Top Car ’85
WE have reached the time of year when television channels churn out endless programmes in which stars present Awards to other stars and when there are tuxedos and tears and wonderfully moving speeches of thanks. Not to be left out of things, various organisations vote for a “Top Car” from the year’s new models. One such body organising an award asked its members, of which I am one, to nominate the three best models, in order of preference, from a shortlist of 10, on 18 different points: styling, comfort, value for money, performance, brakes etc.
The shortlist of ten cars did not prevent voters from nominating for other eligible cars, but at Silverstone in late October examples of the selected ten were available to drive on a seventeen mile “circuit” of public roads, thus giving everyone who turned up a chance to reacquaint himself with cars already driven or to try others which had not previously been sampled. It was a fascinating exercise for it was a day of solid driving, note taking and, at the end, puzzling which car really did have the best brakes or ventilation.
The 10 models chosen for the day were: Austin / MG Montego; Honda Civic: Hyundai Stellar; Mitsubishi Hatchback Turbo; Peugeot 205 GTi; Renault 25; Rover 213: Toyota Carina; Vauxhall Astra; Volkswagen Golf. In order to compare like with like, I drove only the car at the top of each range and then only with a manual gearbox. I’m not sure how useful these awards are but it was extremely interesting to take part in the judging, though the winner will not be announced until after this issue of MOTOR SPORT has gone to press.
First I exclude from all consideration the Rover 213 and the Hyundai Stellar. I have yet to drive the Rover and it may be the best thing since sliced bread but if credit and kudos are to be given to a company for producing an outstanding car, then that credit must go to Honda for designing it, not to ARG for sticking a Rover badge on it. In any case, having spoken to many who have driven it, I suspect it would not have appeared on my voting sheet in any category. I should just add that I did not pass up the opportunity of driving it, it was simply that the day finished before I completed the full list. The Stellar is a different matter, it is simply not a very good car. We all know the story of the Stellar. Hyundai made the Ford Cortina under licence in Korea and when offered the Sierra to build, they said “no thank you” and set about building a new car in the spirit of the Cortina. hal Design styled a handsome body, she engine and gearbox come from Mitsubishi but are built under licence in Korea, and no car matches it for equipment at the price. The GEL model I drove had alloy wheels, tilting seats, central door locking, electrically operated windows, headlamp washers and a stereo radio / cassette unit with four speakers and all for less than 0,500. That seems remarkable value for money and I felt sure that I would have to nominate it best value
— until I drove it. The 72 bhp of the 1.6-litre engine seemed completely inadequate for the size of the car
— what it feels like with five adults and their luggage does not bear thinking about. “But,” you say, “it’s cheap.” I reply, “It is being sold on the basis that it is a replacement for the Cortina, the 1.6 Cortina my wife owned was a vivacious performer for its size. The Stellar’s engine does not stand comparison to the Cortina’s. It is cheap — and nasty.”
Driving the car meant using the gear lever a lot, which was unfortunate for it delivered a vibro-massage to the hand at all speeds. The steering was heavy and dead, and even moderate braking caused the wheel to dance in one’s hand (heavy braking was extremely dramatic, the car turning violently to the right). The road holding was fair but the ride was stolid and this coupled with extremely uncomfortable seats, tilt they may but they are hard and the squab is too short, do not make it a “rep’s car” as the Cortina was. It certainly needs its four radio speakers for at 70 mph, the combination of wind and road noise is uncomfortable, drowning out the radio.
Other writers have written well of the Stellar and it is possible I had a rogue car. But this was a car presented by the importers to be judged in a Top Car competition. I would expect the importers to make sure that only good examples were offered. It is so inadequate in important areas that it does not represent value for money at the price. Your local Ford dealer could probably undercut the GSL for a 1.6 Sierra — the seats won’t tilt but it will be a great deal more comfortable.
The people at Hyundai should stop trying to produce a Cortina and take a look at the Toyota Carina. In many ways this is a similar car, a 1.6-litre engine, not dissimilar looks, basis feels like an integrated package. It has light, precise steering (which is power assisted), good brakes, low wind noise, pleasant ride and confident handling. It has no pretensions at being anything but an adequate saloon for the average driver and I marked it third in value, steering and noise level while regretting there was no one truly outstanding feature, for is the sort of design which one can respect. The new Renault 25 is shortly to be the subject of a full road test. The shape is already familiar if only because it appears on every third billboard. Inside there is a sculptured dashboard which looks like a comic book idea of a spaceship and this seems to be designed around the radio. There are three separate sets of radio
controls, including one on the steering column, which says something for Renault’s perception of customer requirements. The cloth interior was very light in colour and I wondered how it would look after a year of family motoring. The ride is soft, in the French manner, too soft for the performance version I drove. The travel of the gearbox is long and when engaging second and fourth I found my elbow jarring against the arm rests. It’s a comfortable car but does not feel “of a piece”. Apart from its strange dashboard it doesn’t present a personality. Still, I marked it top on noise level and finish, second on comfort and third on styling and efficiency.
I’ve enjoyed my drives in the MG Montego Estate. I very nearly marked it top for ergonomics for its analogue instrumentation is excellent, but then I remembered the dreadful digital layout and thought better of it. While customers are preferring a dash one can read under all conditions, ARG persist in trying to promote its digital dash on the MG Montego, so that’s what the press tend to get. At least the company offers an alternative, the splendid Vauxhall Astra GTE is still sold only with a digital layout. It’s vastly superior to the Montego’s but I’d like a choice and on a serious car I want to see needles and dials. In exactly the same way, I wear an analogue wristwatch, but it is also a quartz watch.
The Montego, particularly in the estate version, is a good car which! marked second on ride (behind the Golf GTi) and second on value (behind the Peugeot 205 GTi). Like the Toyota Carina, it is decent without being outstanding. It’s a car you could happily live with and regret it passing, but you won’t feel excitement when you think of it.
The Mitsubishi Hatchback Turbo costs 0,749 and so is in the same market area as the Lancia Delta HF Turbo, the Golf GTi and the Fiat Abarth Strada. I could not recommend it overall above any of those cars but it figured four times in my marking. The brakes are extremely good, even if they lack feel; the engine is a joy, there is no discernible turbo lag and it feels as though it’s right behind you all the way; it has good luggage space and low noise level. At the price, however, and bearing in mind that it is a sporting car, it lacks the refinement of the Golf, the beta of the Abarth Strada, and the overall packaging of the Lancia Delta Turbo. It lacks the overall co-ordination, the completeness, which its three direct rivals all possess. One strange thing, the turbo specifications are printed on the boss of the already ugly steering wheel. Why? Light reading in traffic jams? Apparently, the GTi model has more than halved its share of total Golf production since the Mk 2 series was introduced. It’s not hard to see why, Giugiaro styled the first Golf and a committee styled the second. The car remains a tremendous package but the GTi version suddenly lacks the style which
the first Golf had. A facelift is apparently being rushed through for the GTi. A greater priority than a sharper look, however, is a continuous or intermittent rear window wiper. In wet conditions the new car’s tailgate window becomes opaque even quicker than does the Mk 1. It’s annoying to constantly operate the rear wiper especially as, in wet weather, there are more important things to think about.
The Golf is still a lot of fun and it is a very sound package but it no longer rules the roost. I marked it top for ergonomics and top for ride, but the only other time it appeared in my scoring was third in comfort.
The Honda CRX Coupe was a car of which I’ve heard many good reports and most of them were confirmed by driving it. It’s essentially a two-seater but with an optional seat for two midgets (Japanese midgets, 1 think, your Brit midgets come bigger). It scores highly in the performance areas with good handling and energetic acceleration (though one does need to use the gears for the engine is a little short on torque, but that it no hardship for the five-speed gearbox is first class). The ride is hard, however, and while this used to be thought to be inescapable from good roadholding, a fair number of cars have shown this need not be the case. The steering gave unpleasant thumps when cornering fast (not hard) on less than smooth road surfaces.
I don’t mind a lack of comfort if the car is going to reward in other ways but the CRX is not so outstanding in any one area to compensate for the rather hard ride and seats which look the part but are not very comfortable. In my book visibility is the main factor when driving fast on roads and here the CRX is lacking. The rear window needs a wiper for wet conditions and, worse, I found it impossible to demist windows and screen even though the heater controls were exceptionally clear. It remains, however, a car with which I’d like a closer and longer acquaintance. Eight cars out of the 10 have been covered
and that leaves just the Astra and the Peugeot 205 GTi to nominate for my top car. Both scored extremely well on my reckoning, each car making the top three on ten occasions out of fifteen. I should say I refused to mark on “running costs”, since they are apparent only after several years, on “heating and ventilation”, for I like a cool interior and every car (except the Honda CRX) was driven with the heating off, and on “safety innovation” for no car had any innovation of note, though all except the Stellar felt safe under all conditions for which they were designed.
When I began writing this report, I had not done my sums to discover which car emerged on top for I scrupulously marked point by point, without keeping tabs on the overall picture. Driving both cars again was a pleasure, particularly the Peugeot, for the company has responded to early, justified, criticism about the 205 GTi’s harsh ride and has fitted new dampers with longer travel, but the same settings, which have improved that area considerably. The Astra’s looks do not appeal in the same way as the Peugeot’s but I admire the engineering integrity in the use of aerodynamics to greatly improve performance, reduce wind noise, aid economy and improve ventilation, which is why I marked it top in styling with the 205 second. The Peugeot scored on mechanical design, being placed first above the CRX and Mitsubishi Hatchback Turbo. The Astra won on accommodation and comfort and luggage space and access, being outstanding for a car of its class, while the Peugeot did not figure. However, the Peugeot came third for finish and top for value, the latter being for the sheer exhilaration per pound sterling invested. The Astra came top for performance (those clever aerodynaniics again) with the 205 second. The 205 won on transmission, though, with the Astra third, behind the CRX. Brakes and steering saw the 205 top, with the GTE third and second. The GTE took third in “ride” with the 205, despite improvements, not listed. Handling went to
the 205 just ahead of the Astra, with the Mitsubishi third. The Astra came second to the Renault 25 for “wind noise” but the Peugeot was not listed.
The Peugeot 205 GTi wins the contest on my reckoning, I marked it top in seven out of 15 categories, with two seconds and a third. The Astra, which is a whole range and not just an individual model, was marked with four firsts, three seconds and three thirds. It happens that I have driven all of the Astra range and Fuld it excellent at every level save for the diesel-powered car. I really rather hoped that the two cars would have finished in a dead heat, but cold mathematics proved otherwise.
Or did they? One tries to be impartial and to apportion credit where it is strictly due but I can’t help feeling that the cheeky good looks of the Peugeot, its tautness and the exhilaration it imparts coloured my judgement. There were possibly areas where I marked it higher than I should. If that is so, then I do not apologise for cars are not impersonal things if they are truly good cars. The serious motorist needs to have a car to relate to and the 205 GTi encourages an emotional response in a way which the Carina, say, or the Montego do not.
The Astra and the 205 cannot, anyway, be directly compared. For the motorist with a growing family and a need for luggage space must choose the Vauxhall for the Peugeot is deficient in space. The Astra also has a higher top speed and better acceleration. It is however a car which seems to attain its brilliance by calculation whereas the Peugeot seems to achieve its brilliance by inspiration.
When all the votes are counted, I may prove to be in a minority of one. Perhaps, Heaven forefend, the Stellar is voted the best, or the Rover 213. My opinion will not be altered though. In the last analysis, however, it perhaps does not matter which individual car wins the award. The fact that so many makers are now producing so many good cars makes all of us, the members of the car buying public, the ultimate winners.