Road impressions

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What a useful and jolly little car is the latest version of the Lancia Prisma — and not so little either, because this four-door booted saloon comfortably takes four and their luggage. It follows the current line of four-cylinder transverse-engined, front-wheel-drive family cars but tries to impart a little extra. To one who remembers the great Lancia models of the past it is not a Lancia, but it is a nice car nevertheless. We should really have tried it in twin-cam, 105 bhp, 110 mph form. As it was, the 1500 engine with belt-driven single oh-camshaft, alloy head, and five-bearing crankshaft develops 85 bhp at 5,800 rpm, which pushes the Prisma along very well without undue noise or fuss. The claim that this is one of the lightest cars in its class, at 2,068 lb, seems justified, translated into willing pick-up. There is 12.5 kgm torque at 3,500 rpm and it all works out at to 60 mph in rather under 12 seconds, while it is possible to push this 86.4 063.9 mm (1,498 cc) Prisma up to just over 100 mph. Its “Otto-4” engine, as Lancia have it, now has a c.r. of 9.2 to 1, and it has been given a high-turbulence head and breakerless electronic ignition.

So what is it like on the road? The latest Prisma can be summed up as having comfortable seats upholstered in sensible tweed, a five-speed gearbox with a stubby lever whose action is average-good, but a thought rubbery, so it would not have done focus Aprilia, disc/drum brakes which feel unreassuring at first but prove to be powerful and progressive when the pedal is firmly depressed, and all-round independent MacPherson-strut suspension which very effectively irons out the bumps, if jittery and rattly over bad surfaces. The engine runs commendably quietly and the steering (3½ turns lock-to-lock) is light. The instrumentation is effective, with the smaller dials consisting of a battery-meter, thermometer and accurate fuel-gauge with low-level light. The warning lights are small and neat, on the compact Veglia instrument panel, but the digital clock was sometimes difficult to read in daylight. Seat belts front and rear arc standard equipment, as are courtesy lag interior lighting, a laminated windscreen, an adjustable steering column and two external rear-view mirrors. The triple stalk-controls are arranged in a pattern common to Italian cars, the lb one for the lamps longer and ahead of the turn-indicators’ control, which is matched by the rh wipe/washers stalk. The external door handles are akin to those of an Alfa 6. The instruments are minutely calibrated, engine heat normally being 87 deg C and the tachometer needle going Imo the red at 6,500 rpm. The central console contains a row of switches, the heating and ventilation adjusted with three remarkably big knobs, with clear symbols above them, and, below, a Panasonic radio / stereo having a roof aerial.

The plastic fascia surround incorporates a useful shelf, properly angled to retain loose objects, unlike that of an Alfa 6, but the wells in the scuttle are irritatingly far forward, especially in this age of seat belts (door pockets would be preferable) and the cubby hole is too small and although lockable, this involves using the key to open it and then turning a knob to drop the lid. The Carello lamps gave a good beam once properly adjusted, which is easy to do. The petrol tank holds 9.9 gallons, its screw-type filler tap (a Fiat contribution?) being beneath a lockable panel on the near-side. Although the hand-out says “Pirelli low-profile tyres are used to reduce rolling resistance and for improved directional stability”, in fact the test car was on our old friend the Michelin “X” (165 x 70 SR 13 ZX). It was rather disconcerting to find an exposed steering-column, the universal joint of which rubbed one’s left foot when cornering!

Using this likeable Prisma for well over 1,000 miles, some of them hurried ones, such as driving back to Wales after the VSCC Cadwell Park races, fuel thirst worked out at 33.3 mpg, with up to a remarkable 36 mpg when merely cruising and although a flickering warning light caused me to consult the dip stick, no oil was required. The front-hinged bonnet is self-supporting, with plastic release lever on the driver’s side of the car, but one has to remove the electrical connection before the awkward dip stick can be read.

The gear lever is gaitered, with a large lidded ash tray and inset lighter ahead of it, there is a roof-located map lamp as on an Alfa 6, the doors are of generous sine and possess effective “keeps”, and although the literature suggested that a check panel for services is only to be found on the Prisms 1500 Automatic and 1600 models, there was one, very compactly net in the left side of the instrument binnacle, on the test car. There was also an economy gauge, best ignored unless you are a “mimser”. This single-cam 1500 proudly carried a reminder that Lancia Rally con compressore volumetrico volumex won this year’s Monte Carlo Rally outright, and I look forward to trying it normal Lancia with this engine-driven supercharger.

For the present, let it be said that the Prisma, which is built at the Chivasso plant and comes between the Delta and Trevi, and costs £5,550, is an attractive small car worth considering by those seeking family transport with a prestige badge. Lancia claim to have overcome their notorious rusting problems (those Betas with engines virtually falling out) by using various treatments, including 38 to 40 microns of primer on body panels compared to the standard 18 to 20 micron thickness. — W.B.

The efficient BMW ‘eta’

Nailing the bogey that reasonable power outputs and respectable fuel consumption figures cannot go hand-in-hand, BMW’s new eta petrol engine has found its way into the popular 5-series bodyshell and is now available under the model designation 525e. Under development for a considerable time at the firm’s technical base in Munich, the eta engine’s design aim is to exploit the existing advantages of the petrol engine whilst minimising its disadvantages under partial load conditions. The Greek “eta” is used by engineers to reflect efficiency, the ratio between fuel consumed and energy developed, and subtle design changes to the combustion chambers of the 2639 cc six-cylinder BMW engine are designed to maximise the burning of the air / fuel mixture and to provide a high compression ratio of 11.0:1. The net result of these, and other, changes to the engine’s specification is to endow the unit with the performance associated with a 520 saloon whilst, at the same time, returning outstandingly good fuel consumption figures.

Modifications to valve timings and inlet and exhaust systems have also been incorporated, the latter factor contributing to the engine’s distinctively long inlet manifolds, which are intended to fill the cylinders efficiently and provide a significant “dynamic post-charge effect.” An engine’s frictional losses increase by their square, but only increase in a linear curve when engine capacity is increased. BMW engineers have thus come to the conclusion that a larger engine running at lower speeds would produce a low friction coefficient, and enable them to realise their ambition of combining performance with economy.

With this 525e engine producing the same 125 bhp output as the smaller capacity 520i, the engine is operating at a lower speed than the 2-litre unit. This enables such refinements as lower tension valve springs to be used, cutting down friction between rocker arms and cams, while the number of camshaft bearings has been reduced from seven to four with the same ends in mind. The eta engine also employs “second generation” Digital Motor Electronics similar to the system already employed on BMW’s 3.2-litre and 3.5-litre engines. This enhances cold start control and improves fuel economy when the engine is cold by soeeding the warm-up in cold weather, and the fuel cut-off now extends down to 1200.

The familiar creature comforts of the BMW 5-series are immediately apparent in this well-equipped 01,495 (tax paid) machine, although everyday motorists will need more than a degree of convincing to Pay out £1,300 more than the cost of the straightforward 520i in the interests of technical efficiency and improved fuel consumption. However, we must record that we were highly impressed with the consumption figures recorded from this new “high efficiency” BMW: during its time in our hands it returned a creditable 33.2 mpg which is well in line with its official figures of 37.7 mpg at a steady 75 mph and 24.6 mpg in the urban cycle. Since our test didn’t include much in the way of motorway driving, this sort of figure is obviously not unreasonable, making the 52.5e an interesting proposition for anybody who turns in a high business mileage, for example, over a relatively short period.

To complement the engine’s low speed torque (177 lb ft at 3250 rpm), a very high final drive is employed, enabling the BMW to reach the same road speeds as the 520i but at lower engine speeds. In fact, the 525e’s final drive ratio (at 2.93:1) is 25% higher than that on 520i, although the acceleration is slightly better with 0-60 mph being managed in 10.4 sec.

The 525e is available only with automatic transmission at present, employing the smooth four-speed unit which is also available on the 6 and 7-series models. Ventilated disc brakes at the front enhance the chassis specification, while drums give way to solid discs at the rear, and the suspension has also been beefed-up to deal with the slightly increased overall weight and its different distribution.

Elsewhere, the 5-series BMW recipe remains pretty well unchanged, a high level of basic specification being further enhanced on our test car by the addition of an electric sunroof (1579), alloy wheels (£557), central locking (£197), one of those irritating onboard computers (at £499 a waste of the writer’s money, at least) and electric windows (£528). An interesting car, well worth thinking about for the owner who has to think carefully about his petrol bills without wanting to dispense with all his performance aspirations. — A. H.