Hope vs Experience

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.

(c) autoevolution

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for another five years and, by 1995, the Nexia and Espero models were already very long in the tooth: the Ascona C had been replaced by the Vectra A in 1988 and the Kadett E by the Astra F in 1991.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.

(c) autoevolution

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).

(c) autoevolution

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.

(c) autoevolution

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.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

29 thoughts on “Hope vs Experience”

  1. Nice choice for a review. It was quite an elegant looking thing and the strong association with the Xantia evident from the outset, helped by your photos above

  2. “That’ll be the Daewoo…” went the tagline and for a brief moment in time they seemed to be everywhere due to those cheaper prices and the non-haggling approach. A neighbour had an Nexia I think but distinctly remember him telling me how easy it was to buy and what wonderful kit the car came equipped with. He didn’t keep it long, maybe eighteen months as I seem to remember he had a lot of difficulties with it and/or Halfords.
    As for the Espero, I never realised the Citroën connection until now. And as for last seeing one…

  3. Regarding the substantial reworking of the Kadett E five-door, here are a couple of comparative photos:

    It’s a moot point as to whether it improves the original or not. On the plus side, there’s more glass, the fuel filler is now concealed under a flap and the little filler piece under the Kadett’s tail light is eliminated. On the minus side, the rear door opening at head level is actually smaller.

    It’s surprising that Daewoo didn’t eliminate (or at least reduce in size) the triangular vent on the three-door to maintain consistency.

    That would have been easier and would usefully have elongated its profile, giving it more of a coupé appearance.

    1. My understanding of the 5 door at the time was that it repurposed the doors and possibly the quarter from the frumpy old Belmont. New side pressings obviously were needed but not doors.

  4. Speaking of imagined Kadett E or Nexia coupés, somebody beat me to it on Photoshop with this little beauty:

    Not quite a Calibra, but not bad!

    Alternatively, maintaining the three-door’s tail and hatch:

    1. …which is a lot nicer than if you just use the 2-door Astra doors and plastic quarter on a Belmont 🙂

    2. Yikes! That upswept DLO line does not work at all with the boot. Another indignity heaped on poor old Pontiac by GM.

    3. Actually, on second thoughts it’s not the upswept DLO that’s the issue as much as the way the C-pillar widens towards the top because the rear screen is more upright than on the hatch. The vent looks too large in relation to the size of the rear side window. With a bit more finessing, it could have looked like the sweet Photoshop coupé above.

  5. Apart from the rather cheap looking reflective strip between the taillights, the Espero
    is really hard to fault from a styling point of view.

    If we’re being picky, the junction of the hood’s leading edge and headlights/wings
    is also a bit clumsy (in lighter body colours).

    As for the sail panel solution, I find it a weird one, both on the Xantia and the Espero,
    as it visually disconnects the A-pillar from the Vorderwagen, making the car
    appear structurally weaker (as a visual impression).

    Espero was especially successful in the adaptation of the Bertone’s design onto
    the platform they had to use – it’s a textbook example on how to successfully
    disguise overly long overhangs, and turning their length into
    a stylistic advantage.

    1. Hi Alex. A good analysis, thank you. I would add just one other demerit, the oddly thick rail separating the fixed light in the rear door from the opening window. Its position also makes the opening part look rather narrow:

      If they could have done without the fixed light completely, even at the expense of the window not opening fully (as has been done on a number of cars with a ‘six-light’ DLO) then the DLO would have looked very smooth. As it is, it’s a bit fussy.

  6. Daewoo’s German market launch was the most memorable of its kind during my childhood. I vividly remember every other advertisement throughout one summer featuring nothing but a woman’s mouth and a mysterious term, written in phonetics. A while later, tv spots, also featuring that mouth and Jennifer Rush singing ‘Daewoo und Du’, appeared, finally unravelling the mystery that had previously been created. I certainly was intrigued and hence considered Daewoo my favourite of the then ‘new’ Korean brands, if only for that advertising campaign and the fact that I found the Nexia a rather decent facelift of the old Kadett.

    Speaking of which: I also remember a comparison test in one of the major German car magazines, pitting the Nexia against the Opel Astra F. The Opel won by a hairbreadth, and the Daewoo was said to be the better handling car of the two – which was attributed to Porsche’s role in updating that old Kadett chassis.

  7. It seems to me that the Espero design was the bolder proposal that Citroen rejected in favour of what we call the Xantia. The glazed C-pillar would have been a good visual link to the XM (if Citroen wanted a visual link to their sinking flagship, which they didn´t). I presume Bertone never got another invitation from Citroen for a design proposal after this happened. The Espero appeared in 1990 and the Xantia appeared in 1992. The timing is curious- I´d guess that Citroen approved the Xantia design before the Espero appeared on the market. Wikipedia says that the design dates from 1989 (somehow linked the XM) but that is too late an approval for it to be launched in 1990. I´d say it was approved in 1987, at the latest.

    Mid 1987 Espero theme approved — 1987 BX still on sale
    Prototyping and testing —- BX still on sale
    1989 Finalised production ….. Xantia theme approved
    1990 Espero launched —- 1990 Xantia prototyping and testing.
    1992 Espero on sale for 24 months —- 1992 Xantia launched in December

    The Citroen people were committed to the Xantia by the time they saw the Espero. I guess nobody at Bertone said a thing. There must have been a hell of meeting at some point.

    1. Hi Richard, the timing is indeed curious. Either Citröen was very slow in bringing the Xantia to market, or Daewoo was very quick with the Espero. Perhaps it helped that the latter was simply a rebody of an existing platform and mechanical package? Either way, Citröen cannot have been best pleased to see significant design elements of its new model scooped by an upstart like Daewoo. As well as the sail panel and A-pillar, the waistline crease and wheel arch profiles are all identical on both cars. Even the blocky black exterior door handles and wide, flat side rubbing strips are similar.

    2. A very interesting theory, Richard!

      There must indeed be a reason why Bertone and Citroen severed ties in seemingly irrevocable fashion. For not only was the Xantia the last production Citroen designed at Caprie, but the Zabrus from ’87 also was the final concept car created in the French brand’s name.

      One possible reason might be that PSA wanted to strengthen their in-house design – but that’s unlikely, as Peugeot’s Pininfarina ties only became loose by the end of the ’90s, suggesting that the modus operandi itself wasn’t the issue at the time. Something Bertone-specific must be at the root of this.

      Another theory concerns Marc Deschamps’ departure from Bertone in ’90. It’s not completely unusual for OEMs to become more attached to top personnel than their employer (see Renault & Gandini for reference), but Deschamps didn’t create any meaningful work on behalf of Citroen at his next employer, Heuliez. So, this would again appear an unlikely reason.

      The fact that there were no more Citroen concept cars by Bertone after the Zabrus is quite meaningful in this context. The carrozzieri never chose the marques in whose name they created a show car randomly. Only very rarely would an OEM without any previous business relations be chosen. Typically, show cars were aimed at piquing existing customers’ interest – also in less obvious a fashion, as in the case of Bertone’s BMW-based Birusa & Pickster designs (Bertone was readying the BMW C1 scooter for series production at the time). For the final decade or so of Bertone’s existence in its original form, most concept cars were GM-branded. A consequence not just of the long-lasting contract manufacturing relations, but also other business, such as Bertone building some of GM’s in-house designed show cars during the early 2000s.

      To make a long story short, Richard’s take is by far the most convincing explanation for the end of Citroen’s & Bertone’s business I can think of.

    3. Maybe there is a simpler explanation for the divorce of Citroen and Bertone. Bertone designed Citroens were derided for either being ugly (XM) or bland (Xantia). Ugly (Xsara Picassso) and bland (ZX, Saxo) Citroen could do without external assistance.

    4. The XM got quite good notices for its appearance as far as I recall (it polarised a bit and perhaps that´s not a bad start point); the Xantia was a strong seller as were the Picasso and ZX. In a way Bertone´s work for Citroen was the answer to the briefs provided.

  8. Daniel, thank you. Your point on the fixed light on the rear door is relevant, it’s just that the perspective of three-quarter views
    makes it look rather questionnable.

    In plain side view, the proportions of the (numerous) side windows’ upper edges are not all that bad. It is still a ‘corporate demand’ solution, of course, so Bertone solved it the only way technically possible without altering the entire cabin height C/D-pillar geometry.

    If someone photoshopped an Espero without those three ‘issues’
    (dubiously angled fixed rear door light, reflective strip between taillights and the ‘hangover approved’ looking hood/front-end/wings junction), it would be an exemplary design,
    with a rarely well-judged visual/spatial composition
    (size/platform/basic proportions).

    1. Hi Alex. Espero modified as suggested:

      I’ve also altered the strange mirror sail panel. What do you think?

    2. Hi Richard. Funnily enough, the ‘right’ solutions for the bonnet and rear door were obvious and straightford, but the sail panel was tricky.

      I first made it into a simple right-angled triangle, but that left a weak looking narrow area of metal on the door immediately in front of the lower point of the sail panel . I then chopped off the point of the triangle with a vertical line, before rounding it off to expose more of the door window frame/ A-pillar, to make it look stronger. The final solution is a compromise, but not a bad one.

      It’s interesting to me how close Daewoo/Bertone came to a really handsome and distinctive design, only for a few details to let it down.

    3. Daniel that looks rather like Xantia-meets-Scorpio with your neatly made changes. It has made it into a very tidy design I think.

  9. Daniel, that is outstanding, thank you so much.
    A really nice executed PS mod.

    Goes to show that what I initially visualised is probably
    not far off the mark, as this looks so tidy it’s really hard
    to find a fault.

    Could it be that someone deliberately ‘diluted’ the design that,
    was sold to the Koreans, so as to not make an ever bigger
    issue vis-a-vis the expected PSA reaction?

  10. Hi Alex, and you’re welcome. It was actually very satisfying to do, given the end result. You might well be right about Bertone holding back a bit on Daewoo, given that PSA would have been regarded as a much more important client than what was, to all intents and purposes, virtually a start-up auto company, notwithstanding the GM connection. That said, surely someone at Daewoo would have seen the potential to improve Bertone’s proposal? (If I can do it, then it’s not rocket science!)

    I’m also surprised that the contract between PSA and Bertone wouldn’t have stipulated that PSA would own the rights to the similar alternative proposals if it proceeded with one of Bertone’s designs, to prevent this sort of thing happening. (The Italdesign Kensington was, I believe, an unsolicited proposal, so was fair game to be sold elsewhere when Jaguar showed no interest in it.)

    I can think of a couple of other examples where design houses sailed close to the wind in selling very similar designs to competing manufacturers. The Peugeot 404 and Austin Cambridge/Morris Oxford is one, Peugeot getting the better resolved of two similar designs from Pininfarina, I think. The Peugeot 605 and Alfa 164 is another, although it’s a moot point as to which is the better design. I’m sure there are other examples out there and DTW’s commentariat will provide them!

    1. Regarding the problem of a lack of brand awareness, a unique solution that Daewoo came up with was to give away a 1000 ( if I recall correctly….) Nexia models away for free for a year in certain areas of the UK.
      This added to the impression of popularity in the months after the brand launch.

  11. I know that I’m late to the party since this article was made in 2020, but… More interesting than the similarity between Esperos and Xantias is the misconception that the Espero was based on the GM J platform. As stated by korean “Car” magazine at the Espero’s launch in September 1990, the Espero took the underpinnings of the Daewoo LeMans (Opel Kadett E), but with a enlogated wheelbase. The front suspension, for example, is exactly the same between the Espero and the Kadett E/Astra/Nexia, but very different from what was under a Cavalier/Ascona C body. It would be very expensive for a startup company like Daewoo to develop their first unique model with a basis that they had no previous contact.

    1. Good morning Victor. That’s interesting about the platform, thank you. I’ll check my (hard-copy) sources when I return to the UK and amend the piece as appropriate.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: