Austin Maestro

In the past British Leyland has carved an unenviable reputation for hamstringing fine concepts with poor execution that has blighted its models’ chances of gaining wide acceptance in highly competitive market sectors. When the Metro was introduced, however, some of the ghosts arising from the Maxi and Allegro models were laid and the company’s most important new car, formerly codenamed LM10 but now christened Maestro, looks set to continue the good work.

Make no mistake about it, the Maestro is crucial to the company’s continued progress, for it aims to take sales not only from Ford’s best selling Escort but also from the recently announced Sierra. While the latter might have got off to something of a shaky start (by Ford’s high marketing success standards) there is no denying that playing Ford at its own game is no easy task.

On paper, though. the Maestro appears well equipped for its role. There’s a seven model range which encompasses 1.3 and 1.6-litre power units and a choice of specifications based on a front-wheel drive, five door hatchback theme (with the promise of a “balanced”, booted version at a later date). And all models feature innovative engineering allied to stylish appearance and versatility.

Basis of the Austin Rover Group’s model line-up is the 1.3 which uses a 68 b.h.p. version of the A-Plus pushrod four, followed by the 1.3L, the 64 b.h.p. economy 1.3 HLE, the 1.6L and the 1.6 HLS, both larger engined models using new R-Series overhead camshaft engines with 81 b.h.p. Then come the range toppers, the high performance MG Maestro 1600, with a 110 m.p.h. speed potential and the luxurious Vanden Plas 1.6.

All models in the range feature independent front suspension via coil springs and struts, with semi-independent layouts using coils and an H frame at the rear; electronic engine management systems including breakerless ignition, electric thermostatically controlled cooling fans and homofocal halogen headlights. The latter, used for the first time on a British car, employ moulded plastic reflectors which, instead of being smooth are divided into computer calculated facets precisely focused to collect portions of the halogen bulbs’ light and project them forward to improve efficiency.

Certain models in the range are also equipped with Voice Synthesis Units which, in the writer’s opinion, are little more than a highly tedious gadget. Operating through the driver’s radio speaker on Vanden Plas and MG derivatives, the VSU talks to its occupants in dulcet female tones. advising them to ‘Please fasten your seatbelt’ or warning of abnormal running conifitions (“Warning, low oil pressure” or “Handbrake on”). Perhaps it you’re forgetful or downright thoughtless such a system might appeal, but if you have any pride in your motoring you’ll be pleased to know the system can be switched off!

Lest it be thought that ARG engineers have simply selected established mechanical components for the new range, it should be stressed that the power units — one a development of an existing engine, the other an all-new plant — reflect the amount of thought that has been given to the Maestro programme.

The A-Plus engine is fundamentally similar to that in the Metro, having been extensively refined in 1980. However, to provide the correct direction of rotation without recourse to a primary transfer gear, it has been turned round in the engine bay, placing the ignition in a more protected location at the rear of the block (remember the drowned ignition syndrome on early Minis?). Compression is raised to 9.75:1 to realise an 8 b.h.p. increase over the Metro version and maximum torque is now 75 lb. ft. at 3,500 r.p.m. The HLE economy version has revised camshaft timing and special carburettor and ignition calibrations. Maximum torque at low speed is improved and the reshaped power curve now peaks at 5,500 r.p.m.

The new R-Series unit was designed primarily to keep the overall length as short as possible, the siamesed cylinder walls providing a very rigid block. With a 76.2 mm. bore and relatively long (87.6 mm.) stroke the unit is undersquare but benefits by producing low exhaust emissions as a result of a combustion chamber design that has a compact surface / volume ratio. The latter is a modified version of Weslake’s kidney shape which has been proved on other ARG engines, with inlet and exhaust ports on the same side of the cylinder head.

Economy has played a prominent role across the range, an onboard microprocessor controlling coId-start mixture enrichment, idle speed and overrun fuel cut-off. The high performance MG engine uses two twin-choke 40 DCNF Weber carburettors mounted on special inlet manifolds to provide maximum power, while standard camshaft timing is retained in the interests of low speed flexibility. Compared to the normal 1.6 the twin carb unit develops 9 lb. ft. more torque (100 at 4,000 r.p.m. versus 91 at 3,500).

In the transmission area, ARG has been unable to justify the cost of developing a new transmission of its own (its engineers sensibly deciding that any new unit would become outdated very quickly, such is the current pace of gearbox development within the industry, and has instead opted for Volkswagen’s family of four and five speed transaxles which can he fitted in-line with the crank in a transverse installation. The technical collaboration with Volkswagen AG has thus provided four transmissions which range from a four-speeder with slightly overdriven top gear for the 1.3, 1.3L and 1.6L models (the latter with a higher final drive), through the 1.3HLE’s 3+E unit which has a direct third and overdriven top, to the Vanden Plas and 1.6HLS’s five-speeder with overdriven top. The MG has its own close ratio version with a lower overdrive top. The normal VW gear linkage pattern has been modified slightly to balance the width of the five, speed gate more evenly and ease selection of third.

Performance wise, the range covers a broad spectrum. Slowest is the 1.3HLE with 95 m.p.h. maximum and 14 second 0-60 time, while the MG, as befits its sporting image, records respective figures of 110 m.p.h. and around 9.5 seconds.

Drag coefficients make interesting reading, with the base 1.3 having a 0.38 Cd and the MG, with its HLE style vertical strakes on the rear window, deeper front spoiler, and rear wheel flares bringing this down to a commendable if not outstanding 0.36.

Other features include clear crystal chromatic front indicator lenses which do away with the need for amber covers and help integrate the indicators with the headlamps, and colour matched bumpers a la Porsche 928.

On the road

ARG’s press information booklet explains that the interior of the Maestro was designed to accommodate “at least four 95th percentile adults together, with enough adjustment to accept 99th percentile physiques in the front if required”. Quite what all that means will remain a mystery to most, but in layman’s terms the car exudes a pleasant air of roominess. During our tests at the models’ launch in Marbella we were able to sample the MG, Vanden Plas, 1.3HLE and 1.3L models — and came away impressed. Somewhat jealously we ensured we drove a coveted MG first, which was a shame as it transpired, for the first day’s route was no challenge to the car’s abilities, comprising an easy dawdle along the coast. Nevertheless, it was sufficient to indicate that the high performance Maestro will find many friends among drivers seeking sporting pace allied to saloon car practicality. Engine reponse is crisp and ride taut, although our particular car exhibited a degree of stiffness in gear selection. In fairness, however, it should be said that there were few miles on the clock and the Vanden Plas we tried on the mountain roads to Ronda the following day performed faultlessly in this department.

The VDP responded well to the chase over the tortuous Andulasian range, exhibiting little body roll even when pressed hard into corners and handling with all the safe, understeer-dominated behaviour one comes to expect from a front-wheel drive saloon. Push too hard into a bend and the resultant tyre scrub soon reduces cornering speed, the car behaving with total predictability. On Dunlop’s fuel saving Elites the car rode well, transmitting few thumps into the cabin even though some surfaces produced more tvre noise than one might expeet. The electronic instrumentation that is standard on MG and Vanden Plas models met with a varied response but we found it worked very well. Other than the mileage recorder the system has no moving parts, an electrical sensor on the gearbox casing transmitting signals via microprocessors to the instrument assembly and vacuum fluorescent displays monitoring speed, engine revs., water temperature and fuel tank contents.

The 1.6 R-Series engine pulls well, but we would have preferred a less pronounced gap between second and third gears, and the engine noise became rather wearing after a while. Over 4,000 r.p.m. the unit sounds strained and by the time the rev. counter nears the yellow band most sensitive drivers would change up rather than carry on to the red sector.

Later in the day we sampled the 1.3L and came away impressed with its willingness to sprint from corner to corner. It’s no fireball and it’s a lot noisier than the Vanden Plas (as one would expect), but it came across as an honest little workhorse that responded well to a brand of enthusiastic driving few owners would indulge in.

Overall? Relatively short press launch drives are no basis on which to form concrete opinions but the indications are that Austin Rover Group has found the key to producing winning packages The Maestro, née LM10, could be set to push ARG into the black, given reliability, it deserves to succeed. — D.J.T.