Tomorrow the World?
January 1988 set new British records for rainfall, and for new car introductions. In a month normally given over to introspective reflection of "that was the year that was" tone, Audi, BMW, Ford, Fiat, Saab and Renault alI held international Press launches for new wares.
Some were more notable for technical details than the complete vehicle, such as Saab's direct ignition, a distributor-less system introduced in conjunction with its booted 9000 CD saloon; or Renault's Quadra 4WD version of the Espace, complete with viscous coupling and the claims to be France's first saloon in production with permanent 4WD. Funny, I thought the point of the Espace was that it is neither car nor van, but a completely new class of recreational vehicle . . .
The most significant newcomer, in terms of its impact on a wide front, was Fiat's Tipo. For this is the Fiat group's versatile successor to the Ritmo/Strada, one charged with an assault upon the VW Golf, Ford Escort and Toyota Corolla sales territory. But don't yawn, there is more to this innovative Italian than simply being another brat to join the hatchback pack.
Introduced with a simultaneous satellite link bringing together 1100 journalists in European capitals such as London (the Gatwick Hilton, actually!), Paris, Rome and Madrid, the Tipo will sire Lancia and Alfa offspring in the early Nineties — plus a bevy of forthcoming Fiat-branded derivatives from four-wheel drive to a 16-valve/144 bhp basis for a 200 bhp competitor.
Completely contrary to normal industry practice, Fiat brought its LHD, Turin-registered debutants to the people, rather than flying us to exotic climes. This upset that sector of the Press which depends on "jollies" to put (preferably sunlit) distance between itself and the office,but I appreciated the chance to assess a debutant over familiar Sussex terrain.
Why? The roads over which a new car is driven make a tremendous difference to the relevance of a motoring journalist's comments, and I much prefer territory over which I have experience of the car's likely competitors.
It takes a lot of experience to correlate a car's behaviour in a location such as Morocco to the everyday experience of even the sportiest motorists in Britain. Drivers stranded on a wet motorway, or bouncing along the special stages which local UK authorities still designate as B roads, might not appreciate your wisdom in identifying ventilation at 90°F as the worst potential problem of a newcomer. Fiat's action in bringing the Tipo to us was thus a genuine breakthrough, though I do not think it did them any UK favours.
Although the Tipo features a bravely styled body of almost sensual smoothness (0.31Cd, good for a 155.8in length), the Italians have followed the VW code of evolution rather than revolution in development.
There is a double-skin plastic tailgate to save weight, plus a return of the dreaded electronic instrumentation (Tipo Digit, a separate model line), but the front-drive line, initially of five-doors only, contains nothing to startle the Japanese, or the more advanced Europeans.
Whilst Honda's Civic hatchback line is composed entirely of 16V units, all available now, Fiat spoke of electronic injection arriving "in a few months" and "a 1.8-litre, 16V sports version" some twelve months away. Turbocharged and 4WD cousins are more distant still in the development chain. The fastest of the five main Tipo engine options, from 1108cc petrol to 1929cc turbodiesel, is the latter at a claimed 108.6 mph on 92 bhp.
The opportunity to widen the appeal of anti-lock braking is missed. Only the turbo diesel Tipo has the option of Bosch ABS, which is curious because Leamington Spa's AP Antiskid vacuum system has already been premiered in the Fiat Uno Turbo which is anticipated in Britain this Spring.
The 1580cc/83 bhp Tipo 1600 Super which I drove flashed no more than 160 kph (99.4 mph) upon its distracting digital dashboard, but the maker says it will nudge 107 mph. Both turbo-diesel and 1600 Super are credited with 12-second periods to attain 0-62 mph.
Fuel consumption statistics for the range report a best of 60.1 mpg for the 1.1 "fire-engined" Tipo to a worst of 31.7 urban mpg in the 1600 Super.
A stupid power/economy flashing light adds to the electronic bewilderment of the multi-function dashboard, a disappointing layout in that it is one of Europe's first to coincide with a new model launch.
I do not dislike digital instrumentation as such, but find it has to be bright and possess a large read-out and exceptionally gifted graphics (as in Chevrolet's Corvette) to be immediately comprehensible enough to qualify for sports use. Given such a layout I then appreciate the facility to emphasise certain aspects (perhaps rpm and oil pressure) for hard use. Surely digital information will become a regular feature of the Nineties? For the generation bred in she Seventies is more used to assimilating digital information from watches and calculators than its elders.
Fiat chiefs emphasised the Tipo's present role as a Golf/Escort challenger, the Japanese being dismissed as "not particularly strong in this sector" by Fiat, Lancia and Alfa Romeo ruling force Vittorio Ghidella. Personally, I thought the Toyota Corolla a challenger for world dominance as the most popular badge currently on sale. The Japanese claimed over 12.5 million sales by the time the sixth generation appeared late last year.
However, those Corollas were and are an assorted bunch of models (like the Escort, covering a switch from rear to front-drive), and I would nominate the VW Beetle as the largest single model run: it is still in South American production, spanning 50 years and more than 22 million units. By contrast the Golf, also a single model in my book with front-drive a consistent theme, is scheduled to reach ten million units this March, attained in less than 14 years.
I liked the Tipo's quiet competence in brisk road use, and the imaginatively practical manner of its public premier. Yet I must point out that the Tipo is less of a world challenger than Fiat suggests.
Neither the USA nor Canada is on the sales schedule, and our American readers will be well aware that Fiat had to retreat from their mass market some seasons ago. Toyota's wares, along with now German-built Golfs and domestically-constructed Ford Escorts, continue to fight them. You can feel the lack of a USA presence in the Tipo's predicted production figures of 1800 cars per day. Hall 54 at Wolfsburg hit 3900 per day early in the life of the second generation Golf, and is now pumping out the contemporary shape at 4415 on every working day! Yet there were still journalists, eminent German journalists at that, asking Fiat when it expected to overhaul Golf sales. It may happen, but not on Fiat's current sales topography ... JW
For Motor Sport's readership there is an equally strong reason to cite the new BMW 5-series as the most important of the January 1988 arrivals, and I was saddened that I could not accept a last minute chance to attend the Portuguese driving exercise.
For the announced UK 5-series price span off £16,000-£25,000 means that Audi and Ford aspirants to some of BMW's business could have been directly compared, after a trip to Austria brought my experience of the now all-Torsen differential-equipped quattro line to 100%.
I was an early convert to the quattro system, admiring its lightweight hollow-shaft answer to thc normally weighty problem of 4WD. Yet I cannot let my enthusiasm overcome the stark commercial facts of life which seem bound to reduce its availability in the Nineties.
For Audi revealed that approximately 9.5% (about 40,000 of 420,000 cars made in 1987) of its production is now of 4WD quattro type, far below its original aspirations.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Torsen centre differential's presence, in place of the fixed 50-50 power-split bevel gearing of the original Audi system, is thoroughly worthwhile. We were allowed to investigate over three test courses at an unusually snow-free Salzburgring, including a slalom sprint for 90 quattros in which the British were thrashed by the multiple-run expertise of the Dutch. Yes, I got a prize, but I am not sure that a quattro wallet full of fake credit cards made out to a variety of unlikely aliases will prove acceptable in Britain! The final quattro cornering characteristic of understeer has been diminished by the Torsen Gleason Corporation's variable power apportionment. According to the surfaces encountered, it will automatically bias power in a range from 75% front to 25% rear, or vice versa.
Audi R&D engineers, under the leadership of the now ultimate boss of the Audi company Dr Ferdinand Piech (he of Porsche fame), worked from rallying to road endurance testing to make the Torsen durable enough to withstand everyday usage. Accelerated endurance tests over 186,000 miles included constantly-recurring 90° turns to make the Torsen work for a living.
After the spate of New Year debutants, my personal preference amongst desirable allweather transport is still headed by Audi's Quattro coupe. The coupe body is due for change in Audi's busiest year, which will also see the 20-valve five-cylinder in non-turbo guise for the 90. Its V8 saloon is not as far away as I thought, either. .
BMW's 5-series looks so promising that I could imagine foregoing the security of Audi 4WD, but both are so financially remote that I am forced into the more accessible Cosworth Ford cockpit, but of the three-door variety. Such 145 mph performers are available at lower second-hand prices in the wake of the £19,000 Sierra RS four-door.
Reduced second-hand values may apply to the Audi quattro original too. Yet a senior executive offering me the chance of owning his cosseted coupe confided it would still cost £25,000—after he had finished with it ! A new Audi-VW price list has just come to hand and I note that the 200 bhp quattro coupe is now the painful side of £30,000.
I await 4WD for the people, but VW in Britain has yet to price the impending Golf Synchro, which impressed me on its debut in February 1986. Synchro derivatives number ten in LHD, though none mates any more than 90 carburated bhp to the system. JW