Road impressions

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The Saab 900 16-valve Turbo

These days, when most cars, excellent as they may be, tend to be more and more alike, it is good to be out and about in a Saab. The car from Sweden not only looks different but it is different, in many subtle but practical ways. One senses that Saab engineers are men of integrity, for this shows up in the design of all the modern FWD Saab models. Everything within the car is well placed and nicely made. The tyres are large — 15 in, where 14 in would be used on other cars of this size, Pirelli P6s on the test-car, on 5½J to 15 H2 wheels — rather as on the old VW Beetle, which became renowned for tyre longevity. Again recalling the much-loved-in-its-day Beetle, and the contaminated air from the heaters of the early models, the Saab uses fully-filtered air, distributed through the many settings of the uncomplicated heater / ventilation system.

These two items alone add up to satisfaction when driving a Saab. It is possible to easily make the interior comfortable in all weathers and whereas a very renowned rear-drive car, also on P6s, came to rest on the ice-covered steep eh bend in my drive this winter, the Saab Turbo never lost its grip. So here is a partial substitute for 4WD; moreover, the Saab starts instantly in sub-zero temperatures and its washer-fluid never froze. It was in such wintry conditions that I tested the 900 Turbo in 16-valve twin-cam form. Not ideal for such a high-performance 2-litre, not because of inadequate handling, for this Saab was excellent in this respect, grippy, with good, light power-steering and those very powerful all-disc servo brakes, but because English drivers go slowly as soon as the weather looks bad. I was held up continually on roads where overtaking was less easy due to snow-banked verges. However, under these conditions the very remarkable docility of the turbocharged engine was shown up, but I hardly believed how smoothly the four-cylinder engine would run and from what low revs it will pull away from. Clearly this was no rorty three-door coupe, tiring to drive well. The response was there — and equally impressive, like 0-60 mph in 8.6 sec, and 50 to 70 mph, useful for overtaking, in 4.5 sec, to a top pace of 124 mph, but in traffic the 900 16 Turbo 3-door was docile indeed.

Under these winter conditions fuel consumption figures mean little, but for the record I got 24.3 mpg, which would give me an absolute range of some 336 miles (14 gallon tank). The steady-reading fuel gauge has the ¼-to-red-mark segments far closer than the rest, presumably as a reminder to refill; from full to “red” took 243 miles, suggesting a generous reserve. The gauges are very easy to read, the speedometer larger than the tachometer, which shows a normal maximum of 5,500 rpm, with up to 6,000 rpm usable for brief periods, after which the ignition cut-out operates. This dial incorporates a useful clock and an “Econ” marking up to 3,500 rpm. Another dial shows heat, fuel level and inlet-manifold pressure. The ignition key locks the gear lever in reverse as a thief-proof measure. The three rotary heater controls, and the switches, are very neat and two steering column stalks look after direction indicators and lamps, dip and flashing on the left, wipers on the right. The rotary lights switch, for head, side and Saab’s daylight running lights is on the right of the fascia.

The five-speed gearbox is perhaps slightly notchy and the lever is apt to move under engine torque, although with the longitudinally-mounted engine the car does not “kangaroo” like some FWD cars. Access to the rear of the three-door body is easy and the luggage space good, if shallow. The expected amenities like central locking, electric window lifts, separate fascia mounted toggle adjustment of exterior mirrors, electric sunroof, lamp wipers and seat cushions automatically warmed if tihey are cold, etc, enhance the already covetable aspects of this individualistic car. I was pleased to find “Deep Contour” leather upholstery, which seems to be slowly coming back into favour, as the road-test Renault 25 was so endowed, foe the genuinely most comfortable seats with high squabs and integral headrests. The Saab range is comprehensive and starts in price from £6,995.

The new 900 Turbo was obviously the right model for a Motor Sport assessment and now that it is available with the four-valve-per-cylinder twin-cam engine it is more than ever the enthusiasts’ car. The performance is very impressive for a 2-litre hatchback which is by no means unduly petrol-thirsty (if it arises, thanks to the APC-system, 92-octane fuel is permissible), and which is quiet, very comfortable and cosseting, and easy to drive fast. Technicalities include the very over square 90 x 78 mm engine developing 175 (DIN) bhp at 5,300 rpm and maximum torque at only 3,000 rpm, Bosch electronic LH-jetronic fuel injection, and an inter-cooler for the turbocharger. The kerb-weight is approx 1,300 kg. The latest twin-cam multi-valve light-alloy cylinder head has central sparking plugs. The block is of cast-iron and the crankshaft rims in five bearings. The engine is mounted at 45-deg and drives through a rather heavy but smooth clutch. The power rack-and-pinion steering is geared 3.65 turns, lock-to-lock, for a 10.3 m turning circle.

The appearance of this Saab may well be an acquired taste. With its protruding nose and spoilered tail I thought it somewhat ugly, except that I have never really understood the insistence on beautiful cars, because they are for driving and once inside the external lines and styling cannot be seen… ground clearance was a bit low. The rear of the 900 Turbo Hatchback got very dirty but whether this was a matter of aerodynamics or exceptionally muddy roads is debatable. I found it difficult to remember to wait 20 to 30 sec before switching-off the engine to humour the turbocharger (which could be embarrassing at a petrol-station, as you did your “count down”!) and do not much like Saab’s use of a small “get-you-home” spare wheel and tyre. Another individual aspect of the Saab is its bonnet which, after release, moves forward and up to give full access to the impressive engine. All fillers are very easy to use but the Noack battery behind its heat-shield is little less accessible. The test-car had a Philips 760 radio / stereo set. The fuses are laid out, properly labelled, under a panel on the n/s of the engine.

Summing up this weather-restricted test I am again an avid Saab enthusiast, hr bee is a very fast, very individual car with many highly satisfactory features, all of them practical, from the convenient stowages to the use throughout the Saab range of the well-proven 1,985 cc four-pot power unit. The extremely well-equipped 900 Turbo 16 three-door hatchback, a car finished and appointed in luxury style and a real “flier”, costs £13,490. — W.B.

“Supercinq” Comes To Britain

Whenthe Renault 5 was introduced in 1972, not even optimists within the Regie could have predicted a 12 year production life and an output of 5.5 million units. One reason for its success was its size, for it was the first of the “Superminis”, but even the introduction of a dozen direct rivals by other manufacturers (Metro, Fiesta, Nova, Civic etc) did not diminish its sales.

Another reason was the Gallic chic of its styling which is why, sold as “Le Car” it became something of a cult in the USA. It is hard to think of any other large selling small car which has ever owed so much to its looks. When the time came to consider a replacement, Renault took the decision to build a car which was still recognisably a Renault 5 for the company felt that, more than any other model in its range, the 5 Personified Renault.

The spending of £384 million to produce a car which looks much the same as its 12 year old Predecessor is quite a gamble and, as we all know, Renault is in the midst of a crisis with massive trading losses and severe ovemanning. VW took a similar route with the Golf and while Golf 2 is unquestionably Superior in every respect to original car, it’s interesting to note that the proportion of GTi sales has fallen, for the public’s Perception of the new GTi has changed and VW has had to respond with a price reduction and new cosmetic kit.

The fact is that buyers of new cars are ruled as much by their hearts as by their heads. The new 5 is superior in every area to the old 5 but excellence alone does not sell cars. There are factors such as nationalism, customer loyalty (Renault’s has fallen recently but is still quite healthy at around 60%), and personal image.

When Renault invited journalists to drive the new curio France recently, the company thoughtfully provided examples of the older model to drive first. The statistics tell us that the new car is 10% lighter. 6% more aerodynamically efficient, 2.4 inches longer and wider and has 20% more glass, but the figures do not convey the far greater sense of space of the new car. Nor do they convey greater comfort, with much improved seating and interior. Gone is the old “jelly roll” ride, the new car is no much more taut and “of a piece”. Gone, too, is the abominal gear change and, in its place, is a crisp gearbox as good as any in its class.

The old car had the engine placed north) south with the gearbox as the front, which necessitated a complicated linkage, the new car has the engine and transmission placed transversely. Make no mistake, the new 5 is a completely different car, and a far better one.

The bottom of the range is the 5TC (956 cc, four speed box, 42 bhp, 86 mph, 0-62 mph in 19.3 secs) which, at £3,845, costs exactly the same as a Metro City and has very similar performance figures.

At the top of the range, so far, is the STSE (1397 cc, 72 bhp, five speed box, 104 mph, 0-62 mph in 11.5 sec) which is very similar in performance to the Peugeot 205 GT and costs £5,895 which, by a strange coincidence, is exactly the cost of the Peugeot.

The range is too diverse for the scope of this article but the other car which is likely tube of interest to Motor Sport readers is the 5GTL (1,397 cc, five-speed box, 60 bhp, 99 mph, 0-62 mph in 14.0) which has similar performance to the Metro 1.3 HLE and, at £4,900, is very close in price.

For the present, all 5s are three-door hatchbacks though a five-door version will arrive next year. There is also a 47 bhp 1,108 cc engine in the range and an automatic transmission in the range.

Mid-summer will see the arrival in the UK of the 5 GT Turbo. Forty examples have already been built to form the basis of Renault 5 Elf Turbo UK Cup racing series which will surely be a huge success, for the packaging of the championship has been so well thought out. These cars have 115 bhp and 124 lb/ft torque at 3,000 rpm. Claimed performance is a maximum speed of 125 mph and 0-62 mph acceleration of just 8.0 seconds. This model is significant for it will help mould the public’s perception of the 5 series. This could prove to be the performance bargain of the year.

Apart from the GT Turbo, all models have disc brakes at the front and drums at the rear with an X-split. The GT Turbo has discs all round.

After two days of driving through cities and over mountains, I found precious little to fault. Wind and road noise are a little high but directional stability is excellent. The car has good brakes, good ride and steering, while the roadholding is very good, the 5 being the sort of car which is on the driver’s side. Instrumentation, visibility and comfort are not bettered by any car in its class though the heater / ventilator system, with an excessively noisy fan, does not match the average Japanese system.

Renault has identified its competition as the Austin Metro, Ford Fiesta, Fiat Uno, Vauxhall Nova, Peugeot 205, Talbot Samba, Citroen LNA, VW Polo, Nissan Micra, Toyota Starlet, Honda Civic and Colt Mirage. That is a formidable line-up to take on. When the 5 was first introduced, it had no direct competitor for size but now, say, a British buyer who prefers to buy British if he can, has the choice of the Metro, which is British, and the Fiesta and Nova which are perceived to be British.

The original 5 sold so well partly because of its personality but I have to say that although it is a car which is hard to fault objectively, it did not excite me. My guess is that the Peugeot 205 is currently the clear leader on personality yet the 5 is more practical, has more carrying space, is roomier, more comfortable and has far better interior finish. Still, driving any 205 never fails to give me pleasure in a way which the Renault did not. — M.L.

Three from Toyota

Toyota has introduced three new cars onto the British market and has taken the unusual step of supplementing the existing rear-wheel drive Corolla Coupe GT with a fwd, transverse-engined Corolla GT hatchback. This newcomer shares the superb 4A-GE 1,587 cc, dohc, 16-valve four-cylinder engine and five-speed gearbox with its namesake. Claimed top speed is 122 mph, which we do not seriously doubt, with 0-60 mph acceleration in 8.7 seconds which is perhaps slightly conservative. With a price tag of £7,295, the Corolla GT makes it even more difficult for the buyer of a hot hatchback to make his choice for it is yet another car in the class to offer practicality combined with sound all-round packaging.

At Motor Sport we often receive letters from readers asking advice on which new car to buy and each letter is answered as fully and thoughtfully as we are able. The letters we dread are those which seek advice on, say, “Superminis” or hot hatchbacks for there is no clear answer. Peugeot’s 205 GTi is the most fun to drive, it’s the contemporary Mini-Cooper, but has serious shortcomings in terms of interior finish and passenger and luggage space. I’d be personally happy to trade the shortcomings for the fun but then I don’t have to regard my car as staple family transport.

When it comes to the sensibly sized hatchbacks, all are of a basic high standard at the core of the car and one is left trading the peripherals: three doors or five doors, the car’s looks, slight differences in leg room and seating comfort, one’s perception of the image of the maker and the individual model, one’s relationship with one’s local dealer, and so on.

It terms of ride, steering, wind noise and stability in cross winds, the Corolla GT is par for the course among hot hatches. Although the seats are terribly clever and adjust in all sorts of ways, I did not find them as comfortable as some but, against that, the layout of the instruments, ancillary switches, and the heater / ventilator system come as close to perfection as you’ll find on any car, regardless of price. The three-spoke steering wheel, gear knob and gaiter are all leather trimmed and the rest of the trim is of plastic which is of average standard in some colours but which looks decidedly cheap in others.

The Corolla GT’s engine does not have the sheer torque of a Golf GTi but is equally outstanding in a completely different way since it revs fluently to past 7,000 rpm and, if one needs to make a few more gear changes than with a Golf, then this is no hardship for the gearbox is delightful. I’d like to see objective figures, hut my feeling was that third gear acceleration sets the standard for the class.

The MG Maestro 2.0 EFi trades central door locking and electrically operated windows against the Corolla’s electrically operated sun roof, and the two cars are close in price. The Maestro has five doors to the Corolla’s three and probably has the best ride of any hot hatch, yet the Corolla has an edge with its engine though it is only a marginal one. The Lancia HF Delta Turbo betters the Corolla by a couple of tenths to 60 mph and has Recaro seats and other extras, but is less economical and, in the form most widely sold here, a little more expensive. One is constantly trading on the margin when choosing a hot hatchback.

The point, though, is that the Corolla GT must be considered seriously if one is buying a car in this class. Its styling is discreet, yet purposeful. It is a thoroughly practical family car which is capable of coping with any driving conditions — Toyota was sufficiently confident of this to launch the car in Portugal, which has an abundance of interesting road surfaces, and to plan a long and imaginative route to sample the car. I finished a 2½ hour driving stint full of admiration for it and expressing the hope that I’d soon have a chance to get to know it even better.

At £5,248, the Corolla 1.3 GL also has much to commend it since it has most of the virtues of the GT model, though more muted. Like the GT, it has all round independent suspension though has drum brakes at the rear. Its 129 cc ohc 12-valve engine gives a maximum of 73.7 bhp and 76 lb/ft torque at 4,200 rpm. It shares the GT’s fine five-speed gearbox (a three speed automatic is optional) and instrumentation. A maximum speed of 100 mph is claimed, together with 0-60 mph in 13.9 seconds. It is not, of course, as much fun to drive as the GT but it is perhaps better, relative to its class, than its more muscular brother.

The third Toyota I drove in Portugal was the new Starlet 1.0 GL which has a 999 cc ohc 12-valve engine, producing a maximum of 53.6 bhp, mated to Toyota’s admirable five speed transmission. As with the Corolla range, the Starlet has fwd and transversely-mounted running gear, all independent suspension and disc brakes on the front wheels. The model it replaces bad rear wheel drive.

It is smaller than the Corolla and more susceptible to cross winds but, despite giving away a third of a litre to the Corolla 1.3 GL it returns similar performance figures: 97 mph maximum with 0-60 mph in 13.3 seconds. Ride, handling, steering’ road holding and braking are all of a Yen’ high order, though, for me, the excellent layout of the instruments was spoiled by large panel marked “Economy” which glowed green when I was being a responsible citizen, and turned to orange when I was being heavy on the loud pedal. As my wife would say, it’s all for my own good. She says the same thing about cough mixture. I don’t like cough mixture either.

The Starlet is another viceless little car it, what has become a fiercely fought category. While different manufacturers are shedding each other’s (and their own) blood the buyer can only win — for the present. M.L.

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