Road impressions

Vauxhall Astra GTE

One of the more exciting of the small European hatchbacks of 1985 is the revised Vauxhall (Opel) Astra in GTE form - indeed, an International jury has elected it the "Car of the Year". This is now a very competitive sector of the market and some people see these quick and accelerative hatchbacks as replacements for the smaller sports-car of former times. Be that as it may, this latest, technically-updated Vauxhall Astra is a very attractive package, well able to persuade many to throwaway ideas of big, petrol-guzzling cars.

Let's not compare this most effective GTE with others of its kind, except to remark that for refinement and poise in this buyer's category Volkswagen's Golf GTi has a small advantage. Having said that, I have practically nothing to fault about this extremely enjoyable Astra GTE, which, as another motoring writer said of another car many years before, “Flem“ Harris about the then-new 12/50 Alvis if you insist, is a car you want to take out for a drive for the sheer fun of it. Putting an overhead camshaft, alloy head 1,796 cc engine developing 115 (DIN) bhp at 5,800 rpm into a three door saloon weighing only 950 kg, especially when the very carefully contrived drag factor is 0.30 Cd, claimed to be the lowest for this class of car, is bound to give an impressive performance, particularly when the drive has a five-speed gearbox to encourage the car along. Thus the new Astra GTE can achieve 126 mph and accelerate to 60 mph from rest in only eight seconds. The rest of the performance data is in keeping and my personal test, involving a full throttle run in up a local hill, proved to me, shall we say, that this little package is a match for far bigger engined sporting cars! Couple this to a taut ride and sensible controls and instrumentation, and this small Vauxhall becomes a car to covet, well able to set astonishing average speeds with the most commendable economy. (The ability of this small, powerful power unit to pull from around 1,200 rpm in fifth conserves petrol.)

I did not much like the car's shape, rather like a red blancmange I thought, and I could, do without the "clever" LCD instrument panel with its coloured lines and a too big speed indication brightly lit and changing every one mph, directly before my eyes, although, in fact, there is control of illumination intensity, but this functions only when the lamps are on. Otherwise, the Astra's controls are very well arranged. Two rather short stalk controls work the turn-indicators / lamps on the left, as is now usual, the multiple wiper / washers for screen and rear window and headlamps (involving rather ugly projecting squirt assemblies at the front of the car) on the right. The vertical central console carries two open stowages, ash tray and lighter, the two well labelled heat / ventilator levers, the Philips Hi-Power 441 radio / stereo and a large knob for the heater fan which, pulled out, brings in a rear window demisting, a variable warning light being incorporated. Conveniently up on the top of the fascia before the driver are the hazard warning and lamps controls – the latter rotary and commendably simple.

A sort of joystick protruding below the steering wheel confuses at first but is for altering the rake of the steering column. It's all delightfully practical, after some cars I have driven recently. Criticism might be applied, but mostly to rather long seat belts on pivoted arms with low set clips, which reel in too slowly; a somewhat thick steering wheel rim, the horn push being archaically in the wheel centre, while the driver's door could have had better "keeps".

Otherwise, I am full of enthusiasm for this appealing 1.8-litre road-burner. The revised suspension makes fast cornering a delight, even if the average car owner might call the suspension harsh, the 14 in Pirelli P6 tyres deal well with putting 115 bhp through the front wheels, wind noise is virtually absent, this is a notably quiet GTE from the mechanical angle, and the rally-type seats are a good compromise between support and comfort. Fog lamp and rear fog guard switches are conveniently located. The hydraulic tappet, 84.8 x 79.5 mm ohc engine with oil cooler uses Bosch fuel-injection and starts instantly. It is a notably smooth unit, up to the 6,600 rpm which the bar graph tachometer advises as its limit, yet has a cr of 9½ to 1; the maximum torque figure is 104lb / ft at 4,800 rpm.

However, this is the kind of very well contrived car that encourages one to forget figures and just ·enjoy its very impressive performance and taut handling. Power steering and central door locking are options but the non-assisted rack-and-pinion steering (four turns lock to lock for a 32.2 ft turning circle) is not unduly heavy and has absolutely no lost motion, and useful castor return, nor is central locking really needed in this compact two-door configuration, unless one is forgetful about locking the tail-gate.

None of Motor Sport’s experienced readers would feel at the mercy of bigger cars when at the wheel of this Astra GTE, except from the viewpoint of sheer ride comfort and spaciousness. The clutch pedal is .somewhat biased to the right, to give good foot-parking space beside the console. There is a wide, if shallow-lidded, non-lockable cubbyhole and useful door wells, and the front passenger has a good roof light with delay-action; the doors are wide, to help with access for those relegated to the back seat. The deep friction-welded lightweight polypropylene nose-piece, droopnose, rear spoiler, and definitely upright slab rear panel make this Astra GTE more conspicuous than other GTEs but the engine-size is right for company-car use and there seems no reason why those manufacturing the more sporting products shouldn't equip their reps with such cars, as a good publicity move.

There are many clever reasons according to Vauxhall for the low-drag factor, but the bonnet vents are presumably pure affectation. This 0.30 Cd-factor helps fuel economy, very materially. A colleague got 33.2 mpg on a, presumably fast, run from London to Donington and back, and my overall figure was 34.5 mpg. The tank holds

9.2 gallons and has a lockable cap on the o/s one key sufficing for all locks. There is a neat little quartz electric clock between the centre fascia vents – so much nicer than LCD-ism. The test car had electrically adjusted and heated exterior mirrors. The bonnet ("hood" to Lutonians!) is rear-hinged, with prop-open lid. All the fillers, the dip-stick and the Delco battery are accessible and the camshaft-driven distributor has a weather-shield, but not the Bosch coil. There is a very reassuring six-light check-control panel on the facia, warning even of low screen-washer fluid level; the light indicating a faulty dip beam bulb or tail lamp bulb came on for a time but I could find nothing wrong. Perhaps a warning to say when the check-panel is faulty will be the next development! There was an unwanted buzzer for door open / lamps on but a more important safety factor were ventilated front disc brakes.

The basic price of this so-effective and likeable little high-performance Eurobox is £7,344.19. I was most impressed – but would want one with the kind of instrument panel fitted to lesser Astras! – W.B.

Vauxhall Cavalier SRi

After returning the road-test Astra GTE Vauxhall's efficient Press Department laid on an SRi four-door saloon for trial, a Christmas Cavalier, as it were, in which over the so-called holiday period alone I covered over 1,000 miles. The Cavalier has been up-dated and given revised styling, the SRi for instance having an unobtrusive rear spoiler toned with the body colour. This five-speed, fuel-injection 1.0-litre Cavalier is such a useful and acceptable car that I am not in the least surprised that it has become the country's favourite model of its class and size and a formidable rival in the sales-stakes.

Controls and layout are much the same as on the Astra, if somewhat differently, but no less conveniently located. I much preferred the analogue instruments to the Astra GTE's lurid digital read-outs, and these have daylight control of their illumination, without having to put the lamps on before the panel lighting can be dimmed. A normal switch is used for rear-window heating, and the Philips stereo radio / cassette player is the AC 741 model. When loading holiday luggage I found the boot so spacious that Hatchbacks were forgotten and whether regarded as a Junior Executive's car or as family transport, this 116 mph SRi Cavalier does most things very well indeed. Fuel thirst was 36.7 mpg, helped slightly perhaps because a small proportion of the distance was done pussyfoot over icy roads, and such economy, allied to a 13.4-gallon fuel tank means that this is one of those very rare cars that do not require time-wasting frequent refuelling.

The five-bearing engine has the ingenious in-head camshaft, not an overhead camshaft and it is interesting the Vauxhall admit to the Cavalier's German ancestry by referring to its Opel shock-absorbers, which the Bosch headlamps endorse. Apart from the turn-indicators requiring hand-cancelling and the hand-brake ratchet button occasionally sticking, nothing about this useful, comfortable, uncomplicated Cavalier marred fast winter driving and its 14 in Continental Super Contact tyres gripped well on wet and icy roads. I regard this popular Vauxhall Cavalier as a very good investment at the basic price of £7,753. And there are many practical options, from lamps' wipers to a sun-roof. — W.B.

The Mercedes 190E

It was extremely good to be behind the steering-wheel of a Mercedes-Benz again, even though recent driving of an Automatic 190E saloon was a brief sampling between other tests, not a full road-assessment. But all the Mercedes magic is there, in this smallest of the Daimler-Benz range, the 2-litre 122 bhp four-cylinder Type 190 saloon. It goes almost without saying that the control arrangements and the interior layout and decor follow those of the larger Mercedes models, which is an abbreviated way of stating that, within, all is comfort, convenience and restraint. The individual heating / ventilating for driver or front-seat passenger, with the expected rotary control-knobs, the easily read dials, with oil-pressure (the needle at the top of the calibrations when all is in order), fuel contents (accurate and steady) and water temperature readings contained in one of them, the extremely comfortable seats, and the single, substantial control-stalk (right-handed, axis, I consider, correct) will be familiar to drivers of bigger-engined Mercedes-Benz cars.

The hand-brake is central, not a rh umbrella-handle, and the bonnet, headed by the three-pointed star mascot, seems short, but otherwise this is every inch a proud Mercedes-Benz motor-car. Polished-wood decor is confined to the gear-selector surround, but quality is evident in every aspect of the interior decor. The Type 190 I tried had the D-B four-speed automatic gearbox, with the refinement of a little slide-control for selecting "Standard" or "Economy" the latter the setting for maximum fuel thrift, which kickdown overrides, the selector-lever itself looking after the usual P,R,N,D,3,2 transmission variants. I was surprised at the very good acceleration of this car, which most become known affectionately as the "Little Mercedes", even in the E setting, which Erik Johnson, who handed it over to me at the very impressive new M-B headquarters at Milton Keynes, recommended for icy-road negotiation.

Certainly this 2-litre Mercedes is no sluggard, in spite of being a roomy car for its engine size. Over 120 mph and 0-60 mph acceleration in under 9.7 sec. from the five-speed version should be sufficient for owners of such a car, combining as it does the epitome of luxury with this performance, and I can confirm that the gears change quietly and almost imperceptibly on the Automatic version. The engine is also notably quiet. Another very impressive factor is the very good ride from such a comparatively lightweight car, never easy to achieve but endowed by M-B's use of sophisticated rear suspension on this model. Another thing that impressed me was the security imparted by the road-holding and braking. The same day as I had collected the Mercedes I had driven over icy roads in a smaller front-drive car. I wondered if the rear-drive M-B would feel as secure, under such conditions. I was soon to remember how effective in this respect the car from Stuttgart is; you can tuck it into small traffic gaps, overtake, and corner fast, with complete confidence, inspired by the 175/70 R14 84H Pirelli-P6 shod wheels never losing grip, the power-steering among the finest of its kind.

The single arm windscreen wiper works well. Fuel consumption was 29.6 mpg, equal to a range of 358 miles. I have long regarded the Mercedes-Benz as the best-engineered car in the World and cannot but reflect that those who spend some £9,000 on the top-model in a range of lesser makes could enjoy the near-perfection of this "Little Mercedes" for an extra outlay of only about £2,000. The 190 E's engine revs up to 6,000 rpm but, what the more sporting drivers are avidly awaiting is, of course, the sixteen-valve Cosworth-MB-engined Type 190. — W.B.

Peugeot 205 GRD

For fairly obvious reasons, press officers are not the most objective of people when describing their companies' products, but when John Evans of Peugeot positively insisted that I try the diesel-powered 205 GRD I took notice, for his enthusiasm was patently genuine. Still, I insisted that I would not write about the car unless I felt it would interest the sort of person who reads Motor Sport for some diesels I have driven recently have been extremely stodgy. The fact that you are reading about the 205 GRD at all, tells you something.

The initial outlay of £5,595 is not cheap for a small car, but for the motorist who enjoys his driving, and who must at the same time be economy conscious, it is a car to think seriously about. The 205 GRD has most of the virtues of the 205 GTi and regular readers will know that the Motor Sport staff think very highly indeed of the GTi. It has the same excellent five-speed gearbox, roadholding, steering and brakes. It is a car which invites sporting driving.

The transverse-mounted 4-cylinder 1,769 cc engine produces 60 bhp at 4,600 rpm and 80 Ib/ft torque at 2,800 rpm. It starts with the usual diesel thumping and at idling speeds there is no mistaking the engine, but once under way it is very smooth, responsive and quiet, only fractionally noisier than many petrol engines, and one really would not know that it was not a petrol engine under the bonnet.

Since I had the car to sample rather than test, I did not take independent performance figures. Peugeot's claimed maximum speed of 96 mph seems about right, however, while the claimed 0-60 mph time of 14.8 sec seems conservative. These figures are anyway academic on our congested roads. On my normal run to the office from Northamptonshire which consists of 17 miles on country roads; down the M1 and then city traffic, the Peugeot was very little slower than my Golf GTi. Still in a London traffic jam a Citroen 2CV is as quick as a Ferrari Testarossa.

Across country, to get the best out of the car, you have to use the gearbox a lot and the car really does need a rev counter for the power drops off sharply as one reaches maximum revs in each gear. It also needs a radical design of the heating / ventilating system. I found it impossible to heat the car satisfactorily and at maximum boost the fan drowned wind noise, of which there is a fair amount, mainly from the exterior mirrors, engine noise and the radio. The fan was objectionable at anything over one third boost.

A pleasant surprise awaited me at the fuel pumps, however, when I found I'd averaged 49 mpg which, given the slightly cheaper rate for diesel fuel, equates to over 50 mpg for a petrol-engine car. 55/60 mpg should be easily possible for the motorist with a lighter foot than I, particularly if he is not involved in London rush hour traffic.

This little car will give its owner a great deal of motoring pleasure, a range of over 500 miles between refuelling stops, and a light fuel bill. The initial price is high, but that is offset by excellent economy, a six-year anti-rust warranty and the reasonable expectation of a very long engine life.

If you're in the market for a small economy car which is fun to drive, forget about some other diesels you may have driven and take this one seriously. - M.L