New cars

Models of discretion

The run-in to the Autumn motor shows of Frankfurt and Earls Court, the London Motorfair, has naturally been overfilled with "new" model launches. Many of these alleged newcomers are revamped versions of old favourites, especially in their high performance guises. The game this year has been to largely avoid use of the cult "GTI" appellation, mainly for fear of upsetting insurance companies already filled with fear and loathing for such machines after recent tabloid "joyrider" publicity. Thus the existence of machines such as the Honda Civic VTi, Vauxhall Astra GSi, Fiat Tipo 16v and Renault Clio 16v.

There are exceptions to the rule, such as Citroën's addition of an AX GTi to head their second-smallest model line, but the tendency to avoid the appellation that Volkswagen made famous on the 1976 Golf is apparent. We have been driving such models extensively recently and thought a round-up necessary as there is no other way of compressing the flurry of activity in this sector into our pages. We will also briefly comment on the launch of a very important Motorfair absentee — the revamped Rover 800 line, and the existence of new Saabs that are substantially refined despite the retention (for the time being) of their basic front-drive, four-cylinder, format.

Much magazine space has been devoted to the merits of the new Astra GSi and its reborn rival, the Escort RS2000. At first it looked as though both would occupy the territory between £16,000 and £17,000, Ford waiting to see what General Motors did before announcing the cost of their similarly 150 bhp DOHC, 16-valve, hatchback. As we closed for press it looked as though Ford were still going to stick above £16,000 — but they finally swallowed their pride and selected £15,995. Vauxhall opted for £15,600 on their GSi, which had an equal number of "toys" (sunroof, electric front windows, power steering) in the showroom specification. Plus the important mechnical features that customers expect at this price: electronic ABS anti-lock braking, a quartet of disc brakes, alloy wheels and squat tyres. Both the Vauxhall and the Ford are expected to exceed 130 mph on their 150 bhp and snatch the mystery 0-60 mph prize in some 8.0 seconds, so the choice between them will come down to equipment levels and the differences in driving pleasure.

We had most experience in the Ford — driving three examples, two in LHD Germany — but there was little doubt that neither machine really offers the customer the best value for money, or the greatest pleasures at the wheel, to be found in the category. Both have major flaws. The Vauxhall has a chassis that has been reworked using many Cavalier parts, notably negative wheel camber angles and honest intentions. Yet the result is an eerie wandering under power that is not aided by the interaction of an electronic traction control that interrupts play via the ABS braking sensors.

Meanwhile the flaw in the Ford is the engine. Pleasant at mid range (2000 to 4000 rpm) it becomes a typical company droner at higher rpm (the engine is gently rev-limited at 6800 rpm), the close ratio MTX 75 transmission in its first front-drive incarnation failing to live up to the slick-shifting character we were asked to expect. The truth is that both the Ford and Vauxhall look distinctly pricey beside the latest 16-valve offerings of Renault (19 and Clio at just above and just below £13,000) or the £13,949.89p Fiat Tipo. The Renaults are both supremely well engineered and the fact that they are of 137 rather than 150 bhp makes little difference to the performance statistics. The revered "figures" remain below the 8-second 0-60 mph barrier, thanks to lower kerb weights than Ford and Vauxhall, and even the diminutive Clio has good enough aerodynamics to allow a maximum speed toward 130 mph. Renault have learned a lot about quality in the last couple of years and I would vote the Escort-sized 19 in 16-valve form as the best value all-rounder in this category at present, allying a superb chassis with an engine that apparently contains no camshaft profiling, so suave are the gains in power from its 1764 cc as it escalates toward its naturally 7000 rpm operational zone.

The Tipo is rated at almost the same power as the Ford and Vauxhall (148 bhp from 2 litres) yet costs at least £1,600 less. We all know Fiat do not have a glowing reputation in Britain — perhaps their poorest market in Europe — but I can honestly say that the Tipo is just as much of a pleasure to drive as the Renaults, having a particularly capable chassis over bumpy going. The engine does not feel as though it has 148 bhp, but that is true of all the catalytic convertor units mentioned here, bar the Vauxhall-Opel 2-litre, which is simply the amiably lusty 16-valve class of the category.

The Citroën AX GTi is the cheapest of the selection driven recently at £9,995 and it has appeal to those aspiring to 16-valve pace, rather than red hot performance. Part of a revamped AX line that begins with a four speed AX Debut at £5895, the GTi summons 100 bhp from its substantially redeveloped ex-Peugeot TU series motor of 1360 cc. I had not driven this engine with Bosch Motronic fuel injection and a 9.6:1 cr before — but had fond memories of ice-racing a Peugeot 104 ZS with a distant cousin of this power unit providing thrills out of all proportion to the speed achieved.

The sub-£10,000 Citroën does have its limitations, but comparative lack of performance and adhesion are not amongst them. It is claimed to rush from 0-60 mph in 8.2 seconds and to achieve 118 mph, such pace possible on 100 horsepower because it weighs just 795kg/1753 lb. Placed against the kerb weights of recent Volkswagens, Vauxhall and Fords, this makes a Citroën GTi the flyweight Lotus 7 of the hatchback set. At this point the self-elected sages of the motoring set will cry "ah, light it may be, but what about all those creaks and rattles. It's dangerously light." It was the sort of criticism Colin Chapman collected throughout his career and (usually) proved to be bunk. Citroën have also disproved the "too light" allegation, not by fundamental re-engineering of the body, but with a one-piece dash and various other trim measures that quieten the squeaks and rattles of the car and media alike.

I had personal interest in driving the new generation of Honda Civics, for their 1595cc 160 bhp VTi must serve as the replacement for the CRX coupé models that I have bought in recent years, until the replacement Targa Top CRX is seen at the 1992 Geneva Show. Provisionally priced at "under £14,000" the Civic VTi packs 100.31 bhp per litre into a rounder and heavier outline than previously. The result is a more civil Civic that lays equal emphasis on the four-door saloon and the hatchbacks, but for the sporting driver the VTi 3-door is the nearest many will come to driving a racing engine on the road.

The VTi model is a reformed character compared with its predecessor (which we have recently been privileged to race, courtesy of the 1991 Firestone Champion Piers Johnson and the Meltune equipe), but its character is still dominated by that amazing 8000 rpm motor. The Honda system of variable valve timing is in a different class to any other that we have experienced. Dubbed VTEC (Variable valve Timing and Electronic Control), and makes phenomenal power claims possible whilst preserving an even temper (but not much torque) for urban mileage.

The rest of the Civic is better trimmed than before and the quartet of disc brakes work effectively with the Honda anti-lock braking system (only previously available on the later CRX). Yet it was for the superb acceleration and astounding top speed that I will fondly remember our German test outing. In cold statistics 0-60 mph in 7.7 sec plus 134 mph may seem average for the kind of cars we have been discussing, but Honda make it special. It is not a comfortable experience, the double wishbone suspension still susceptible to big bumps on comparatively unruffled German tarmac and the engine note reportedly wearing out many of my colleagues, but I found it still the exhilarating choice amongst the brat pack and almost a limousine by the standards of the two CRX 16-valve coupés I purchased. Recommended for the hardy hatchback enthusiast.

For the committed motorsport afficionado, homologation vehicles are hard to resist. Some develop far beyond their basic 500-off (Evolution) or 5000-off (Group A/N) production runs. The M3 BMW sold over 17,100 copies before its demise. Lancia's Delta Integrale, which we have been driving in France in its final Evolution form, has reached 30,698 Deltas in turbocharged 4x4 trim since the 1986 original became the basis for the most successful Group A rally car of all. The latest Delta Integrale has been dubbed "HF" with the galloping red elephant symbol also reborn from the company's sporting heritage. According to Cesare Fiorio the HF initials stood for High Fidelity and were simply a way of identifying a loyal elite amongst Lancia's sporting clientele, officially used by the Lancia HF Club since 1960.

The ultimate wide-track permutation of the Delta Integrale offers as much driving pleasure as any roofed road car in the world. It has exceptional performance from its 2-litre counter-balancer shaft 16-valve unit, but sub-6 second bounds from rest to 60 mph are not the point of this 5-door, 210 bhp, parcel. The Integrale specialises in demolishing twisty distances and Lancia report a saving of 1.5 seconds per awkward kilometre in dry conditions, or an awesome 4 seconds per km in the wet.

Both figures draw comparison with the previously praised Integrale and bode badly for the chiefly Japanese opposition in the World Rally Championship when Lancia field the newcomer in 1992. For the public road conductor, an Integrale whooshing through its rubbery five forward ratios is a motoring memory to savour, especially when clambering over difficult roads with unqualled, and deeply pleasurable, poise.

Far removed from both Motorfair and the machinery we have been discussing, we also ventured out amongst the executive classes with Rover's solo update of their 800 saloon and fastback line and spent a weekend motoring the much strengthened Saab CS models. The Rovers looked more like Lancias with the return of a traditional grille to their aerodynamic lines (a trend echoed at Audi) and seemed to represent rather more solid driving manners within a span of roughly £10,000 and a starting cost of £17,495.

A 180 bhp turbocharged model, originally created by Tickford for limited production in the previous series, will be part of the main production line and engineered "in-house" for sale at £20,650 (less than before) from February 1992.

The 200 bhp Saab 2.3-litre turbo has been with us a while and has much the same low rpm (1950) massive torque peak as the 220 bhp Carlsson version that Motor Sport enjoyed earlier in 1991. The "CS" initials have no particular meaning, but for the customer they mean that the 5-door model has reached, or in some cases surpassed, the impressive standards of rigidity found in the 4-door CD line.

One vehicle attracted our attention but escaped us in the welter of launches, Peugeot's pretty 106. This looks to be an extremely well executed junior 205 and has a fuel injected derivative that we will inspect when supplies are freely available in RHD. -- JW