All my life, I have been fascinated by things with wheels, and I was particularly interested in cars. Things accelerated when I was seven. I was sitting, bored, in traffic, with nothing to entertain myself with, so I came up with a game--try to remember the names and logos of all the cars around you. Thanks to this game, I quickly picked up on which cars were rare.
One day when I was nine, when we were on a four-lane road, we caught up to a little red two-door hatchback that wasn't very old, so I was surprised that I didn't recognize it or the badging. I did some research when I got home, and found that it was a Daewoo Lanos. If it was just a regular car brand, why hadn't I seen one in over a year, and why would I scarcely see them from then on? My fascination with Daewoo has never faded.
Daewoo Group was founded in South Korea in 1967 by Kim Woo-Choong using a $5,000 loan. Within 20 years, Daewoo was the second-largest Korean conglomerate, and enjoyed $40 billion in global sales. Regular, rapid expansion into various product markets was enabled by the purchase and turnaround of declining businesses.
Kim entered the car industry in 1978 by purchasing 50% of Saehan Motors, who had sold completely knocked down Nissan and Toyota kits since the sixties; the other half was owned by General Motors. In January 1983, Saehan was renamed as Daewoo Motors, and sold rebadged Opels throughout the eighties.
In 1987, Daewoo's version of the Opel Kadett, called the Daewoo LeMans, started to be sold as the Pontiac LeMans in the US. Unfortunately, sales were lackluster, as the car became known for poor quality. After the failure, Kim was convinced that Daewoo Group could build a better car on their own, and purchased GM's half of Daewoo Motor in 1992 for $200 million.
Kim Woo-Chung believed that debt was the ideal solution to quick growth. In his book, Every Street is Paved with Gold, he wrote that “If we don’t have technology, we can buy it. If we don’t have money, we can borrow and repay it when we make it.” However, later in life, he admitted, “My big mistake was being too ambitious, especially in autos.”
In hopes to achieve global car development, Kim looked to emerging markets and post-communist states where plenty of automotive market share was available. Second, he set his sights on Western Europe and North America, which meant designing several new cars from scratch and building twelve new factories and two technical centers. However, all of the investing meant that Daewoo would eventually reach $80 billion in debt--during a financial crisis. Kim intended to repay his debt using the profits from product success, so a one-year delay on the US launch caused serious issues. Daewoo only had mediocre sales in Korea and Asia, so they were dependent on a strong US entry to remain afloat.
US sales began in September 1998 with a full lineup--the subcompact Lanos in sedan and three-door hatchback forms, the compact Nubira sedan, wagon, and five-door hatchback, and midsize Leganza sedan. Daewoo distinguished themselves with a 3-year/36,000-mile warranty, salespeople not paid on commission, and no-haggle pricing. They focused on cheaper factory-owned dealerships, but only certain states allowed it, so Daewoo eventually stuck with traditional franchised dealers with commissions. They even tried to lease space at Kmart and Walmart stores to sell as many cars as they could as quickly as possible.
Daewoo's most intriguing attempt at advertising was Daewoo Campus Advisors. Essentially, Daewoo hired several thousand college students nationwide, lent them loaner cars, and urged them to inform friends and family about the new brand. They were even asked to hand out flyers and host test-drive events. As an incentive, Campus Advisors were given an all-expenses-paid trip to Seoul, considerable discounts on new Daewoos, and commissions of up to $500 per car sold.
Although none of the cars were completely redesigned, there were updates along the way. The Nubira received a major refresh for 2000, which included new front and rear ends, and the wagon got new tail lights for 2002. The Lanos received new tail lights for 2001 and a special edition for 2001 only. Called the Lanos Sport, it was fully loaded, came exclusively in red, and equipped a unique body kit and wheels (the pictures were taken by the seller, not by me). The Leganza was never facelifted over time.
As Daewoo found customers over the next few years, there was difficulty internally. In early 1998, Kim Woo-Chung requested that GM buy them back, but they declined. In late 1999, the Korean government took over operations of Daewoo Motor as Daewoo Group floundered, and put the automotive division up for sale. GM, Ford, DaimlerChrysler, and Hyundai all showed interest, for Daewoo had an expansive production and sales network, and plenty of growth potential.
GM was eventually chosen as Daewoo Motor's next owner, but while Korean Development Bank, the company handling the sale, wanted debts to be paid, GM wanted to avoid it. After over a year of careful negotiation, GM purchased Daewoo Motor in April 2001 for a good price and evaded hidden debts.
However, GM did not purchase Daewoo's North American dealer network, as it would be pointless to pour money into a brand that competed with Chevrolet. All of the sudden, Daewoo Motor America's 525 dealers were left stranded with thousands of cars to sell without warranties or parts support. Roughly 8,000 jobs would be lost as the dealers gradually closed and Daewoo owners were left on their own.
In total, a little under 170,000 Daewoos were sold, divided almost evenly between each model. Due to rapid depreciation and a lack of parts, Daewoos disappeared quicker than their peers, and are scarce today. Fortunately, many enthusiasts have carefully maintained low-mileage examples, one famous example being a 47-mile 2002 Leganza.
One Daewoo I'm unable to prove having seen is the 1999 Nubira hatchback. The body style, of which I estimate around 200 were sold, was only available for one season in 1998, and the reason why is unknown. Perhaps it was selling significantly worse than the other body styles? I saw one at an airport in Spokane, Washington, in summer of 2018, but was unable to take pictures. I found another in Spokane on the October 2013 Google Maps Street View. Considering the rarity and matching color, I suspect that it's the same car, and it's encouraging that the condition it's in has not changed in five years. I am currently watching AutoTrader for Daewoos for sale, and I'm hoping that it comes up eventually.
Now that GM owned Daewoo, they decided to begin selling American models in Korea and Korean models in America. The Lanos was replaced by the Kalos, which would reach North America as the Chevrolet Aveo. The Nubira was replaced by the Lacetti hatchback and Nubira sedan and wagon; the Lacetti was sold as the Suzuki Reno and the Nubira as the Suzuki Forenza. Finally, the Leganza was replaced by the Magnus, which was sold in the US as the Suzuki Verona.
The Aveo, Reno, and Forenza sold much better than their predecessors, likely thanks to the disguise of established manufacturers, but the Verona flopped. All four were launched in 2004, but while the Reno and Forenza lasted until 2008 and the Aveo until 2011, the Verona only made it to 2006. While they mostly sold well, they were not known for being especially good or reliable. Chevrolet sold 426,845 Aveos, Suzuki sold 182,093 Renos and Forenzas, and just 25,874 Veronas were sold.
Aveo hatchbacks and post-facelift hatchbacks and sedans remain a common sight, but pre-facelift sedans are rather hard to find, and well-kept Aveos are gaining rarity.
Since Suzuki left the US market in 2013, their cars seem to be generally falling into disrepair, and Renos and Forenzas (especially the Renos) are starting to disappear, especially pre-facelift models. The Verona was the very first car I spotted, and I have not seen one since August 2019.
Possibly the most intriguing Daewoo in disguise was the Pontiac G3, a Kalos-based hatchback available from 2004 to 2009 in Canada, where it sold decently. It was only available in the US in 2009, and just 6,237 were sold there.
GM stopped using the Daewoo name everywhere but Korea in 2004, and in 2011, discontinued the name entirely, rebranding GM Daewoo as GM Korea. When the Daewoo name was still in use, several GM models were engineered in Korea. The second-generation Aveo appeared in 2012, sold in the US as the Sonic. It was joined in 2013 by the smaller Spark, originally launched in 2009 as the Daewoo Matiz Creative. Furthermore, the 2006 Daewoo Winstorm was sold as the Chevrolet Captiva, and the 2009 Daewoo Lacetti Premiere was sold as the Chevrolet Cruze. Finally, the 2011 Chevrolet Orlando replaced the Daewoo Tacuma MPV; neither were sold in the US, though the Orlando was available to Canadians.
Do you own or have owned a Daewoo, whether in disguise or not?