Road Impressions of the Saab 991, Lancia Beta 1800 and Mazda 1300
As a coicidental antidote to the May Buy-British Editorial, the three most recent road-test cars have been a Saab 99L, the new Lancia Beta and a Mazda 1300. I drove the smaller-engined Saab 96 in 1973 and was at the time eager to sample the 2-litre model with the increased performance I thought the car needed. The 2-litre Saab 991. does have good if not striking pickup, is reasonably happy driven mainly as a top-gear car, and retains the many individual features of the famous, durable Swedish make. The latter include those Bertil Ilhage-developed wipedand-washed Hells H4 headlamp; a driver’s scat adjustable for height as well as rake and distance from the steering wheel, and a driver’s heated seat cushion. It also has those ugly and heavy-looking safety bumpers, very accessible under-bonnet fuses, and a bonnet which, although forward-hinged, has a front safety-catch and lifts like that of a BMW 520. The heated seat works over a range of 14 deg. C to 27.1/2 deg. C when the ignition is switched on. It is said to be appreciated by those who suffer from backache and abdominal chills; in my case I suffered both after driving the car, but no doubt this was another coincidence.
In town the Saab did not impress me. The heavy clutch was as sudden as that on a vintage Austin 7 and the gear-change was about the stickiest I have experienced on a modern car, further complicated because you cannot dislodge the console-mounted ignitionkey until you have put it in the reverse position. I sometimes wonder whether the growing use of automatic transmission is causing design-teams to opt out on good manual gear shifts? The Saab was so unpleasant in this department that I can only think all was not well with this particular specimen. Thus it wasn’t until the Metropolis was vacated and the open road stretched ahead at a tedious 50 m.p.h. that the car began to appeal. Once in top gear it sweeps along effortlessly, the driver having a commanding view from a high-set comfortable seat, although the head-restraints restrict rearward vision, and the screen is rather remote, so that you get a sort of how-window, drawing room effect. Get on a Motorway and increase the pace to a furious 70 and more engine noise than is entirely pleasant is induced. The steering is somewhat heavy, matching the clutch and horrid gear-change, but the front-wheel-drive and the big Firestone Cavallino 15 in. tyres ensure good fastcornering characteristics. Acceleration is moderate for a car of this size and power, 95 b.h.p. at 5,200 r.p.m., being in the order of 0-60 m.p.h. in 13 seconds, which the fuel-injection 110 DIN b.h.p. engine would obviously improve on. It is interesting that dropping the c.r. from 9.0 to I to 8.7 to 1 enables both these 2-litre Saabs to burn 3-star 94-Octane petrol.
The driver is confronted by three big Vdo dials, clock, 110 m.p.h. -speedometer with total and decimal trip mileometer, and multiple recorder with pictorial symbols for its indications. The fuel gauge is accurate but the low-level reading, with Warning lights, seems to stay on interminably when you want to run dry for check purposes. There is a row of minor controls, with a notch-out manual choke, on a strip of simulated wood, and shallow ‘console .cubby and glove box. The instrument readings tend to be blanked by the safety pad on the thick non-slip-rimmed steering wheel when it is on lock—it has a horn-sounding inset strip. There is a heating system which requires learning but then provides comprehensive ventilation and warmth mixes. Two slender stalk controls cover the usual operations, including the lamps’ cleansing—maybe one day instead of fussing over air-bags and seat-belts those who watch over us will insist on heated rear windows and such lamps’ washers On all cars? The boot is very spacious in spite of housing the spare wheel. On the test car the n/s rear door refused to open and there were irritating creaks when the steering wheel was turned.
Saab are noted for their safety features and reliabilty and the 99L is very much a “garage-car”—i.e. one with many items worth going over. On the road it struck me as good transport but a car lacking in character, so that it is nothing like the Saab 96 in enthusiasts’ affections. It sells here for £1,873 for which you get, among other advantages, the wellproven BL-type o.h.c. engine, rather lowgeared (3.7 turns, lock-to-lock) rack-andpinion steering, and full disc braking. But the off-set pedals are not altogether nice and I could never live with that gear-change.
Fuel consumption came out to 27.8 m.p.g. under 50 m.p.h. speed-limit conditions and I could not check the oil level as by the end of the test the bonnet release would not work.
Having returned the Saab, I was presented with a Lands Beta 1800 saloon for appraisal. There had been much delay in the release of this front-drive Lancia, following the fusion between Fiat and the quality-car Company started years ago by a great racing driver. So I was interested to he driving a Lancia again, especially as I have mostly very happy memories of the make. Immediately prior to the outbreak of another major war in 1939 I regarded the Lancia Aprilia as the finest small saloon motor-car obtainable, and the greatest possible fun to conduct. Since then there have been other excellent Lancias, not forgetting my rather clapped-out, mildly cut-and-shut £15 Lambda of the war years.
I remember an Aurelia B20 GT 2500 in 1956 which I put “in the category of perhaps the most pleasant motor car sampled to date, and withal, one of the fastest in respect of average speeds on public roads”. Nothing else came my way from Wembley until 1961, when I was allowed to try a flat-four front-drive 1.1/2-litre Flavia, of which I observed that it had impeccable manners, safe handling qualities, and provided great refinement from -splendid suspension and a very smooth engine. By 1964 I had road-tested the 1.8-litre version of the Flavia with Pininfarina coupe body, again a very refined mode of transport, which even made sitting in traffic jams less frustrating than usual, on account of its comfortable seating and dignified interior arrangements.
The Fulvia coupe was tried in 1966 and I liked it so much that I posed the question of whether it wasn’t the best small car currently available, rather as a colleague today regards the Alfasud. The Flavia 2000 coupe I sampled in 1970 was not so well-liked. For a £3,100 car it seemed a too-expensive acquired taste. Now, with the Beta, Fiat/ Lancia have entered the upper-bracket family-car market and have, I think, done it rather well. I was glad to try it in 1800 form —it is also available as a 1400 and 1600.
There is a bit of “badge-engineering” about the Beta, with its Citroen-pedigree five-speed gearbox, MacPherson suspension struts all round, and a transverse Fiat engine, although when you find that this engine is a twin-cam (cogged belt) power unit, there is not much to quibble about. The Beta has an air of quality about it, with its dignified interior, upholstered throughout in vinyl which gives the impression of being nylon, its fine attention to detail in the minor switches, door-locks, the sort of anti-dazzle mirror that does not get misplaced every time you dip it, automatically-self-levelling Cibie q.i. headlamps, and so on. It has a fairly comfortable driving scat and such things as an adjustable steering column, clock, extremely comprehensive heating and ventilation, sensible-size head-restraints, a Securit Thermovis heated back window, petrol-cap lock, lighting of almost every cavity, a handthrottle and a manual choke, the latter unpleasantly stiff to use, intermittent wipe for the screen, Toric inertia seat-belts, dual exterior mirrors, and a top-tinted screen are standard. But the doors lack “keeps”. The ride is good and give. that “expensive” feel, although it could with advantage be somewhat stiffer for really fast work.
If the Saab had a too-sudden clutch, the Lancia Beta had over-servo-ed brakes, although, warned of this, I found these allround discs very light. They were apt to pull to the n/s and were much too sudden, however. The steering is almost too light and vague around the straight-ahead position in normal driving hut it gets somewhat heavier on lock and if you accelerate hard there is a bad pull to the o/s. Engine noise is subdued until 4,000 r.p.m. is exceeded but wind roar tends to emanate around the sides of the body. The gearbox has quite a seductive action when going from fifth to fourth gear but the whole Point of having a multi-ratio box is negatived by low-gearing. Thus an indicated 70 m.p.h. takes the engine to not far short of 4,000 r.p.m. in this fifth gear and although it is Possible to do most of one’s motoring in it, the engine pulling away smoothly from absurdly low speeds, it is not in any way a Motorway overdrive. The gears are silent and this impressed me as not a bad gearbox, but with rather long and ponderous lever movements. Reverse is nicely guarded, as to select it you have to press the knob down before going beyond the fifth-speed position.
Accommodation is adequate, the rack-and-pinion steering is responsive, almost shockfree and enhanced by the excellent driving position, but it is a trifle low-geared, at four turns, lock-to-lock. The instruments are not instantly readable but I had no great complaint on that score.
The 120-m.p.h speedometer and matching tachometer have between them the heat and oil-pressure gauges, the needles of which point upright at normal readings of 160°F and 55 Ib./sq. in., respectively. The engine idles somewhat roughly at 1,000 r.p.m. and gets clattery at over 5,000 r.p.m. The warning mark comes at 6,000 r.p.m., with the tachometer’s red-sector from 6,500 to 7,000 r.p.m. There was furious running-on after the ignition was cut. There are 10 fuses to protect the electrical system, neatly located in the engine compartment. Further Beta refinements are an electrical socket and the provision of a plug-in rechargeable torch. The tiny push-in dipstick is deeply buried but easy to remove; no oil was required after 920 miles. The fuel tank holds nearly 11.4 gallons and has a screw-thread cap, another Fiat feature.
The bonnet is rear-hinged and this reminds me that I do not think the frontal aspect of the Beta particularly handsome. But it was nice to see a “Lancia—Campione Del Mondo Rallies” transfer on a side window, proof that the makers appreciate the publicity value of competition participation.
There are triple stalk-controls, the twist headlamps’ control and shorter stalk for the turn-indicators (which cancels too quickly) on the right, the wipers’ stalk on the left, the lockable cubby is big enough to take a pint tin of oil, and the test-car had a Philips Turnolock radio (an extra). Additional stowage is provided by floor-level wells on the scuttle interior and the very deep rear-window shelf, the latter tending to mask reversing-vision. The tyres were 14 in. Michelin XZ. Fuel thirst worked out at 33 m.p.g.
When it is considered that in spite of low-gearing this Beta 1800 has a top speed of 109 m.p.h. and as. *-mile acceleration of 17.2 seconds that it is a refined car of considerable character, and that it should give pleasure to the family-man while being acceptable to enthusiastic drivers with its neutral cornering and responsive controls, it must be regarded as quite an achievement at its British selling price of £2,096. But it is not a Lancia.
The Mazda 1300 which I sampled next turned out to be quite a pleasant surprise. I had visualised a sober small saloon and having been away for a few days in the Beta with my wife and daughter, which as married men will know involves carting about a great quantity of luggage and odds and ends, I even wondered whether it would take all that the boot of the Italian car had accepted with space to spare. I need not have worried! It all packed away easily into the smaller boot of the shining blue Japanese car, which I found also to possess a reasonable turn of acceleration and pace. This Mazda 1300 can be regarded as a “Japanese Escort”, being of about the same size as the popular Ford and possessing rear-wheel-drive from a fore-and-aft engine, and suspension by struts at the front, semi-elliptic leaf springs at the rear. But whereas the 1300 Ford develops 57 b.h.p. in its ordinary forms, it seems that the single o.h.c., 5-bearing, 1,272 c.c. engine of the Mazda, with its light-alloy head, pokes out 87 b.h.p. This endows it with a sporting performance and easy 60 m.p.h. cruising. It is pleasant to drive, with a light clutch and a quick, simple gear-change. Although the Japanese weaknesses of spongy brakes (disc/drum) and choppy suspension are present, they scarcely detract from the acceptability of this very willing little car.
The interior tends to be a bit spartan, with only a non-lockable cubby for front-compartment stowage, apart from a ridiculously small “hole” before the driver. But the seats, with head restraints and adjustable squabs, are comfortable, and the controls are unusual but effective. A tiny 1.h. stalk controls the lighting from the Koito headlamps and sidelamps and a single substantial r.h. stalk operates all the other services, its knob twisting to switch on the 2-speed wipers.
The Mazda was on Broadstone radial ply 13 in. tyres. In the dry it cornered fast with only a slight feel of lurching and some understeer. It was much faster than I had anticipated; it winds up to 93 m.p.h., with s.s. 1/4-mile acceleration of 18.2 sec., but I believe the Escort is faster. It sells here for £1,174, or £18 less than a 4-door Escort, and is generally a neat little car, although the mounting of the reversing lights within the back bumper is rather droll. The self-propping forward-hinged bonnet reveals the National New-Top battery, the various reservoirs and a long dipstick, all most accessibly placed. The driver is confronted by a 110 m.p.h. Archi Towel speedometer with total mileometer only, and matching dials giving heat, amps, and fuel-level reading. The steering is fairly light, and quick, being geared 3.1/2 turns, lock-to-lock.
I got 35.8 m.p.g. in normal use and was pleased to find that not only does the lockable flap over the fuel-filler shut automatically but that the filler-cap is attached to a chain. Scarcely any oil was consumed in 440 miles, and generally this car is well contrived, being equipped with heated hack window, facia fresh-air vents, cigarette igniter, brake-onlight, etc., and the screen wiping is really effective. But it is horribly noisy at Motorway cruising speeds. However, it shows that improvement in the products from Japan which the British motor industry must guard against.—W.B.