This query becomes particularly fraught at this time of year. The autumn motor shows create an additional log jam of (mainly) revised products to an already frenetically active new model market. Most cars of the ’90s however small, or apparently mundane have interesting technicalities that deserve our attention.
Commencing alphabetically, this leads us to the emotive Alfa Romeo. Its lightly facelifted 164 Cloverleaf and 164 Super saloons were driven in Italy. They will become available in Britain in spring, at prices that are likely to reflect modest Italian increases of approximately 1.5 per cent.
The 164 accounted for 1600 of 3640 UK sales in 1991, and has thus made an appreciable impact on the executive sporting classes. The most exciting change is a 24-valve version of the fabulous 60-degree V6. However, the popular Twin Spark has also changed internally, and is now rated at 1995cc (rather than 1962), is equipped with variable valve timing and is ‘clean’ enough to face the ’90s with 146 bhp (73.3 bhp per litre).
The 24-valve, dohc (belt driven) three-litre V6 was sampled in two stages of tune: in the 164 Super, with its bigger bumpers, it offered the broadest torque curve and 210 bhp. For the simpler Cloverleaf (it lacks some of the safety conscious body features added to the Super), its 2959cc harvested 230 bhp, enough to allow the biggest Alfa Romeo to romp up to a claimed 152 mph and sprint from 0-62 mph in 7.7s.
On the road we found that the less powerful Super is most likely to suit British conditions, for the Cloverleaf has a torque curve that culminates in a glorious burst of speed between 6000-7000 rpm, but it offers inferior mid-range pulling power. The Super is particularly good company at an indicated 87 mph/3500 rpm, gruffly covering ground in sporting comfort.
With either power plant, the 164 chassis is as amiable as ever, itself a considerable achievement for a straightforward front-drive layout with so much muscular power.
Body assembly and quality appears to have followed the general trend established by Audi and Rover in recent months. Kerb weights are up, safety is improved and quality is discernibly better. There was not a squeak or a rattle to be found over rougher Italian surfaces (the official test route was blocked by road works!).
A comparatively cost-effective soft top fourseater has been available since summer for less than £22,000. This is the Audi Cabriolet 2.3E. one of the surviving five-cylinder offerings that rests within what is now solely badged as an Audi 80 shape.
The Audi materialised as a civilised 133 bhp package with an exceptionally rapid roof action that copes efficiently without power assistance. The roof packs away below its own neat compartment cover and can be operated from the driver’s seat, as a central release handle is employed.
The torquey front-drive five slots in between the obvious BMW 31 8i to 320i droptop opposition. These convertibles sell in a class that is hard ‘ to define, for the driving pleasure is well above average, yet even BMW’s 192 bhp 325i soft top is rarely bought by the more enthusiastic driver.
For fresh air breezes and solid engineering, the Audi allowed an excellent appreciation of why the four-seater convertible is enjoying a renaissance. The similarly laid out, 122 bhp Rover 200 convertible costs £16,450, but we do not know if it provides the secure feeling of progress offered by Audi and BMW.
Both the editor and I have experienced the bulky brawn of the latest BMW M5. Now packing the considerable clout of 3.8 litres, the M5 has been hailed as “the world’s best sporting saloon.” At £48,950 — without the inevitable options — you would expect something special.
For this year’s 20th anniversary of the foundation of BMW Motorsport GmbH, we took one example of the 340 bhp M5 to the Nurburgring and back. The computer monitored the whole weekend, from drenched campsite jams to the autobahn stomp at the governed 155 mph, taking in our attempts to move 3630 lb from rest to 60 mph in the allegedly possible 5.5s. The electronic readout disclosed a total of 1163.2 miles at an average 52.1 mph and 17.2 premium unleaded mpg.
Aside from the magnificent 24-valve six (will this be obsolete, post-V8?), the driving experience was heavily coloured by the appropriate ‘Nürburgring’ suspension option, which costs £1365 (making the test car a gross total of £50,315). In place of the standard 8Jx17 rims with 235/40 Michelins, this incorporates 9Jx17 wheels with 255/40 ZR I 7s. These are accompanied by recalibrated Servotronic steering (better than its reputation) and stiffer setting for the three position EDC (Electronic Damper Control) shock absorber system.
The ball and nut steering system is transformed by the sporting Servotronic input, delivering superbly graduated responses. Over the damp and bumpy B-roads that surround Spa-Francorchamps and the Nürburgring, such steering precision, and the ZF limited slip differential, are vital — especially when you can deploy 221 lb/ft of torque at a mere 1800 rpm, or the more regular 289 lb/ft peak at 4750.
This heavyweight ranges from muted comment at the steady 900 rpm tickover to the magnificent vocal of its motor racing ancestry at the 7200 rpm redline. It’s an elevated rev range for the oversquare bore and stroke (94.6x90mm) 3795cc. The M5 was particularly memorable striding back across Europe, packing in a solid 120-130 mph. More proved to be immediately available when our peaceful passage required the occasional rise in tempo.
To face up to the BMW M5 in the big saloon class you need the alliance of Porsche and Mercedes — and their 500E. Aside from the fact that it is left-hand drive, and even more expensive than the right-hand drive MS, we think the Mercedes 500E is very relevant opposition to the BMW. It has a smoother character, right down to the automatic transmission and five-litre V8. The 500E allows exhilarating progress with less effort than the BMW demands.
The M5 is a beautifully understated and appointed saloon of everyday practicality, but it is such a weighty package. I preferred the old ‘Q-car’ square rigged M5s. They had ‘only’ 286 bhp, but they weighed 484 lb less, and were thus exceptionally manageable under pressure. With the current car, if you do become too enthusiastic in the wet, Hannibal’s hordes would be needed to check its wayward path.
The interest within the £16,845 Honda CRX VTi coupe was split between the wonder of such a smooth (and durable) 8000 rpm from four cylinders and the new two-seater styling with targa-type roof panel. In fact little use was made of the disposable roof during our seven day tenure, but the unique electrical operation of the vertical rear screen was engaged frequently to boost fresh air within the compact cabin.
I had a vested interest in the CRX, having owned two of its two-plus-two forebears. Although I had a very entertaining — and far more comfortable — week than experience had led me to anticipate, the power-steered CRX did not possess the same ‘must have’ character of the earlier miniatures.
Performance remains shattering for 1.6 litres. One can immediately see why two-litre opposition is usually defeated in the production saloon racing categories.
For road use, the pulling power of 110 lb/ft of torque is officially delayed until 7000 of the available 8000 rpm; an astonishing 158 bhp (the naturally aspirated CRX nudges 100 bhp per litre) is delivered at 7600 rpm. Worked slickly through its five speeds, the baby Honda will reach 60 mph from rest in 7.5s and still exceeds 25 mpg.
A chance to drive the CRX at Hethel, courtesy of Lotus, showed that the 132 mph maximum was credible and the fuss-free frontdrive handling surprised everyone who drove it, including a former Le Mans winner, though he was not a fan of the increased girth the CRX now bears through items such as power steering.
In many ways then CRX remains unique. For this writer (and the Le Mans winner, who also ran a brace of earlier two-plus-twos) it has strayed too far from the original flyweight.
Over at Land Rover they know the value of a commercial formula. The Range Rover is now entering its 21st production year and we count ourselves fortunate to have experienced its latest £40,000 range-topping incarnation.
The Vogue LSE has an eight-inch longer wheelbase stretch (108 inches, other derivatives remain in production at 100 inches) and an electronically monitored and managed air suspension system (EAS). This operates in conjunction with ABS-braking based electronic traction control devices. The LSE’s astounding abilities made Mike Hallett, technical editor of Britain’s best-selling 4×4 magazine exclaim: “The fun has gone out of it. It’s too easy in this machine. The only challenge is to raise the asking price.”
To power a flagship, the faithful alloy V8 is also enlarged via a longer stroke to release 200 bhp and 250 lb/ft of torque, figures which could prove very attractive to sports car manufacturers. Officially a 4.2-litre, the Rover V8 actually measures closer to 4.3 (93.98x77mm for 4278cc). It is an evolution of the 3.9-litre (93.98×71.12mm), which remains in Range Rover use, rated at 182 bhp. The original 3.5-litre V8 remains on duty in the Discovery, but is totally outsold by the TDi diesel variant. This diesel domination may alter slightly now, as an automatic ZF transmission has been conscientiously adapted to the V8 Discovery.
We tested the LSE from the driver’s seat on road and mild agricultural estate use. Its most impressive trick was to allow us to write the notes for this article whilst sitting in the capacious rear, while being driven at 50 mph across a field of stubble. Even the CD player was unruffled, delivering decibels without so much as a hiccough for the bumps. The perfect tow-car-cum-off-road companion? I think so, but I am less sure of the Range Rover’s longer-term mass production future. For now, it creeps towards off-road status on a Ferrari scale while enduring relentless pressure from the Japanese and its own Discovery stable mate.