Road Impressions

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Nissan Silvia Turbo ZX

Just as Ford has its XR series, Nissan is spreading the ZX designation down from the recently introduced range-topping 300ZX to less expensive models through the range, so that there will be a Cherry and a Bluebird ZX, as well as the Silvia Turbo version which introduces this policy.

The Silvia is a 2+2 coupé of all new shape, and very attractive too. Short and wedgy in profile, it has a slender grille with electric pop-up lights, and an enormous tailgate which incorporates the C-pillars and part of the roof, plus the inevitable tail-spoiler without which a car apparently cannot be considered sporting.

Rear legroom is in short supply, but the shallow boot is usefully long and wide, while captain and co-pilot should have no difficulty in establishing themselves comfortably up front. Instrumentation is very visible and simple, though why certain warning lights are in front of the passenger and well out of the driver’s eyeline, only Nissan can say.

Starting with the 1,800 cc ohc engine used in the Stanza, Nissan have managed to produce a turbo package which is if anything less peaky than the average unblown unit — boost starts well below 3,000 rpm and levels out before 4,000, from where the power curve rises smoothly to its 6,000 rpm maximum of 135 bhp. The torque peak (142 lb/ft) is at a useful 4,000 rpm. The driver can tell it is a turbo because of that “damped throttle” effect, but as there is essentially no waiting before the audible whistle starts to wind the speedometer up, it can be driven quickly even on unknown and winding roads.

With its low profile tyres, front struts, and rear semi-trailing arms, there is quite a lot of grip available, but the chassis is not entirely happy about fast changes of direction, showing a moment of hesitation followed by a sudden twitch as it sets off on its new line. This was exacerbated by the over-zealous power steering on the test car, though this is an option, and the too-sharp brakes, so that smooth fast progress was difficult to achieve. These reservations apart, the Silvia Turbo ZX is a well-balanced car, with a useful spread of ratios in its five-speed box, of which top is an overdrive so that motorway cruising is relaxed, and a compact feel to it which enhances its sporting pretensions. Rear three-quarter vision is difficult, and the firm ride gets no softer at speed, but large doors make for easy access, and the equipment level is generous: alloy wheels, rear wiper and a sophisticated radio cassette are standard, at a total of £8,994.

It would take some work on the chassis before I would personally include it in my list of sports cars, but the Silvia ZX is a very rapid coupé with excellent turbo characteristics — 8.5 seconds take it to 60 mph, but more important is the strong torque available for overtaking.

If this were a Ford, it would be the XR3½, since it is in the middle of the £3,000 gap between XR3i and XR4, as a Nissan ZX it may just plug that gap in an increasingly lucrative bracket. — G.C.

Fiat Strada Abarth 130TC

With the burgeoning of the so-called sportshatch market, no manufacturer’s range is complete without a hot-shot hatch. Fiat were quick to offer the Strada 105TC, a delightful and practical package which blew typical Italian exhaust-pipe raspberries at its more northerly rivals, equalling their performance despite being at the lower end of the price scale. But not content with that, Turin then invoked their long time association with their Abarth tuning subsidiary to create the first 2-litre contender in this class, the 130TC. The designation, in marque style, specifies the power output, so that this fwd two-door four-seater has 200 cc and 15 bhp in hand over the Astra GTE and Golf GTi. The engine is a development of the twin-cam used in the Mirafiori Sport and the rally-winning 131 Abarth, and features a pair of traditional side-draught carbs rather than injection, but with the Digiplex electronic ignition system as a concession to efficiency. This drives through a 5-speed ZF gearbox with a comparatively good change, and the car is stopped by the unusual combination of front ventilated discs and rear drums, which collectively worked well.

Externally the Abarth looks rather tough, less because of its prognathous airdam than its squat stance on lowered suspension and 185/60 x 14 tyres. In the cockpit the image is reinforced by a comfortably small wheel and a pair of very supportive competition seats, complete with all the holes for a six-point harness. In fact this car’s role in the range is made clear by a note in the official description which lists the items required to prepare it as a Group N competition car: these are 1) roll cage, 2) full harness, 3) fire extinguisher. In other words, it is about the nearest you can buy to a production racer — and it feels like it the moment you move off.

With the snap response of four chokes and a solid low-speed ride, the Abarth makes it plain that is built for business, and yet the torque and the heavy but positive gearchange make it quite docile in traffic. All the time, however, the burbling exhaust is goading the driver to open up, and once out of the 30 mph limit, that is just what any red-blooded pilot will do. Fiat merely say that 60 mph comes up in “less than 8 seconds”, but at the launch, some correspondents were boasting times of 7.4 sec, and the official top speed of 118 mph seems a conservative claim too.

Handling? Well, if you ever had a Scalextric set, you already know about the Abarth. A momentary lift of the throttle to bring the nose tight into line, then back on the pedal to send the little car snarling past the apex and on to the next bend. Prodigious grip and negligible roll added to quick steering make it easy to drive fast, but it is a sprinter rather than a grand tourer.

At a price of £7,800, only the Golf costs more, but the power advantage of the Abarth 130TC makes comparison difficult. It is the fastest of its peers, but also the thirstiest. Which side of the equation weighs more nowadays? — G.C.

Lancia Delta HF Turbo

Both Lancia’s reputation and sales in the UK took a severe knock in the Seventies due to rust problems. Despite the company honourably compensating its customers, and curing the problem, neither have yet recovered. Part of the problem has been that they have not since marketed a model of sufficient distinction to spearhead a sales revival.

With the Lancia Delta HF Turbo, the position could change, for here is an outstanding addition to the current crop of sporty hatchbacks, indeed the company claim that it is the fastest 1,600 cc five-door hatchback available.

Two models are available, a basic car at £7,250 and an “executive pack” version at £7,990. The importers, Lancar, expect all of their sales to be the latter which comes complete with sliding steel sunroof, Recaro seats, central locking and headlamp wash / wipe. Both models have 75 kg of rustproofing chemicals and a six-year TKD warranty.

Central to the plot is a four-cylinder dohc engine of 1,585 cc which has been modified (sodium filled valves, lower cr etc) to take a Garrett T3 turbocharger running at 1.7 bar. Turbo lag is minimal, the engine delivers its power over a wide range and is quiet and unfussy. Sixty miles per hour comes up in around eight seconds and the maximum speed is claimed to be just over 120 mph. The independent all-round suspension is soft enough to iron out even quite bumpy road surfaces, yet firm enough to give a sporting feel. The steering is light and precise and, coupled with excellent handling, makes the Delta HF Turbo a car which cries out for hard driving. Disc brakes are fitted on all four wheels.

Seated behind the small, thick, steering wheel, all the controls fall easily to hand and the instruments are easy to read. Some of the information, such as turbo boost, is conveyed by clearly lit bar graphs which, Lancia claim, is a first for a European car. The five-speed gearbox is crisp, the Recaro seats live up to their high reputation, and the car is extremely quiet. With the sunroof open, one can hold a normal conversation or listen to the stereo radio even at the maximum speed limit.

The lasting impression of the car will always be, for us, the excellence of the 130 bhp engine, which is smooth, responsive and exciting. We were told, though had no opportunity to check, that most drivers should achieve an average fuel consumption of around 30 mpg.

For the importers, and their re-shaped dealer chain, it is an important car in their strategy to revive the Lancia marque in Britain. For the motorist who is looking for a performance hatchback, which is a great deal of fun to drive, which has five doors and a lot of load carrying capacity and which is a cut above the rest of the market in appointment, the Delta HF Turbo is a serious proposition. — M.L.

Alfetta Gold Cloverleaf

Ever since we first sampled the Alfetta, in Italy back in 1972, we have sustained our enthusiasm for this well-balanced 2-litre twin-cam Alfa Romeo saloon, the appeal of which is substantially enhanced in its latest “Gold Cloverleaf” configuration. Thanks to the addition of a Motronic “engine management” system and Bosch fuel injection, the 1962 c.c. power unit performs more responsively and economically than ever, providing an average fuel consumption in the region of 31 m.p.g. combined with zestful acceleration figures (0-60 m.p.h. in just under 10 sec.) and a top speed of around 107 m.p.h. in the generously geared 0.78:1 fifth ratio.

The Gold Cloverleaf still provides that early, full-bodied roar which we’ve come to adore; a nice car all round, but dated in many respects. The driving position is fine — “Italianate”, but by no means as exaggerated as in the Giulietta, and aided by an adjustable (up/down) steering column with very effective electrically adjustable seat backs controlled by buttons on the central console down by the seat belt anchorage. The engine continues to rev. willingly with no harshness at all, pulling in fourth gear from 18/20 m.p.h. and from 30-ish in fifth. The gear change is still slightly rubbery, although ultimately quite precise.

The pedal positions are good, with light and progressive clutch and brakes. All in all, the Alfetta Gold Cloverleaf is a cheerful car, with a nice, well-damped ride that is probably a touch too lively over really bumpy surfaces. It rolls into understeer thanks to the front end’s continued inability to match the rear when it comes to sheer grip, making life a little frantic when pressing on hard on tight country lanes. The rev counter’s yellow section is at 5,700 rpm with the red sector at 6,500 rpm: there is a 120 mph speedometer with mileometer and trip, plus and oil pressure and water temperature gauge, plus the usual contemporary “state of the car” instrumentation. Electric windows (with controls in a roof panel just behind the rear-view mirror) are also included. During its time with us the windscreen wipers and cigar lighter packed up probably a faulty fuse), but the overall impression is of a dated car, but one which, at £9,590, positively oozes character. — A.H.

BMW Alpina C1

The first question one must ask about the BMW Alpina C1 is a simple one: Is it actually worth a £5,500 plus premium over a standard 323i? Unfortunately, the answer is not as straightforward as the question. If you add the price of an electric sunroof (a £526 option on the 323i, but standard on the Alpina derivative), electric windows (£291 extra for the standard model, included on the C1) as well as all the listed sports equipment to the cost of the two-door 323i (£10,300) then you can expect to be presented with a bill for at least an additional £2,044. That still leaves a shortfall of £3,651, but begs another question: What price exclusively?

BMW (GB) Ltd through Sytners of Nottingham are planning to sell only 40 Alpina C1s in the country each year, so if you do have £15,995 available then you can be sure that your C1 is an elitist machine.

There are, of course, other considerations. The C1 could be regarded as somewhere approaching a hand-built version of the popular 323i, as the Southern Bavarian based Alpina company insists that it is not a tuning or conversion firm, but a car builder as it does not modify owners’ cars, and only delivers complete vehicles. Therefore our test car came with a unique collection of Alpina body groans.

Our white and gold test car attracted many admiring glances, particularly from normal 323i owners who were always anxious to find out whether or not the 20 bhp increase (170 bhp as opposed to 150, DIN) did give the Alpina a six miles an hour advantage (claimed 132 mph max compared with 126) in top speed as well as a slight improvement in the 0-60 mph time: 7.4 seconds against 8.1.

For our taste we could have done without what BMW describes as the “gold strip-Deko-set” which is thankfully an option, an addition which made the C1 look like a “hairdressers car” according to one observer, whatever that may mean. Gold side striping apart, the Alpina C1l has aggressive looks with its deep front air dam (unfortunately savaged by a previous incumbent), rear spoiler and wide (7J x 16) Alpina alloy rims with Pirelli P7s. The combination of these fat tyres, and a standard limited slip differential, provide the C1 with superb dry weather handling, although there is a pronounced kick-back and wander through the four-spoke Momo leather-rimmed steering wheel.

In the dry you can push the Alpina very hard, and all you’ll get is a slight step out of line from the rear as the 25 per cent limited slip differential gets to work. There is, as one expects, a degree of power-off understeer, but if you keep the power on the tendency is towards slight oversteer which is easily controllable. However, if it’s wet you must be extra careful. Those wide P7s can lose traction and grip in an instant.

Alpina has worked hard at finding a compromise between ride and handling, fitting the C1 with special progressive springs front and rear as well as Bilstein gas shock absorbers. Firm but far from uncomfortable ride is the result, and although a little on the bouncy side at low speeds, it is perfect for higher speed motoring, some of the more pronounced jars well cushioned by the rather garishly decorated sports seats which hold you in well, but did tend to promote backache during a five hour journey.

The six-cylinder seven-bearing crank 2,316 cc engine complete with light alloy Mahle cast pistons, 10:1 compression ratio and Bosch LE-Jetronic fuel injection is a joy. It feels unburstable, and although there is little power below 3,000 rpm, it starts to issue that delightful BMW six-cylinder bellow above 3,500 rpm whereupon the C1 catapults its occupants along the road with a most satisfying surge of power. It is nevertheless imperative to keep engine revs above 4,000 rpm if one is to get the best out of this familiar and much respected engine which has lost nothing, but gained a lot as a result of Alpina’s tinkerings.

The five-speed close ratio box is perfectly matched, and encourages one to use it to the full, some fairly ham-fisted changes never once outwitting the synchromesh or the logical gating and lever movement. We found that third gear had a useful 90 mph maximum whilst 120 mph could be achieved in fourth whereupon the rather unnecessary fuel economy meter would have hysterics. During our sojourn with the Alpina C1 we recorded an average consumption of 27.8 mpg in mixed motoring conditions, which was very respectable, although the majority was cruising along motorways. BMW claim an urban cycle figure of 20.3 mpg. Whilst on the subject of fuel one must add that the 323i has one of the worst petrol filler necks we’ve ever experienced, constant blow backs making refuelling a long and laborious job, whilst the tank itself was pitifully small for such a sporting car.

The vented 260 mm front and unvented 258 mm rear disc brakes never gave a moment’s worry, the pedal remaining reassuringly hard despite a repeated battering, making one feel that the C1 would stop on a tenpenny piece, there being no sign of locking or wander in the dry. Understandably, the driver had to be a little more cautious in the wet for fear of a aquaplaning.

The BMW Alpina C1 is a car which appeals strongly to the true sporting motorist who will fully appreciate its more subtle qualities, and be able to get the best out of this interesting variation on the well-thought-of 323i. It will also undoubtedly appeal to the poseurs, but its true qualities will be lost on them, although to them nearly £16,000 is a relatively small price to pay for something which will stand out in a bevy of BMWs. — M.R.G.