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Daewoo: Three Strikes, You’re Out

Auto writers often sit back at the hospitality suite after a day of driving Ferraris in Italy, sip brandy and reminisce about how bad their first assignments were. In this game of one-downsmanship, I am sure that I can take the cake. My first stateside assignment involved test-driving Daewoos — not one model, mind you, but all three.

Let us set the scene. Fellow South Korean automakers Hyundai and Kia had established themselves as solid cheap-car purveyors in the United States. Daewoo had a close partnership with General Motors — they actually built the ill-fated Pontiac LeMans of the mid-1980s — and what aspiring automaker wouldn’t want to crack the lucrative U.S. market? Daewoo came to this country in 1997 with a ready-made lineup of three vehicles: the Lanos, the Nubira and the LeganzaSee the Daewoo models for sale near you

The cars were an oddball collection of bits from GM’s European and Australian parts bin — I recognized many of the parts from the Vauxhalls I drove while serving an internship at Britain’s What Car? magazine in the early 1990s. Daewoo boasted about the cars’ styling, which they outsourced to famous firm Italdesign. But from the look of the cars, one might surmise that Daewoo negotiated a tremendous discount with the firm, and as a result, the design work was done by a team consisting of the interns, the janitorial staff, a couple of plumbers and a fellow who was looking for his accountant’s office and wandered into the wrong building by mistake.

The smallest member of the Daewoo trio was the subcompact Lanos, which wasn’t too terrible aside from its dismal crash-test scores and the pungent new-car smell that seemed to afflict all Korean cars of the era. GM parts-bin bit I recognized: the manual-transmission shifter, which felt like its pivot point was about 18 inches below the pavement.

Next up was the compact Nubira, which arguably had the silliest of three very silly names. The Nubira held the most promise: It was offered as a roomy sedan, a strange-looking hatchback and — my favorite — a compact wagon that looked frumpy and carried lots of stuff, two attributes that every wagon ought to have. GM parts-bin bit I recognized: the steering column, along with the steering mechanism itself, which felt as if the rack was linked to the steering knuckles by rubber bands.

Topping the line was the Leganza, Daewoo’s effort at a midsize luxury car, a humorous idea in and of itself. The name was supposed to be a portmanteau of the Italian words “elegante” (strength) and “forza” (power), though it sounded to me like the name of an adult flick aimed and people with a limb fetish. The Leganza suffered from terrible torque steer — a pretty neat trick considering how little power the engine actually produced — and the fakest fake wood ever seen by human eyes. GM parts-bin bit I recognized: none, but I understand the engine was from Holden, GM’s Australian division.

The Daewoos were passable cars when new, but build quality was terrible, and resale values were on par with used Kleenex. Daewoo hung in for a few years, finally retreating from the U.S. market in 2002. You can still find used Daewoos on Autotrader, though why anyone would want to is beyond me. (If you can come up with a good reason, Doug DeMuro will take you to lunch.)

Unfortunately for American drivers, the end of Daewoo in the U.S. was not the end of Daewoo’s cars in the U.S. As part of their punishment — er, sorry, I mean partnership — with General Motors, Suzuki would bring the Nubira back to the States as the Forenza (sedan and wagon) and the Reno (hatchback — and if you want a blast from the past, here’s my review). Across the pond, the Forenza was sold as the Chevrolet Lacetti, which had a starring role as Top Gear UK’s Reasonably Priced Car.

The Leganza also returned as the Verona, named for Verona, Italy — though one colleague likened it to Verona, New Jersey. It was notable for a couple things: 1) Suzuki stuffed an inline 6-cylinder between the wheels, sideways, and 2) they managed to make a bad car downright terrible. Said colleague of the New Jersey quip compared it to his girlfriend’s 130,000-mile Nissan. The Nissan won.

Eventually, Daewoo would be assimilated into the Borg to become GM Korea, where they would do genuinely great things (and a few terrible ones, like the Chevrolet Aveo). GM Korea is responsible for the General’s smallest cars, including the Chevy Spark and Sonic, and I understand they still do a good deal of the engineering work on several GM vehicles. They’ve obviously learned a lot from the Daewoo days.

Clearly, my start in the business was far less auspicious than most of my colleages. All I need now is for Ferrari to invite me to a press launch in Italy. Find a Daewoo for sale

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  1. ” You can still find used Daewoos on Autotrader, though why anyone would want to is beyond me. (If you can come up with a good reason, Doug DeMuro will take you to lunch.)”

    As with my very first car in the US, a 1986 Yugo, a car I paid the grand sum of $100 for in 1991, brought from a guy selling it on the side of Boulder HYW here in Las Vegas, just so I could join a group of guys going 4 wheeling in the desert flats outside of Boulder City after a thunder storm. They (driving their big Broncos etc) thought I was an idiot for buying a small POS front wheel drive car, completely missing the point that it was very light weight so wouldn’t sink into the wet sand and more importantly, it was a $100 1986 Yugo, I didn’t care what happened to it.

    After 3-4 hours of driving around in the desert (open area not the closed off “don’t drive on here” areas) I simply drove it back to where I had bought it, hung a sign on it that said “Free to a good home” and left.  $100 for a lot of fun, never even bothering to register it.

    So yes Doug, find the cheapest one in your area, buy it and find something amazingly stupid/fun to do with it.

  2. I actually saw a Nubria wagon today. It was being driven by a young guy wearing a puffy knit hat. It made me wonder if driving a Daewoo is now a hipster thing?

    • Yes, driving cars that nobody else is likely to have just to be “ironic” in an Alanis Morisette way is a hipster thing. Whether the car is uncommon because its rare or uncommon because its terrible and nobody bothered to keep one running is irrelevant. There are hipsters driving 3000GT VR4s, Saab 900s, one of the various pre-1991 US market exit French cars that aren’t Citroëns, and vintage diesel Mercedes. There are also hipsters driving Daewoos, Daihatsus, Geos, and Yugos. They don’t care what car it is or whether its any good as long as you don’t have one.

  3. There’s an old man along the road from me who drives a mint condition Daewoo Espero, which was the precursor to the Leganza and looked like a poor man’s Citroen Xantia..

  4. The article fails to mention one other Daewoo quirk in the US – they had college students sell the cars. Not like “let’s hire college students to work at our dealerships” but more like “let’s pay college students $300 to sell this garbage to their friends and family.” Oddly, it failed for many, many reasons.

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