Road impressions

Citroën BX – more European

You cannot be indifferent to Citroëns. “Typically French” is most people’s reaction to an infuriating mixture of excellent design, outstanding ride and powerfully servo-ed brakes, lounge comfort — yet marred by heavy steering, an antiquated drum speedometer, non-cancelling indicators and a thoroughly confusing system of lights operation. Yet the latest car, the BX recently introduced to the British market, is more European than previous models from Citroën have been, and the makers are now aware that there is sales resistance to their more avante garde features.

So the UK advertising theme is “Loves Driving, Hates Garages”, drawing attention to the fact that it needs only 101/4 hours’ servicing in 60,000 miles (less than a Ford Sierra or an Austin Maestro). The hydropneumatic suspension is sealed for life, having no shock absorbers to worry about, and has four ground clearance height settings so that you can bring it down low for loading-up heavy objects, or raise it up high for cross-country driving.

At £6,100 the top-of-the-range BX16 TRS that we tested seems to have most of the luxury features that you’d expect of a more expensive model, save for a radio set; four doors, of course, central locking and electrically operated windows, a rear wash/wipe system, height adjustable seats, a fold-up rear seat system to make more luggage space, Michelin’s sporty TRX tyres on alloy rims, and a full systems warning on the fascia.

A new 1,580 cc alloy engine develops 92 bhp, with a belt-driven single overhead camshaft and a crossflovv alloy cylinder head, Weber aspirated. The engine is leaned back at a 30-degree angle (but not as much as the 1,360 cc unit which is 72 degrees from vertical), and drives the front wheels through a five-speed gearbox.

The inclination of the power unit helped the designers to achieve Citroën’s customary low-drag shape, the drag coefficient being 0.34 in the case of the TRS. The durable plastic bonnet falls to the (plastic) bumper bar line, the air intake being underneath; composite polyester-glass fibre, to give it its proper name, is also used for the roof panel and the rear hatchback, as well as lining the wheel arches, all assisting in malting the BX’s bodyshell 80 lb lighter than that of the smaller GSA model. The kerb weight of the TRS is 950 kg, 2,094 lb.

You can almost tell the nationality of a car by its interior. The Germans like hard seating, the French prefer soft seating, the British… well, we prefer walnut trim, so long as you don’t actually have to sit on it. The Citroën’s seats are soft but superbly comfortable and supportive, the sort you’d like to take into your home if you could. Ahead, there is a single-spoke steering wheel but no column mounted levers, every function being controlled by slide and rocker switches on both sides of the binnacle.

In time, one could get accustomed to the non-returning indicators, though quite why we should be expected to is not clear. In time, maybe, we would get used to the complicated lighting system although after even a week of use we still made mistakes, selecting main beam when we wanted dipped, and going to sidelights when we wanted main beam; there must be a better way of doing it!

The automatic choke did not function particularly well on our test car, causing a good deal of hesitancy in the first mile, and we had to check the handbook to confirm that the TRS does not have a choke knob. When warmed up the aluminium power unit is eager to perform, giving a very fair level of performance to a family car that doesn’t have any sporting pretensions: 0-60 mph in 11.0 sec, and a top speed of 109 mph (claimed) are well up in the class, as is the overall fuel consumption of 29.5 mpg. The gear linkage is rather woolly, and selecting reverse is pot luck.

The brakes are strongly servo-ed, but the effort is linear and it does not take long to re-learn the braking technique. Disc brakes are fitted front and rear, matching the advanced specification, and remembering Citroën’s reputation for lightness of controls it was most surprising to find that the non-power rack and pinion steering system is really heavy, especially at parking speed. Coupled with marked understeer, it made the BX seem like hard work in town, or on slow country roads, where we had expected it to be a pleasure to drive.

In time, no doubt, Citroën will offer a 2-litre engine, power steering and an automatic transmission option which would give the model more perspective. It certainly feels as though it could cope with a more powerful, or higher-torque power unit, though we have to admit to being disappointed with the general noise levels. Wind noise is virtually non-existent, which is as we expected, but mechanical hum and road noise do rise in proportion to the speed (the TRX tyres are particularly noisy), so it’s not one of those cars which is as quiet at 100 mph as it is at 80. In these respects it could do with more insulation, and while we are carping the digital clock sometimes moved on in two-minute increments, gaining an hour in four days, and the rear window wiper packed up on the second day.

The drum-type speedometer looks like another relic from the fifties, and as if to compensate the TRS has an LED incremental rev-counter (like that on the MG Metro, but blue), which is just as hateful. If they are serious about having European appeal, Citroën should perhaps consider dumping the whole binnacle into the Bay of Biscay and adopting a new one from a nice modern car, like the Lancia Prisma.

Citroën’s newcomer could, indeed, break down a certain degree of public resistance in Britain, and we imagine that people already converted to the Citroën way of doing things will appreciate it straight away. The appealing looks, the excellent ride and roadholding, the sheer comfort of the BX, and its high level of equipment are all in its favour. Sadly, all the things we liked about it (and there are many good features) are overlaid by our dislike of the fascia, and its heavy, understeering characteristics. M.L.C.

Vauxhall Astra GTE

One of the most pleasing developments in the British motor market over the past five years has been Vauxhall’s increasing market share, from around 9% to over 14% at the present time. The Luton company’s renewed fortunes are due to the acceptance of the Cavalier, the Astra and the Nova in the three so we were keen to test the Astra GTE which is going to do a lot for Vauxhall’s image in the sporting market, being a worthy addition to the high performance saloon niche opened by the VW Golf GTi and the Ford Escort XR3i.

Would the GTE be a disappointment? Would it be flabby, breathless and softly suspended, as we remembered previous Vauxhalls with sporting pretensions to be? No, no and no! The influence of Opel, and of rally development, have had a profound effect on the GTE (closely related to the Opel Kadett GTE, of course), and after covering 800 miles in the Astra in the space of a week we decided that we liked it very much indeed. And, unlike the Golf and the XR3i, the Vauxhall is built in Britain, at Ellesmere Port.

Careful development has virtually eliminated the more unwelcome aspects of powerful front-drive concepts, such as poor traction under acceleration and tug on the steering wheel when you are gunning round a slow corner. In these respects the GTE goes to the top of the class, almost completely disguising its front-drive layout despite having a healthy fuel-injected 115 bhp under the bonnet in a chassis weighing 2,160 pounds at the kerb.

Vauxhall have taken care not to compete head-on with the GTi and the XR3i, by endowing the GTE with exceptionally high gearing. At first we thought the GTE to be rather sluggish, contrasting with the lively, accelerative counterparts from Ford and Volkswagen, but realised soon enough that the throttle needs firm pressure to the floor to get the best results, and that the speedometer is winding up very quickly — certainly faster than we realised, indicating in a positive way that the Vauxhall is extremely refined.

The Astra scores over its rivals in having a longer wheelbase (99.2 inches, against 94.2 for the Escort and 94.5 for the “old” Golf), more interior space, and a little more power too, 115 bhp coming from the 1.8-litre engine compared with 112 bhp from the Golf’s injection unit, and 105 bhp from the Escort’s 1.6-litre engine. The power advantage is offset by the Vauxhall’s greater kerb weight, being a full 230 pounds heavier than the Golf and 130 pounds heavier than the Escort, yet it has the highest top speed at 116 mph, three more than its rivals achieve. By this reckoning the Astra GTE has stolen a march on the Golf 2 GTi, which will be more on a par as regards size and weight when it reaches the British market in 1984.

Black interiors are de rigueur these days for sporty cars, which may not please everyone, and we would opt for a transparent removable sunroof which was not fitted on the test car (a £134.55 option) to relieve the gloom. The Astra does offer particularly good value for money, the standard price being £6,738 which includes the striking body-colour alloy wheels, 5-speed manual transmission, tinted windows, and a mono radio (for the £147 that it costs as an option for less expensive Astras, we’d have expected full stereo!). It slots in neatly therefore, between the XR3i at £6,520 and the GTi at £7,156, though the Opel Manta GT/E Coupe at £6,794 might prove to be a joker in the pack. Notable omissions from the Vauxhall’s options list are central locking and electrically operated windows, both of which might be selected by a typical customer.

The Opel / Vauxhall four-cylinder engine is mounted transversely, and features Bosch LE-Jetronic fuel injection which completely cuts off the fuel supply on the over-run. An alloy crossflow cylinder head with a belt driven single overhead camshaft, hydraulic tappets, and breakerless ignition make this a low-maintenance unit, devoid of lumpiness or overtly sporting characteristics. With a compression ratio of 9.5:1, maximum power (115 bhp) is produced at 5,800 rpm, the maximum torque of 111 lb/ft being seen at 4,800 rpm though the engine feels as though it has high torque right through the range.

Both fourth and fifth gears are overdrive, with 0.89:1 and 0.71:1 ratios respectively, geared at 18.76 and 23.51 mph per 1,000 rpm. The gearchange is very good indeed, but it’s the three lower ratios that are in constant demand on a hard-driven cross country journey with maxima of 30, 55 and 84 mph. Using all the potential the Astra GTE will reach 60 mph in a level of 9.0 seconds — inevitably a second or so slower than the rivals — and then goes very quiet in fourth and fifth gears; both take the car to its top speed, fourth realising 116 mph at 6,200 rpm and top, the same speed at 4.900 rpm.

Just before the Motorfair in October Vauxhall started fitting gas-filled dampers at the front to match those at the rear, and these were installed on our brand-new test car. Opel: Vauxhall also have their own rear suspension design employing what they call “a modern compound crank”, using variable diameter steel windings in a barrel shape for the springs. Good ride characteristics, compactness and lower noise transmission are claimed for the design, and we could confirm that the GTE has a very refined ride, quiet and well-damped without being in the least “soggy”. Firestone S600 60-series tyres are fitted, making a happy combination.

With rack and pinion steering (just a touch low geared, but pleasantly light in contrast to the Citroen BX which we had just returned), and a powerful brake system employing ventilated discs at the front in conjunction with drums at the rear, the Vauxhall Astra GTE felt a really taut driver’s machine, sporting on twisty roads and utterly relaxing on motorways. Our three fuel consumption figures were well-matched at between 32.05 and 32.30 mpg, incidentally, and could be bettered with ease.

A lower fourth gear, attire nearly direct, would enhance the performance of the Astra, the box feeling wide-ratio all the way through. Our memory though will be of a surprisingly good Vauxhall product, one we could easily live with, having a dual personality to suit the terrain. Low noise levels and a high level of refinement make it a worthy rival to its longer established class-mates. — M. L .C.