THE KOREANS have landed with a winner. It's the 1986 Excel GL, a superb subcompact from Hyundai Motor Co. This little car is no wimp. It is a pugnacious, 1.5-liter, 4-cylinder rascal that is bound to give Japanese and U.S. automakers fits.

The Excel GL is a quality act. It's economy with class and it's a direct hit on Japan's small- car fleet, which is why a number of Japanese auto execs are nervous.

The Excel GL could sink the Japanese in the so-called "lowest end" of the U.S. small-car market -- occupied by new cars priced at $7,000 and under.

Outstanding concern: Politics, believe it or not. Some U.S. auto industry analysts are concerned that political unrest in South Korea could develop into something nasty, which in turn could interfere with production of the car and its replacement parts. That could leave U.S. Hyundai dealers and their customers in the lurch, some analysts say.

Hyundai officials dismiss the dismal speculation. They say that the only battles South Korea wants to fight are in the marketplace, and that the Excel GL is one of their strongest weapons in that arena.

Good conduct medal: Kudos to Hyundai for its quick action in voluntarily recalling 4,000 Excels to check for missing cotter pins in brake-linkage assemblies. No pin, no assembly. No assembly, no brakes.

This was potentially embarrassing for Hyundai officials, especially on the eve of the car's debut. But after finding pins missing from three Excels on the dock in Los Angeles, they showed uncommon corporate valor in calling back all of the cars for possible repairs.

(The test model's brakes worked perfectly in dry and wet-road stops from 40 mph. No swerves. No skids.)

Outstanding praise: Overall excellent value for the money. The base-coat/clear-coat paint job is tops. Construction integrity, how the car's body is put together, is among the best in the class. The interior is pleasing and comfortable.

This car is well done.

Ride, acceleration, handling: Excellent ride. Good acceleration. The Excel GL hits top legal highway speeds with no sweat. But trying to get anything above 65 mph is asking for too much -- and for a ticket. Handling takes honors. What a stable little car in quick turns!

Head-turning-quotient: Homely, but cuddly.

Sound system: AM/FM stereo radio and cassette by Panasonic. The bass could use some work. But overall tonal quality and radio- signal retention are pretty decent.

Mileage: Hey, hey! How 'bout 33 to the gallon, combined city-highway, running driver- only with two front windows down and lots of air drag? The test model was equipped with a fuel-saving, five-speed manual gearbox; and it came without air conditioner.

Price as tested: $6,545, repeat, $6,545, including destination charge, four Goodyear Corsa radial tires and a full-size spare of the same make; two, wide remote-control side mirrors, deep velour seats, remote-control trunk release and fuel-door release. The only option on the test model was the Panasonic radio, $390.