The Daewoo Espero was launched thirty years ago and was the company’s first unique model. We look back at a car not without merit, but out of time.
Here at DTW we have an irrational fondness for plucky underdogs that some might say borders on the perverse. Just as with famous celebrities, their appeal to us is only heightened by an untimely and premature demise. Daewoo is one such marque, but has not yet secured its own place in the DTW archives and is mentioned as an aside in only ten out of more than three thousand contributions. Today it’s time to put that grievous omission to right.
Daewoo Motor Co. was established in 1983 following the Daewoo industrial conglomerate’s takeover of the South Korean automobile manufacturer, Saehan Motor, which produced a number of models based on GM European and US designs. The first new Daewoo branded model was the 1986 Le Mans, also called Nexia (amongst other names) in export markets. This was obviously based on the Opel Kadett E and was produced in four-door saloon and three and five-door hatchback bodystyles. The latter version was distinguished from the Kadett by a third light rather than the large triangular vent panel in the rear quarter*.
Launched in 1990, the Daewoo Espero was significant in that it was the company’s first attempt at a model that wasn’t obviously a reheated GM product. Although based heavily on the 1981 GM J platform and mechanical package that underpinned the first FWD Opel Ascona C, it was clothed in a smart, glassy and contemporary body that owed nothing to GM. This was instead one of the proposals that Bertone had pitched to Citroën for a new mid-size car to replace the BX, but was rejected in favour of another Bertone design which would become the Xantia.
The Espero and Xantia share very a similar styling theme, to the extent that the former could easily have been the saloon variant of the latter. Even the distinctive (and rather clumsy) door mirror sail panel treatment at the base of the A-pillar is virtually identical on both cars. One area where the Espero excelled was aerodynamic efficiency, with a Cd of just 0.29 which would be quite impressive even a decade later.
Daewoo didn’t launch in Europe for another five years and, by 1995, the Nexia and Espero models were already very long in the tooth: the Ascona C had been replaced by the Vectra A in 1988 and the Kadett E by the Astra F in 1991. Recognising this potential competitive disadvantage and the lack of brand awareness, Daewoo decided on an alternative approach to selling their cars in the UK.
No-haggle fixed prices would be very competitive and include a year’s road tax, number plates, and delivery of the new car to your door. Standard equipment would be generous, and the cars would be covered by a three-year 60,000-mile warranty package that included AA membership and regular servicing, for which your Daewoo would be collected from your home or workplace and a courtesy car left in its place. All this was designed to appeal to those who regarded their car as they might a washing machine, a domestic appliance from which they wanted maximum reliability and minimum inconvenience.
Even the demonstrator models were delivered to your door for you to sample for a morning or afternoon without any salesman present so, theoretically, you would never need to visit a Daewoo establishment to buy or own one of the company’s cars.
Motoring journalist John Simister, writing for the UK Independent newspaper, tested the Daewoo Espero in May 1995. The first thing he felt it necessary to explain was the pronunciation of the unfamiliar company’s name: ‘Day-oo’ the ‘w’ being silent. Simister, whilst acknowledging the Espero’s dated underpinnings, was impressed the level of standard equipment in his test car, a top of the range 2.0 litre CDXi. It included ABS, power steering, alloy wheels, a driver’s airbag, air-conditioning, a radio/CD player and even a mobile phone (at a time when these were still considered luxuries for the well-heeled).
Simister thought the car soaked up bumps “…with a sometimes Citroën-esque suppleness, surprising as that may seem, yet manages not to float and wallow to excess.” That was, however, its strongest dynamic quality. Its light, anaesthetised steering, stiff, short-travel accelerator and sloppy gearchange betrayed its geriatric origins. A light, roomy and airy interior was compromised by trim of poor quality and cheap feeling switchgear, reminding the driver that this was a value for money offering.
The price of the test car was £12,195. Simister provided some competitors’ list prices for comparison, including the Citroen Xantia 1.8i LX at £12,850, the Ford Mondeo 1.8LX at £12,700, the Renault Laguna 1.8 RT at £12,355 (without air-conditioning) and the Hyundai Lantra 1.8 CD at £12,999. All these competitors were more modern and better dynamically than the Espero, but less well equipped.
The problem for Daewoo remained the lack of brand awareness and a degree of scepticism on the part of potential buyers. Yes, it was cheap and well equipped, especially considering the full aftersales package on offer, but was it cheap enough? All of the competitors’ list prices could be haggled down to something approaching the Espero’s fixed price.
In the UK Daewoo contracted out the bulk of its servicing to Halfords, the aftermarket motor supplies chain, and it proved difficult to maintain a consistent standard of customer service in these third-party outlets. Once the car was more than three years’ old, its second-hand value plummeted and many were simply driven into the ground and scrapped, sometimes because of patchy availability of spare parts.
The Espero might have done better had it come to the UK sooner, but was on the market for just two years before being succeeded by the Leganza. In a strange coincidence, the Leganza, designed by Giugiaro’s Ital Design, was also originally intended for a very different manufacturer: previously known as the Kensington it was pitched to Jaguar in 1990 as a potential replacement for the XJ. The Leganza took the basic form and proportions of the Kensington and simply shrunk them to the required size.
* This was rather more complicated and costly than it sounds. The new quarter light was considerably larger than the vent panel so the rear door frame and quarter panel had to be re-engineered to accommodate it.