Having been the proud owner of a near-new, sporty and smartly-styled Hyundai i30 N, my family was scratching its collective head earlier this year when I switched over to say ‘Hy’ to the same company’s ‘lowly’ 1999 twin-cam Xcel*.
For some time, though, I had been struggling to see the sense in having invested $36,000 in a used i30 N, only to spend the vast majority of my time pottering about town and at fixed highway speeds in the country, while trying to staunch haemorrhaging driver’s license points. When the speed limit of a section of country road I had been using for 35 years was reduced to 80km/h without me noticing (yes I was caught and fined), I knew it was time to switch.
Armed with the new wisdom of buying transport that met my needs rather than massaging my ego, I started looking for something cheap and economical. With new-car prices having climbed steeply thanks to COVID, I focused my attention on older vehicles that still offered reliability. I thought less-fashionable brands might offer the best opportunity and through sheer luck found the pristine, low-kilometre model that has become my daily driver.
With only 19,000 kilometres on the clock and owned by the proverbial little old lady, this essentially factory condition car would have commanded a hefty price in any other marque. As a two-door automatic, it was not my first choice of vehicle style, but there was little time to quibble about the details of this obvious gem or to even get a mechanical inspection. Managing to get $100 off the asking price, I finally drove away for only $3,500.
Five months later it has been reliable in a rather anonymous way, thanks to fairly bland styling. Behind the wheel, it’s certainly not as confidence-inspiring as my long-gone i30n and not as crisp as my wife’s late-model Yaris. Both the steering and handling are on the vague side, with spongey brakes, but all are completely within the demands of today’s sluggish road conditions. Similarly, while the 1.5-litre twin-cam four-cylinder engine sometimes has a rather agricultural rasp, it again keeps up well with traffic and has a little more of the character that cars of the past were known for.
The tyres are undernourished by contemporary standards, but they also make the super-wide low-profile rubber of a BMW X5 look a bit ridiculous, when the main task of the day is to buy some groceries. With the exotic tyres specified for my former i30 N costing more than three times as much, I know which car I’d feel more comfortable maintaining in the longer term. I do slow down on fast, sweeping bends in the country when it rains, but in practice there are few serious concessions to more modern cars, for which owners have paid many times more.
Inside, it’s all a utilitarian mixture of grey plastics and hard-wearing fabric, from an undistinguished era somewhere between the truly funky retro qualities of the even more distant past and today’s high-tech finishes. Indeed, it’s predictably short of the technology expected today. You need to crank your own windows and dust off those cassettes as there’s not even a CD player, though I’m glad it has air conditioning.
For a tall fella like myself, as soon as I first drove it I noticed that it wasn’t easy to slide into the driver’s seat with my 197-centimetre frame. The thin plastic steering wheel is not adjustable and sits a little lower than I would prefer. I needed to tilt the seat more than usual to fit in comfortably and still have to avoid wearing chunky boots as they interfere with the pedals.
The seats themselves also need to be about a third higher to avoid the headrests looking like they are supporting my shoulder blades. Being a two-door, it’s then a bit of a stretch to reach the seat belts somewhere behind you. The low seating position emphasises how much higher-riding most vehicles are these days. Nevertheless, once the necessary adjustments are made, it’s not too difficult to wriggle into an acceptably comfortable driving position.
As with my i30 N, it’s a bonus that a mower or large plastic tub can be placed in the hatchback boot and you can fold the rear seats down to facilitate this or further extend carrying capacity. Very pleasingly, unlike my i30 N, the Xcel has a full-sized spare wheel, a boon for country driving where space-saver spares may otherwise restrict speeds to an awkward 80km/h. It’s unfortunate that nowadays the unnecessarily large diameter and width of newer wheels usually preclude this.
You may be getting the idea so far that I’m quite pleased with my latest automotive purchase, despite a few quirks. There are, however, maintenance considerations that buyers of older cars need to keep in mind. Just because a vehicle has very low kilometres doesn’t mean it’s the equivalent of a new car, since all fluids and rubber components degrade over time. Accordingly, very early on I replaced the original tyres and changed the drive belts, particularly the crucial timing belt. Recently I have had the Hyundai serviced and it’s going to get new transmission fluid and coolant as well. It’s cheap insurance.
Speaking of which, another issue I’ve encountered with my new acquisition is that insurance companies do little to recognise the higher value of outstanding examples of many older models. This means you may face a written-off valuation of just a couple of thousand dollars and a slightly higher agreed value may not be worth the additional premium. As a result I have taken a risk and decided to stick with third-party insurance only.
Safety could be a final factor among people choosing an older vehicle too, especially concerned parents looking to protect their inexperienced offspring heading out on the roads for the first time. This somewhat depends on your perspective as the Xcel certainly lacks any of the high-tech features taken for granted these days. If your view of active safety includes electronic stability control or even a single airbag, you’ll be out of luck. On the other hand, if you value high levels of driver attentiveness and a driving approach that stays within safe margins, you’ll have few complaints. This car also seems sturdily built and is far from the smallest on the road. The doors close with a surprisingly reassuring ‘thunk’ and there is enough metal to protect you if the worst eventuates.
Overall, the 1999 Hyundai Xcel is a reliable, practical and economical choice for low-cost transport. It offered an impressive five-year/130,000-kilometre warranty back in the day, demonstrating the company was trying very hard. Although you’ll never describe it as sexy, if you can pick one up in excellent condition, you are unlikely to go wrong.
*The name is rendered as ‘Xcel’ by Hyundai but ‘Excel’ everywhere else.