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Second-hand: Hyundai Accent

Who else produced a car that provided 80 per cent of the refinement and reliability of a Honda Civic at about 50 per cent of the (used) cost?

When Alec Baldwin’s character denigrated Ed Harris’ Hyundai-driving salesman in Glengarry Glen Ross, the 1992 film about high-pressure real estate sales, you could almost hear the executives of the South Korean firm hurling themselves out of their corporate windows.

While some marketing gurus would argue being the subject of a paint-peeling rant in a movie is better than being ignored, the reference did cement in the minds of many consumers the notion that Hyundai represented plankton in the auto food chain.

In Canada, the bargain basement was already crowded with names unknown to Americans, such as Lada, Dacia and Skoda, when Hyundai arrived on our shores in 1984.

Despite the rudimentary nature of the Pony — the firm’s first model, dating back to 1975 — the price was right ($4,995) and it possessed enough Japanese content to satisfy the sceptics.

Hyundai unveiled its front-wheel drive Excel in 1986, just in time to offer its first American dealers a contemporary product that could compete with entry-level Hondas and Toyotas. Styled

by Ital Design’s Giorgetto Giugiaro, it owed a lot to Mitsubishi Motors, which supplied the 1.5 L engine, trans-axle and under-pinnings.

The Excel spanned two lacklustre generations before it was laid to rest in 1994.

While it plumbed the bottom end of the market competently, it never transcended its shopping-cart image and, more importantly, failed to attract enough upwardly mobile consumers who might have graduated to Hyundai’s more sophisticated models.

That task would be assigned to its replacement, the Accent.

CONFIGURATION

Imported for the 1995 model year, the Accent was available in two body styles: a stubby four-door sedan and a clever two-door hatchback. Clever because it cut a conservative sedan profile,

but the trunk and rear window lifted to reveal a gaping maw.

A footnote here: like the Communist Party, the hatchback was never really embraced in North America, unlike more robust democracies in the world. The fact it likely contributed to the

Excel’s demise led Hyundai to wisely keep the hatch a covert operation.

The lone engine choice was Hyundai’s first in-house design, code-named Alpha, a 12-valve 1.5 L four cylinder which put out 2 hp adequate, but 10 horses shy of the benchmark Honda

Civic.

The motor could be had with a five-speed manual or, laudably, a four-speed automatic transmission.

Chrysler Neon owners should be so lucky.

While all U.S. Accents were fitted with standard dual airbags, the safety feature was optional in Canada due to differing federal regulations. At least one owner cited buying the car

because it could be ordered without bags.

If you deem them beneficial, inspect used models carefully.

ON THE ROAD

Burdened with only one metric tonne of steel and plastic, the Alpha engine provided good acceleration for an economy car: zero to 100 km/h in 10 seconds flat, coupled with the manual

transmission.

As is the case with small-displacement fours, the slush-box robs the engine of power, so acceleration was more leisurely. But it did have enough in reserve to pass fuel-price-protesting

tractor-trailers, a feat at which the Excel never excelled.

With 0.77 g of cornering grip, the Accent gave nothing away to the Civic in terms of handling prowess. Its inherently good nature is precisely why aftermarket parts makers are leaping on

the Hyundai bandwagon.

These firms congregate around winners; ironically, there’s no money in producing performance-enhancing parts for clumsy cars.

WHAT OWNERS SAY

Short attention span? Here’s the feedback in a nutshell, courtesy of one concise Internet author: “Very solid, feels expensive, cheap price, no rattles.”

More details? Those who wrote in largely enjoyed their Accents, citing the competent — even entertaining — ride and forgiving seats. “I am 62 and my wife is 55, and the seating

position is easily adjustable for both of us,” noted Paul Ecke.

Wrote Joshua Ceulemans: “. . . the clutch is smooth, the gauges are easy to read, it’s zippy around the city, controls and CD stereo are in good reach, I have no problems getting my

ape-like friends in and out of the back seat . . . and my buyout is dirt cheap.”

No one failed to mention the high value quotient. “We chose our car over the Honda Civic CX and Toyota Tercel because of its better list of standard equipment for the dollar,” reported Ecke.

Interestingly, some who wrote had had experiences with other Hyundais — and not all of them judged their Accent an unequivocal improvement.

Magdaline Dontsos, who drove a Pony for almost 10 years, claimed her former car gave her fewer headaches. She said her 1995 automatic Accent has been plagued with niggling problems

such as windows that won’t wind down, a glovebox that keeps popping open, and frequent stalling that were unheard-of in her manual Pony.

More than one owner reported the engine cutting out at speed, a puzzler that was eventually traced back to a faulty engine computer. Others noted problems with their automatic

transmission, clutch, shift linkage and emission controls.

But these major snafus were not commonplace. More numerous were the irritating little glitches that were hardly worth going back to the dealer for, but which demonstrated the refinement

gap that lay between the Accent and, say, a Toyota Tercel.

On the other hand, Glen Lyon was one of many who had no nits to pick: “As few problems as we might have had with our Excel, we have had none, literally, with our 1995 Accent.”

Having been in Canada scarcely a decade, Hyundai delivered a budget-conscious winner when it launched its Accent in 1995.

Who else produced a car that provided 80 per cent of the refinement and reliability of a Honda Civic at about 50 per cent of the (used) cost?

As the Pony-Excel-Accent continuum illustrates, Hyundai has climbed a very steep learning curve swiftly. It suggests this question: How long before foul-mouthed real estate magnates are

flaunting $80,000 Hyundais?

WE NEED YOUR FEEDBACK: We would like to know about your ownership experience with the following models. Please note the deadline dates. Chev Camaro/Pontiac Firebird by April 20Suzuki Sidekick/Geo/Chev Tracker by May 18

Send your letters and comments to Second-hand, c/o Wheels section, Toronto Star, One Yonge St., Toronto M5E 1E6. Fax 416-865-3996. Email: toljagic@idirect.com Mark Toljagic, a freelance Toronto writer, contributes Second-hand once a month.

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