Excel still cannot be considered a sport sedan. That is one reason we don't think it is equal to Japanese entries like the Honda Civic.
The other reason is reliability. Consumers Union, publisher of Consumer Reports magazine, says its surveys show 1988 Excels "average" in their frequency of repair. That's an improvement over "much worse than average" for 1987 models, but most Japanese models do better.