1971 vs.1991 giant test

2015 / 2016 Drive-My

Cars have not improved as much as they should have, over the past 20 years. Stifled by corporate conservatism (car makers are playing safer than ever) and an over-reliance on market research (which has bred cars that meet buyer expectations but rarely set them), the typical car of 1991 is depressingly uninnovative.

Just as worrying, there is less real choice for the car buyer now than there was 20 years ago. Car styling has homogenised — cars now look more similar than they did in 1971. And, just as important, there is a greater sameness about the engineering layouts, Small cars, no matter whether they’re built by Citroen, Toyota or Ford, tend to have similar suspension types, similar engines, similar transmissions. Car makers now seem unwilling to deviate from the mainstream morass, to innovate and break off the shackles of conventionalism.

To illustrate the point we have compared four new cars, just launched, with their predecessors of exactly 20 years ago. In every case, these new cars are good cars, well above their class norm – so we’re not picking on the 1991 duffers, to embroider our argument. What we have done, though, is to select four of the very best cars from 1971 to compare them with; cars that did invigorate the motor industry and the motoring public, machines that represented real progress.The way things are going, their likes may never be seen again.

In every case, the four comparisons that follow are as objective and as dispassionate as we can make them. While they do each illustrate our basic tenet, they also chronicle those areas – and there are many – in which cars have improved substantially. Finally, in Where’s the Progress?, we examine in detail the areas of motoring regression and progression, from 1971 to 1991.


1971 Jaguar E-type V12 vs. 1991 Jaguar XJS V12

E-type (top) longer car than you’d think, although it’s substantially narrower than the XJS. New rear is most noticeable change to the 1991 XJS: big slabs of chrome sandwich new tail-lamps. E-type’s tail still much more pert and pretty. XJS has more cabin width and legroom. Both use similar grade leather for seats; XJS better built

Never mind what we were about to discover. The people of the Cote d Azur made up their minds after only a quick glance at the protagonists. The XJS Convertible, newly embellished for 1991, is handsome enough. But, in pure eyecatching terms, there is no contest: the old cat has the new one licked.

Long, graceful, lithe and unmistakably feline, the E-type must be one of the most beautiful cars ever designed, a product both of stylist Malcolm Sayer’s fertile genius, and – to prove what a trend-setter it really was – the wind tunnel. It had the pace to go with the grace: its hearty six- cylinder twin-cam motor gave it the legs to reach 150mph, making it comfortably the quickest production sports car of its day. The chassis was based on the D-type Le Mans winner’s, so it had the finesse to handle the vitesse.

There has probably never been a sports car which so raised the stakes, a machine which so clearly liberated drivers from the morass of motoring mediocrity that was car design, 1961. Don’t forget: when the E-type appeared on the road, the Cortina hadn’t even been invented. To boot, it was cheap: less than £1500, before car tax. You didn’t need to be rich to get E-type-size thrills.

To be honest, this great car hadn’t progressed all that much by the time 1971 rolled along, when the Series-3 model was unveiled. The disease which was beginning to affect cars then and has since blossomed into a plague-that of obesity-was already blighting the poor thing. The Series-3 was longer, wider and 22 percent heavier than the old Series-1. There was more chrome, a bigger mouth (appropriate, given that its new engine was so much more voracious), plus flared wheel-arches signifying the substantial increase in track.

Obviously the new V12 motor-86lb heavier than the old XK six – was a factor. Just as important, Jaguar had changed the character of its great asset. The Series-3 was less the slinky sportster, more the gorgeous tourer. The increasing importance of the American market, where boulevards are more popular than B-roads, was a major factor.

The upshot was lighter, power-assisted steering; a far more absorbent ride; more space (the long-wheelbase 2 + 2 body was standardised across the range); more refinement. The big cat, said some detractors, had gone to fat. Maybe. But it still looked as good as ever-perhaps even betterthan ever – and it went almost as fast. That V12, based on the competition motor designed for the still-born XJ13 racer, gave it the urge needed to overcome the greater bulk.

Nowadays the S3 E-type actually looks rather petite. The lowness is the most surprising exterior feature; that and its sheer beauty, of course. The doors seem light and dainty, longer and bulkier though they are compared with the old S1 ‘s.

You then vault a high sill – it’s actually not that high, rather the rest of the car is so low – and settle down into the bucket seat, shapeless by modern standards. Shapeless, and uncomfortable: they are not broad enough, and insufficiently long in the cushion to give proper under-thigh support. The rear adjustment doesn’t go back far enough, not helped by the fact that the seat’s backrest snags on the folded hood. The hood itself is amazingly fussy both to erect and fold and, unlike the XJS’s one-touch power hood, the rear screen is opaque plastic, not heated transparent glass.

The dash is flat and matt black, and is littered with white-on-black Smiths gauges, so redolent of the ’60s and early ’70s, plus a row of rocker switches. The’ wheel is quite upright, and fouls knee space – although it’s actually smaller than the wheel used on the earlier E-types, the steering of which is non-assisted. It’s a cosy, intimate cockpit, but not a cramped one. The seats are leather faced, as on the XJS (it’s the same quality leather, too); the door casings and centre console are skinned in leather-like vinyl (as in the XJS).

The use of the 2+2 body across the S3 range allowed for rear cubbies, to supplement what is otherwise meagre luggage and oddments space. Unlike the XJS’s similar rear bins, they are not lockable. The boot is tiny.

Nestle behind the wheel, and you’re aware of the vastness of the centre console, which broadens under the cabin as it envelops the rear of the powertrain. The corollary is a very cramped footwell area, and no left foot brace – there just isn’t room for one. The chromed gearlever, crowned by a round plastic knob, is high. You lift your hand to reach it. The gearshift is slow, rather cumbersome, the clutch too heavy. An automatic was optional; it’s standard on the XJS V12 now.

The engine is a silken gem, of course, but not quite the unobtrusive companion that the XJS’s is. It’s fed by a quartet of Stromberg carburettors, rather than by sophisticated fuel injection. The carbs seem slightly to increase the intake gulp, and make for lumpier running at low engine speeds – at least they did on our test car, a French-registered 1972 left-hooker which lives on the Riviera. Electric ignition and injection control really was one of the great advances of the ’80s, increasing reliability and smoothness.

Softer, and less communicative, the S3 E-type may be compared with the S1, but there is still an animalistic eagerness about the car compared with the XJS. The tighter cockpit is partly responsible; so are the shorter dimensions, and lower weight, compared with the S. To boot, the E-type is sharper to steer, as well as being tidier to handle.

1971 Jaguar E-type V12 vs. 1991 Jaguar XJS V12

E-type buffets its occupants far more at speed, roof down, than does the XJS. E-type has chrome wipers, and its screen has much more curvature. Older Jaguar gets manual seat adjustment for its seats; XJS now gets electric adjustment. Dash of XJS enhanced by walnut trim. Washers clean XJS lamps. E-type V12 (above) uses carburettors.

1971 Jaguar E-type V12 vs. 1991 Jaguar XJS V12

The Adwest power steering, overly anaesthetised it’s true, is still tolerably sharp. On the XJS, there is too much slack around the straight ahead; too little respect for the commands of the driver. Order the optional sports pack, fitted as standard to the 4.0-litre XJS, and the steering is sharper, even if the ride is, too.

The ride of the E-type is extremely good, if not as supple as the XJS’s, for so long a GT class exemplar. What’s really surprising is the rigidity of the shell; there’s far less scuttle shake than on many modern convertibles, never mind our test car’s age. The XJS convertible shudders more over horizontal ridges.

Have a good look underneath, and the reasons start to become clear. The E not only has a strong monocoque central shell, but a sturdy triangulated sub-frame extending forward, cradling both the engine and the front wishbones. The chassis is based closely on the racing D-type. And, just as important, it was designed to be a convertible from the very outset.

The XJS was not. When the bulk of its engineering work took place, in the early 70s, it seemed likely that the over-zealous US legislators would ban all open-top cars, owing to their propensity to crush heads during roll-overs. Jaguar therefore engineered the E-type’s successor as a hardtop Coupe only. It seemed a sensible decision at the time, especially to cash- starved BL, then Jaguar’s owner. The ban- convertibles legislation, of course, never happened, praise the Lord. But quite a few makers were caught without their roofs down. It took Jaguar 13 years finally to launch a proper XJS convertible.

In some ways, the XJS actually makes a more satisfactory drophead than does the E-type. Whereas the older car is very noisy with the roof up, and very blowy with it down, the XJS is neither. The E’s windiness, incidentally, is not helped by the shallow windscreen; taller drivers have their heads proud of the screen, and will have to drive with head tucked into shoulders, rather like a motorcyclist travelling at speed.

The heating, which uses the old- fashioned water-valve temperature control, is appalling. About the only warmth you get is the (non-adjustable) heat soak from the big 5.3-litre V12. Ventilation is terrible, too. Not such a problem, roof down. But a bind, roof up. There aren’t any face vents to ease the cabin’s stuffiness.

The E-type was in its twilight in 1971 – although it was arguably still the best drophead two-seater around. Equally, the XJS, although just revamped, is hardly an example of out-of-the-box newness today. It was launched in 1975, the year the E-type died. It may have replaced the E in fact, but it did not in spirit. It was bigger, fatter, quieter; further exploration along the GT path that Jaguar first rather tentatively trod with the Series-3 E.

It looked ugly, if individual, when first unveiled. Since then, its appearance has been tidied by various cosmetic means and, finally this year, by surgery. It actually looks better now than ever, at least to my eyes. This is partly a result of the 1991 facelift, just as much a consequence of the XJS’s growing individuality. The older it gets, the more different from mainstream coupes it becomes.

1971 Jaguar E-type V12 vs. 1991 Jaguar XJS V12

Older Jaguar handles a little more sharply than the XJS, but doesn’t grip as well. XJS has more scuttle shake. E-type’s big steering wheel tends to foul knees. Ergonomics of XJS much better; they’re improved for ’91. Also improved this year is the XJS’s engine presentation. Latest V12 smoother than before, slightly more powerful, much cleaner.

1971 Jaguar E-type V12 vs. 1991 Jaguar XJS V12

Its V12 engine has also been fettled this year, and now uses a new Lucas fuel-control system, and a low-loss catalytic converter. The engine, still using single cams per bank, but running with much higher-compression heads (introduced in 1981), now produces 280bhp. That’s not much of an improvement over the S3 E-type’s 262bhp, although one suspects that Jaguar’s power figures may not have been quite so honest 20 years ago as they are today. The under-bonnet presentation has also just improved enormously: you now lift the lid of your Jaguar to impress audiences, not bewilder them.

The cabin has been improved over the years. Originally, XJS interiors were devoid of wood. Now chunky bits of burr walnut reinforce the Englishness of the car (never mind that Ford is now Jaguar’s owner). The seats have also been changed for 1991 – they’re a big improvement-and so, too, has the facia.

The cabin of the XJS is a much more luxurious place to while away the time than the inside of an E-type. The wood adds a luxury touch, the switches are of sturdier quality and are much more intelligently sited. Open the door, and you walk into the seats, not having to hurdle the sills to reach them. The door shuts behind you with a reassuring thud. The XJS is a quantifiably sturdier car, on-road scuttle shake notwithstanding.

It should be sturdier. After all, as with most cars built in the 80s and ’90s, it feels stronger than its predecessor because of much additional weight – not a very clever way to imbue extra strength. The latest 1991 XJS Convertible tips the scales at 4233lb – getting on for two tons. It’s a wicked waste of metal for a two-seater. The E-type, no lightweight itself, weighs 3316lb. The XJS is 3.3 inches longer and eight inches wider.

The upshot of the extra bulk is substantially more shoulder room (but so what?) more legroom (but not that much more), more headroom (your bonce is nicely sheltered by the rake of the XJS’s screen) and lots of extra kit (standard air-conditioning and electric seats, for starters). The downside, of course, is inferior performance (E-type 145mph, 0-60 in 7.0sec; XJS 143mph, 0-60 in 8.1sec), and all the other evils for which heavy mass is inherently responsible (heavier fuel consumption, greater tyre wear, bulkier handling, more resource profligacy, etc, etc).

Engineering progress, in the past 20 years, has gone some of the way towards annulling the evils of the XJS’s great bulk. Much better tyres, for instance, allow the S to outgrip the E (although the handling of the standard XJS V12 is more ponderous). Electronic engine management allows the XJS to be no thirstier than the V12 E, and goes some of the way towards allowing the newer Jaguar to get on performance terms with its smaller, older rival.

The XJS’s great trump, in this contest, is its sheer refinement; its almost ethereal serenity when driven at speed. It has always been the car’s great forte; the thing that most distinguishes it from competition. It is what made the XJS great when it was first launched, 16 years back. It’s what continues to make the car great even today.

But fine car though the XJS is, the E-type is greater. That it was much more of a milestone in its day is irrelevant in this comparison. That it does a number of things better than the XJS, 20 years on, is not. Gavin Green.


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1971 NSU Ro80 vs. 1991 Audi 100 V6 Quattro

1971 NSU Ro80 vs. 1991 Audi 100 V6 Quattro

NSU’s suspension is much softer than Audi’s, and it rolls more. It can be hustled along, but understeers (top). Audi will roll, too, but only when cornering much faster (second from top). It’s neutral and well-mannered. NSU’s interior (third from top) is airy and roomy whereas Audi’s (above) hems you in by big console and tunnel.


Audi has always been an impressive company. Its predecessors Horch, DKW and Auto Union were responsible for some of Germany’s most innovative cars, and when the Ro80’s development costs shipwrecked NSU in 1968, it didn’t take long for the engineers, safe inside the VW / Audi lifeboat, to dry themselves off and start planning the next voyages with their Ingolstadt masters.

The five-cylinder engine in the 1976 100 was just an hors d’heuvre. In 1980 came the Quattro, which staggered the world. Next, in 1982, the ‘new’ 100. It was light and aerodynamic, so went well and economically on a modest 2.2-litre engine. Before long it could be had (as the 200) with a turbocharged five-cylinder engine and four-wheel drive. A fully galvanised bodyshell followed in 1985. In the early ’80s, among all European manufacturers, it was Audi that had the ball of progress and was running with it.

1971 NSU Ro80 vs. 1991 Audi 100 V6 Quattro

These days, cautious evolution is the regime at Audi. The latest 100 shares much of the last one’s floorpan and chassis, and though the body’s all new, it keeps the character of the old. There’s a new if conventional V6 engine, catalysts all round and Audi’s Procon-ten system that retracts the steering column and seatbelts in a head-on collision. But there’s nothing to turn a glance into a gasp.

Some of Audi’s current engineers worked on the Ro80, and they remember it warmly. Though nothing it embodied was unique when it was introduced in 1967, the Ro80 certainly gave the world a revolutionary combination. Its twin-rotor 115bhp Wankel engine is hung out ahead of the front wheels, as Audi engines still are. It drives a three-speed semi-automatic transmission from which the driveshafts sprout, carrying inboard front discs. The whole thing is an extremely compact power pack, reflected to advantage in the car’s low, penetrating snout and roomy cabin. MacPherson-strut front and semi- trailing-arm rear suspension is straightforward enough, all sprung on very soft, long-travel coils.

1971 NSU Ro80 vs. 1991 Audi 100 V6 Quattro

The Audi 100 tested here is the £26,161 V6 quattro, top of the range until the 230bhp five-pot turbo arrives in the autumn. Its 2.8-litre V6 has 12 valves . actuated by a single camshaft per bank, and issues 174 bhp at 5500rpm and 184 lb ft at 3000rpm. The torque band is broad, helped by dual-length inlet tracts.

At less than 4000rpm, the tracts are long and narrow for best ram effect, but at this speed a set of butterflies moves to close off part of the tracts to give fat, short pipes, benefiting high-end efficiency.

The four-wheel-drive models use lateral link suspension at the rear (fwd 100s have a torsion-beam axle); MacPherson struts in front. Brakes are all-disc with ABS.

The 1982 100 was beautiful as well as slippery. The new one is broader and more aggressive, but only slightly more aerodynamically efficient (Cd 0.29 v 0.30) and fussier, too. The Ro80 is simply a masterpiece, as aerodynamic as they knew how back in 1967 and remarkably fanciful in its use of curves and angles, unlike anything else and very elegant. The car driven here, which belongs to Andrew Hurdle, a successful electronics engineer and ex-drag racer from Wiltshire, is a 1975 15,000-miler and still wears its original metallic rose paint.

1971 NSU Ro80 vs. 1991 Audi 100 V6 Quattro

The 112in wheelbase gives a big cabin that is roomier overall than the Audi’s, which sits on a 105in wheelbase. There isn’t much in it for legroom, but the Audi’s front seats have electric motors in them which steal space from the rear passengers’ feet. The NSU has a completely flat floor, so the feeling in the cabin is of a big, well-lit living room furnished with soft chairs. The Audi hems you in, with its mountainous dash, wide console and transmission tunnel. Mind you, when you’re building up the kind of cornering forces the Quattro can generate, you’re grateful for the sideways support.

Overall, you search in vain for advances in space-efficiency when an old car 188in long is as roomy and as big in the boot as a new one 187in long. The new 100 is probably more cramped than the last one, certainly tighter than class leaders such as the Granada, Saab 9000 or Carlton/Senator (GM). It’s about a hundred weight heavier, model for model, than the car it replaces, too. The V6 Quattro, at 3300lb, is 500lb heavier than the Ro80, and even the basic four-cylinder front- drive 100 outweighs the NSU. Luxury equipment, galvanisation and safety do hang heavy, but it grates that Audi appears to be running backwards in the weight race. The last 100 had an aluminium jack, for example; the new model has a crude steel one.

1971 NSU Ro80 vs. 1991 Audi 100 V6 Quattro

From the driver’s seat, the Ro80 looks quaint now. The dash is a simple slab covered in grained PVC, its switches scattered and unilluminated, the steering wheel big and shiny, the screenwipers spindly and the mirrors small. But you never tire of the cabin’s wonderful spaciousness, and you can at least see the dials; the Audi’s instruments are beautifully designed but obscured by the wheel-rim. There are knobs, buttons and wheels everywhere, controlling all the bells and whistles even an expensive saloon could do without 20 years ago: electric mirrors, sunroof, windows and seats, heated seats and mirrors, reading lights, ABS cut-out, headlamp aim, cruise control, whizz-bang hi-fi and so on. No wonder the Audi is heavy.

1971 NSU Ro80 vs. 1991 Audi 100 V6 Quattro

On the move (opposite top), both cars are refined and stable but NSU rides much more softly. It’s slower though. Details: NSU is all chrome and has spindly mirrors, door handles and wipers while smooth Audi Is flush-glazed and neatly faired. Note NSU’s complex double-curved windscreen. There’s little to choose for rear room. NSU’s dashboard is flat, with switches and lights scattered; Audi’s dash architecture very handsome. NSU’s compact Wankel allows a low nose (top); neat Audi V6 (above) is no more smooth, but pulls harder.


Both cars are very well made, though it strikes you first in the Audi simply because its interior has so many separate switches, controls and pieces of cladding plastic, that it’s remarkable they can be so neatly faired together.

The NSU Ro80’s modern semi-automatic transmission as standard; the torque converter helps disguise the shortage of low-end torque and lumpy over-run endemic to the engine. You can leave the car in first gear in stop-start traffic, just like an auto. Though the car has no clutch pedal there is a clutch, its pneumatic release mechanism triggered when you touch the gearlever. Then you just change into whichever of the three speeds you want, and drive resumes when you release the lever. I like the system for the effortless control it offers you. The Audi’s manual five-speeder has rather a heavy shift, but we’ve also driven the new four-speed automatic ZF 4HP gearbox and it’s both smooth and responsive.

The NSU is brisk rather than fast indeed it’s decidedly lethargic until the engine is spinning beyond 4500rpm. No natter, as it’s uncannily smooth and sweet. The Audi’s engine is smooth, too, enough at its best in the mid ranges and surprisingly unwilling to reach for the red line. The 100 is a fair bit quicker than its NSU ancestor, but certainly doesn’t hurl itself down the road with the indomitable shove of a six-cylinder Rover.

But if you’re heading down a twisty, slippery road, the 100 leaves the Ro80 miles back. Its traction, its grip and its brakes show how the two decades have been spent. Even in the dry, a corner that had the Ro80 scrabbling at 50mph left the Audi unperturbed somewhere beyond 60. At the Ro80’s maximum speed for a given rend, by which time its roll angle is startling onlookers, the Audi is near-level.

The Audi’s steering is a tad dead and low-geared, but otherwise the handling news is all good. People used to say 4wd Audis let go suddenly, but now, with Torsen diffs, they let go in a benign drift with just the right amount of throttle sensitivity. The quattro system adds £2636 to the cost (1991 in UK) of the 100 V6, and almost all of that will have disappeared come trade-in time, but it confers enormous security.

The NSU, like the Audi, has low-geared, light power steering. Its brakes are strong and progressive, but don’t have the ABS we’d expect these days. It corners faithfully, rolling so much you’re clinging on to the wheel and wishing for the lateral support the seats patently lack. Tyre- squealing understeer is the attitude except in the wet, but all changes in attitude in response to the throttle are very gentle, on account of the torque converter’s cushioning. Although the Ro80 can be hustled along, it somehow doesn’t suit its loping character.

For the NSU is a marvellously relaxed tourer. It is very, very refined; modern cars might have managed to keep wind noise under better control at very high speed (Audi’s flush glazing helps here) but the NSU Ro80 is impressive nonetheless. More important is the smooth, quiet driveline and the insulation of the car from the read. Its 185/70 R14 tyres can barely be heard nor their thumping felt. The Audi’s 215/60 R15 feet aren’t badly insulated, but you hear them on coarse surfaces.

Ride comfort is a walkover for the Ro80, unless you would rather trade some float over humps for thumping and jarring almost everywhere else. The Audi’s ride isn’t bad by class standards today (1991 about) – it’s similar a Saab 9000’s or a E34 BMW 525i’s, less jittery than a Vitesse’s or Alfa 164’s, but nowhere near as absorbent as a Citroen XM’s. Even over unmade tracks, the Ro80 never jars, and on the highway you barely feel a thing. Combine that with the softly-sprung sofa on which you sit, and the effect is marvellously relaxing.

The Ro80 was so modern in 1967, NSU had no need to change the body or chassis up to when it died in 1977. Besides, getting the engine right was too much of a distraction. In the early years, fuel consumption and the lifespan of the rotary pistons’ tip seals were shocking. A gallon lasted 16 miles, and after 1000 gallons you’d need a new engine. NSU always paid for the replacement, but that was hardly the point. By the ’70s, engine life was lengthening, but the fuel crisis didn’t help.

Ironically, the Wankel engine has so few moving parts it has the potential to be very reliable. There are only two rotors, no con-rods and no moving valvegear. Mazda soon got the durability problems licked. Materials science has come a lot further than car design these past two decades; tip-seals are now available that make the Ro80 engine trustworthy.

Last year Ronald Barker and I drove a Ro80 1700 miles around France at about 19mpg; I doubt if a modern V6 such as this Audi would have bettered 25 in those conditions. It’s not a vast leap forward. But the Ro80 also has two twin-choke carbs that are a nightmare to adjust, where the Audi has digital electronics managing every engine function. A tune-up should be simple these days – though we never cease to be amazed by the difficulty garages have in tracing engine-management faults.

Although by dint of its sheer size and complexity the Audi could be called profligate, its maker has of late been putting a lot of thought into environmental matters hidden to the car buyer and unheard of 20 years ago. Progress in emissions levels has been made, but also the Audi has lots of recycled and recyclable plastics in its make-up, and uses less toxic paints than cars used to, less cyanide, and no asbestos.

The Audi is also very long-lasting, perhaps the best-protected car of all against decay. Cars are now being made whose bodies will probably outlast their mechanicals, though if mechanical and electronic spares supply isn’t maintained, what use will be a pristine 1991 car in the year 2005 – a static driveway ornament?

The NSU is a wonderful thing. Its comfort, style and refinement are still special today, and the 100 certainly doesn’t match it for comfort, drivetrain smoothness or road-noise suppression. The Audi shows real progress in grip – accelerating, cornering or braking – especially when it’s slippery. It’s loaded with gadgets to make it convenient to use, but that’s hardly the point; the development of the electric door mirror shouldn’t have hindered the progress of space efficiency or noise suppression, and you feel it just might have.

The 100 is even in its abilities, competitive with others in its class. It’s safe, stylish inside and out, has a nice relaxed engine, handles neatly and grips well. But, quattro system apart, it has few notable attributes. What’s really depressing is that it represents an admission that we’ve had our lot for progress – it feels strikingly like the last Audi 100. The one they made nine years ago. Paul Horrell.


 

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1971 Citroen GS X3 vs. 1991 Citroen ZX Reflex

1971 Citroen GS X3 vs. 1991 Citroen ZX Reflex

Performance of GS (top) and ZX is similar, new car’s greater torque offset by longer gearing. ZX cleaves air quietly. Tyre noise, too, is well suppressed. GS falls down on refinement: it suffers noise from wind, tyres and engine. GS has a longitudinal 1299cc air-cooled flat four, ZX 1360cc transverse water-cooled in-line four.


The most comfortable small car in the world, people said. Others went further: the best small car of all (well, that or the Alfasud). Certainly the Citroen GS in its early years was the most aerodynamic the most technically advanced, the purest in design and the most distinctive. But that was all a terribly long time ago. Now, after an interregnum of six years since the last GSAs, Citroen is back with the ZX, a new car to sit in size and price between the AX and BX, embodying what is, for the company, new thinking.

The ZX, in direct contrast to the GS, is calculatedly conventional. It’s a rather dull-looking five-door hatch powered by a four-cylinder transverse in-line water- cooled engine, its front wheels driven via an end-on gearbox, suspended on steel- sprung MacPherson struts, and its rear axle on trailing arms. Brakes are servo- assisted, using discs and drums on this basic 1360cc Reflex model. So what’s new? Chiefly, a rear subframe mounted on bushes that deform in a shrewdly designed way during high sideways load, causing the rear wheels to turn slightly in the same direction as the front pair to improve cornering stability. It’s worth boasting about, and it works, but it’s not unique. Also, some ZX models – but not this one – have a sliding and reclining rear seat, novel for a European car.

The GS has a four-door fastback body of remarkable aerodynamic efficiency, and a longitudinally mounted air/oil-cooled flat-four ahead of the front wheels. Front suspension is by double wishbones, rear by trailing arms, with interconnected self-levelling hydropneumatic springing/ damping units at each corner. The high- pressure hydraulics also power the all disc brakes, inboard at the front. There are more surprises: the steering axis passes exactly through the tyres’ contact patches so that the car continues in a straight line after a front tyre blow-out, there is a remarkable degree of anti-dive provided by the suspension geometry, and the rear brakes are pressurised by the rear suspension fluid so that their action is proportional to the car’s load.

The GS tested here isn’t quite like they were two decades ago. The GS first came with engines of 1015cc and 1222cc, designed with an eye to French taxation rather than performance. They were astonishingly high-revving, short-legged cars. This GS is the later X3 model introduced in 1978, its engine expanded to 1299cc in an attempt to help the 65bhp engine’s torque and economy. It’s still short-geared: 15.4mph per 1000mph in top (fourth) means a 5500rpm motorway cruise is possible but deafening. But, apart from the bigger engine, the revised rear lamps and the ghastly seat trim, the X3 is as the GS was at the outset.

This car is owned half-and-half by me and deputy editor Richard Bremner, and we didn’t set out looking for an X3 – we just wanted to buy a well-preserved GS of almost any description before they all rotted away.

Start up, and you know you’re in something unconventional. It’s not just the absence of water temperature gauge that points to the cooling method: there being no sound-absorbing liquid jacket, this is one loud engine. But it’s a nice sound, remarkably like a pair of 2CVs or, if you prefer (and I do), two-thirds of a 911. Horizontally opposed engines, all of them, have a lovely soft-edged sound that rises in pitch and volume higher up the rev range while avoiding any harshness. They sound as though they’ll never break.

The ZX’s engine, though a deal quieter in the middle ranges, isn’t so nice to use as it turns rough when you push it, so you adopt a different technique when trying to get along briskly, using higher gears (you’ve five to choose from) and lower crank speeds. Performance of the two cars is very similar, the ZX’s greater torque of 85 lb ft against 72 lb ft being offset by slightly longer gearing, while both cars weigh 19.5cwt.

Its uncouth engine apart, the ZX is clearly ahead of the 1991 class standard for refinement. It cleaves the air quietly, even though its drag coefficient, at 0.32, certainly doesn’t reflect two decades’ progress from the GS’s 0.34. Tyre noise is very well suppressed. There’s no steering kickback or transmission shunt, and the gearshift has a light, clean-slicing action. It’s an easy car to drive.

It’s leagues ahead of the GS in refinement. The old car falls down badly here – by far its biggest drawback on the road. Beyond 70mph, the wind whips up a cyclone roar, accompanied by bad tyre noise and a shriek from the gears, yet still the engine’s voice is strident enough to be heard above the cacophony. The gearchange is light and quick, but hasn’t had the rough edge taken out of its action, and there’s enough backlash in the driveline to demand great circumspection from the driver coming on and off the throttle.

Two decades have seen ergonomics move forward, of course. The GS dash is a right mess, and badly made with it. But the car’s driving position is fine, and slim pillars impart airiness and visibility. The ZX counters with easily found, illuminated switchgear and proper modern heating and ventilation, where the GS has a weak- willed set-up directed by a scattered set of levers that sprout from roughly carved gashes in the frangible plastic facia.

1971 Citroen GS X3 vs. 1991 Citroen ZX Reflex

Soft suspension has GS (top left) rolling around bends, but it holds road well. ZX turns in eagerly, corners even headedly. Rear seats are soft and generous in both cars, their cloth trim showing Citroen hasn’t lost its taste for garish colour. GS has switches scattered over its messy dash. ZX’s facia is neater-has better ventilation (above).

1971 Citroen GS X3 vs. 1991 Citroen ZX Reflex


Citroen badly wants the ZX to appear well made, and it does. Although the company’s claim that it’s the best in its class represents a combination of innocent naivety and cynical marketing hype (the seat trim and dash are of cheapo materials), the fact is the facia components all fit well, the heater dials turn smoothly, the glass is neatly semiflush and the metal panels are thick and well fitting. More important, the fact that the body doesn’t boom and crash over bumps is a great step forward for Citroen.

In the GS, you hear bumps, and feel them through the steering wheel. There’s also some harshness over small, sharp bumps such as Catseyes. But real lumps, undulations, pot-holes, cobbles and broken surfaces are simply swallowed. No car today-up to limousine size-is so soft, and yet the GS seldom floats. To the owner of a backside accustomed to the jarring rides of modern small cars, it’s amazing. On top of which, the car is unaffected by load.

By modern standards, the ZX rides well. It is resilient, moving up and down but taking the edge off things well. There’s none of the lurching and thumping a German car would serve up on lumpy French roads. Its big fault is an uncomfortable lateral rocking, brought about because the car, though softly sprung, is quite stiff in roll. Anti-roll bars are simply lateral springs, and undamped ones at that, so when one side of the ZX is disturbed the whole thing rocks. The GS, like the ZX, has anti-roll bars at each end, but they are far less influential.

Ride quality, though, is but one element in the sum of comfort. Both cars have soft, generous seats, good driving positions and adequate cabin room. The GS has better rear-seat headroom, the ZX the better legroom, though for backseat roominess, it’s shamed by the Tipo.

In packaging, the two Citroens are remarkably similar. The ZX is 160in overall, the GS two inches longer, the wheelbases are the same, the heights similar, yet the GS has the bigger boot by 45 percent when the ZX’s rear seat is up. No progress there in 20 years.

But surely all this softness in the GS must make it handle like an inebriate camel? Not a bit of it. Sure, it rolls onto its door handles, but it clings on amazingly well with its round-shouldered tyres, understeering insistently at the limit. There’s excellent directional stability yet neat turn-in: the steering is very direct an accurate, though you pay a price in having to put up with kickback and a marked weighting-up in bends. The GS’s big 15-inch wheels help the ride and give a reasonably big contact patch from 145-section tyres.

The ZX rolls less, as it must in order properly to exploit modern lower-profile 165/70 13 tyres. Drive the ZX’s contemporaries and you’d call its steering light, quick and accurate, but after the GS’s it feels a tad rubbery, which must be the pay-off for losing the kickback. Still, the ZX turns into bends eagerly enough, and then brings its self-steering axle into play by tracking around the arc with remarkable tenacity and even- handedness – tucking in only gently even when you throttle right back – and gripping very strongly. Its two-stage cornering action feels odd at first, but you soon learn to like it – a real Citroen characteristic, you might say.

The ZX doesn’t have real Citroen brakes; the GS does, and is the better for it. On almost no pedal travel, the GS discs have sharply honed initial bite, great power and perfect progression, aided by the car’s remarkable resistance to front- end dive. Their high-pressure hydraulics can also be cheaply adapted to ABS, and nave been on the BX and XM. The ZX’s stoppers work well enough but feel spongy beside conventional opposition’s and especially so beside the GS’s.

So just what does Citroen have to show for 20 years’ developments? To look at, drive or sit in the two cars here, you’d be hard put to find much beyond the refinement angle. But look at the costs. The GS’s 27 to 32mpg isn’t too clever when you’d be doing nearer 40 in the ZX, and an early GS’s 3000-mile service interval would horrify a 2015 and even 1991 owner. A GS would need 30-odd hours’ servicing in its first 60,000 miles whereas this ZX gets by on 5.5 hours plus oil-changes. You’d swear maintenance wasn’t given a second thought when they designed the GS – the distributor is so badly sited you need to remove it to check the points yet the BX proves that with modern design, electronic ignition and today’s lubricants, the care of a hydropneumatic car needn’t be a problem.

The GS is reliable if cared for, and mechanically durable, but in damp, salty Britain its body disappears like April snow. The ZX is carefully designed to eliminate rust-traps, and 75 percent of its steel is galvanised or electro-plated. It should last well and when it’s done for, its constituent parts will be labelled for recycling.

1971 Citroen GS X3 vs. 1991 Citroen ZX Reflex

In its youth, GS was most distinctive car around, and the most aerodynamic. Its 0.34Cd compares well with ZX’s 0.32. New car’s design is calculatedly conventional. Both cars have good driving positions and adequate cabin room. Not only is GS’s dash a mess, it’s also badly made. ZX’s facia (above) is blander but better to use.


The ZX is strong, having a very rigid floor and three hoops over the cabin for stiffness and rollover protection. It is claimed to be safe in 35mph frontal impacts where the law demands 30mph, and to deal with offset crashes, too, for which there is no legislation. The GS isn’t bad in its crash resistance, but the ZX is better. Yet in primary safety, the ability to avoid the crunch, the GS lags little.

‘I can’t imagine,’ said someone from Citroen at the ZX’s launch, ‘that anyone who drives our car will have anything to complain about.’ Well I, for one, will grumble. However good the ZX may be (and it is very good), it’s not a car to hold your interest. As far as Citroen is concerned, it’s hardly a car at all. It’s a product, an appliance, carefully tailored to existing consumer demand in market segment M1. The buyers know what they like, and Citroen has inferred that they like only what they know. So the ZX is just what they know, a little better all round, but no different. It is, in short, a marginally improved competitor to Bland X.

Citroen makes cars to make money, and we can’t blame it. There’s only sense in building something different if it can be economically made and abundantly sold. The danger the ZX faces is its perilously short potential lifespan: before long there’ll be a new Golf, a new Astra, a new 309, several new Japanese, and any or all of these could well better the ZX, leaving Citroen floundering for a replacement.

The GS, by being different, has qualities that haven’t been bettered in 20 years, and perhaps never will be. Its faults are evident and manifold: it is unrefined to drive and, though reliable, is extravagant in its demands for fuel, care and attention. But all of these could surely be cured by modern design and engineering, without abandoning hydropneumatic systems, adventurous styling and sophisticated (though not necessarily complex – the GS isn’t complex) engineering. The very thought of it all makes the ZX seem like a wasted opportunity. Paul Horrell.


 

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1971 Alfasud 1.5Ti vs. 1991 Alfa Romeo 33 Permanent 4

If you were to put an Alfasud and an Alfa 33 Permanent 4 on hoists and gaze at their bellies, you would have some trouble spotting differences. The flat-four motors look much the same; so do the gearboxes, the suspensions, much of the exhaust systems and the floor pressings.

Of course, the Permanent 4 has allwheel drive, and that means there’s a stout steel tube running down the centreline to drive a live rear axle, but this aside, the pair are near as dammit identical. The reason is simple – the 33 is merely a re-shelled Alfasud. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Not when the Sud’s entrails were so good in the first place and the engineering philosophies behind them so sound.

Today, the Sud is best known for the frightening speed with which it turns to dust. Sub-standard steel, poor paintwork and foam-filled box-sections that soak up water are just some of the flaws that earned the Sud its terrible reputation. Yet the car still earns respect because of its handling, which reached a new plane for front-wheel-drive cars. This, and the boxer engine’s fabulous smoothness, gained the car a place on plenty of short lists.

Indeed, the Sud’s qualities here are so exceptional they obscure the fact that it has other strings to its bow. It was designed by a small team led by Rudolph Hruska, who hired the talents of a then- fledgling ItalDesign to shape and package the car. The singular approach of this group produced a machine of remarkably few unpleasant compromises.

It is immensely practical, for a start. Excellent packaging provides ample room for four adults and all their luggage, visibility is good, refinement and cruising ability well above average for its day. Servicing is a doddle, too, the carb, distributor and oil filter all being very accessible. It was, after all, designed as an ordinary family car as well as a real Alfa.

So if the Sud doesn’t have a twin-cam motor and rear-wheel drive, it nevertheless keeps faith with the tradition of innovative engineering and, most important of all, it drives like an Alfa. The aim was to endow a front-driver with the handling characteristics of a rear-drive machine, and, amazingly, Alfa succeeded.

Examine the innards of a Sud, and you begin to see why. It might incorporate MacPherson struts up front, but the suspension geometry was designed to provide a high roll centre and plenty of negative camber, both of which counter the understeer inherent to such a nose- heavy design. Mounting the brake discs inboard reduces both unsprung weight and the effects of torque reaction under braking, and careful bushing of all the suspension mounts cuts road noise.

1971 Alfasud 1.5Ti vs. 1991 Alfa Romeo 33 Permanent 4

Alfasud (top) puts huge loads on outside front tyre, cornering neutrally. Has very sharp steering. New 33 looks undramatic, but is travelling faster. It understeers at limit, has more rubbery steering. Alfasud interior clad in cruddy plastic (third from top); 33 only a little better. Soundproofing robs 33 of foot room. Short-legged driving position in both.


At the rear, Alfa’s liking for rigid rear axles lives on: a dead beam is located by pairs of Watt linkages at each end and a Panhard rod in the middle to provide sideways location. This is an ingenious solution. The Watt linkages allow plenty of vertical movement while restricting scope for rear-wheel steering, and because they are bolted direct to the axle, they force the dead beam to double as an anti-roll bar during cornering without in any way limiting suppleness. Add to this the layout’s low cost and the limited space it takes up, and it is easy to overlook the fact that it isn’t fully, independent. Coils, which encircle the dampers, are the springing medium.

The Sud might share its flat-four engine layout with the Citroen GS, but the Italian motor is water-cooled, and remarkable for using a one-piece cylinder block, whereas most boxer crankcases are split. There is a single overhead camshaft per bank.

The flat four was chosen not just for its inherent smoothness – a boxer motor is naturally better balanced than an in-line four – but for the low centre of gravity it allows, which helps the car’s handling. The low engine height also allows a lower, aerodynamically favourable, bonnet line.

Not that the body is terribly clean through the air by today’s standards with its 0.41 Cd, but that wasn’t a bad figure. More effort went into engineering the body for space, lightness and stiffness. Deep box sections help, and are one of the reasons the Sud acquired its double bulkhead, the forward wall further sealing the noisy bits from the cabin. In the space behind, the battery, wiper and fan motors, brake servo, fusebox and coil are housed away from dirt and spray.

The Ti, the direct antecedent of the Permanent 4 and the car we feature in our comparison, came three years after the Sud was announced in late 1971, and featured a modest battery of changes to appeal to enthusiasts, the most important of which was more power, something the chassis was well capable of containing.

The first 1974 Tis stayed with the 1186cc engine but used a twin-choke carb to boost power from 63bhp to 68bhp, which was not much, especially as torque dropped back from 71 lb ft to 67lb ft. However, a five-speed gearbox was standard, there were spoilers front and rear, real carpets and a tachometer.

Drivers loved the Ti but moaned about the power shortfall, which brought about a 76bhp 1286cc model in 1977. A year after that came the 85bhp 1.5 Ti motor, and with it the Sud’s first facelift, which ran to a new facia, allegedly improved rust protection, 165/70×13 tyres rather than 145s, trim changes and, for the Ti, wheel- arch extensions and restyled spoilers.

It’s one of these cars (my own, in fact) that we test here, survivors of the original series being exceptionally rare. Though more powerful, the series-2s lost none of the first car’s handling prowess and ride quality, characteristics that would gradually desert later versions of the Sud as Alfa successfully fiddled with it.

Recapturing that magic from the early days is something Alfa has been trying to do ever since. The problems began in the Alfasud’s twilight days, when the need to improve power and grip upset its delightful manners. The     extra power induced torque-steer – despite equal-length drive shafts – and wider, lower profile tyres spoiled the ride. On top of that, alterations to the front suspension geometry, the springs and anti-roll bar undermined the wonderfully neutral feel.

When the 33 emerged as a replacement in 1983, it brought many of these problems with it, because apart from a new bodyshell and a redesigned interior, there was a little that was truly new in the 33. The short list of novelties ran to an instrument binnacle that adjusted with the steering column (later dropped), a change to outboard front discs and drum rear brakes, a retrograde step except that it made the stoppers easier to service and, most important of all, vastly improved corrosion protection. And that was it.

Two facelifts and dozens of derivatives later, we have the new Permanent 4, however, a car that appears to offer far more than 33s past. The fact that the gearbox lies behind the boxer engine and that the car has a dead beam rear axle makes it easy to convert the 33 to four-wheel drive, and indeed there was a part-time 4×4 estate some years back.

The Permanent 4 takes things a stage further by being full-time four-wheel drive, its centrally mounted viscous differential sending 95 percent of the drive to the front wheels unless traction trouble strikes. ABS is standard, the computer disconnecting drive to the rear wheels when it’s triggered.

Power comes from the ultimate version of the boxer engine, which has twin overhead cams per bank, 16 valves and Bosch Motronic ignition and injection. From 1712cc it produces 137bhp and 116 lb ft of torque at 4600rpm, quite an improvement on the 1.5 Ti’s 85bhp and 98 lb ft of torque at 3500rpm.

They both sound much the same when you fire up, though, the flat fours settling to an even, electric motor-like hum. Needless to say, the 1.7 has more life in it, the revs climbing eagerly to the backdrop of a rattling rasp that’s quite unique. The rasp is more subdued from the 1.5, and so is the performance, which by today’s standards would be called languid even for a family saloon. But the smaller engine endears with smoothness that lives to the red line – in the 1.7’s case, there’s more throbbing, if to a higher rev limit – and a more even torque spread. The 16-valve boxer serves maximum zest only when past 4000rpm.

1971 Alfasud 1.5Ti vs. 1991 Alfa Romeo 33 Permanent 4

In a straight line (opposite top) both cars ride firmly, but Permanent 4 less crashy than some old 33s. It’s the quicker of the pair by a mile. Both roomy in the back despite compact dimensions (opp middle). The Sud has more instruments, and a left foot rest. Otherwise, 33 has more equipment and better ergonomics – Sud’s heater fan switch is on a stalk and is easier to trigger than wipers. Rearward visibility poor on high-tailed 33. Engines: Sud’s single-carb 85bhp 1.5 (top); 33’s injected quad-cam 137bhp 1.7. Note double bulkhead.


To get the best of both cars the gearbox has to be used, but in neither case is the shift particularly good. Redesigned linkages make the 33’s change tighter and less floppy, but it’s doubtful whether it’s actually any quicker. Further impediments to rapid transit include the seat and steering wheel positions, which have never been right in either car. The Permanent 4 has a pair of good Recaros, but the steering wheel is curiously angled no matter how it’s adjusted, and the pedals are too bunched.

 

1971 Alfasud 1.5Ti vs. 1991 Alfa Romeo 33 Permanent 4

In the Sud the driver’s stance is still more emphatically stretched-arms crumpled-legs, but at least there’s a rest for an idle left foot-the 33 does without. The Permanent 4 is certainly the quieter cruiser, mainly because wind noise is better quelled. Both cars are vociferous under acceleration, though keen drivers won’t object, and at a steady speed the motors miraculously pipe down.

Neither car rides brilliantly – rapidly- taken humps and bumps are checked quite severely by the dampers, and the lower-profile tyres of the Permanent 4 patter more. But this 33 certainly is more supple than earlier examples, absorbing bumps effectively enough that, most of the time, the ride goes unnoticed. The same is true of the Sud.

It’s in the chassis department that the odds swing in the Sud’s favour. Of course, it can’t muster anywhere near the grip of the 33, with its skinny tyres, nor the 33’s security in tricky conditions, but it handles more pleasingly, sends more messages.

1971 Alfasud 1.5Ti vs. 1991 Alfa Romeo 33 Permanent 4

The biggest difference is the Sud’s responsiveness. It reacts instantly to the wheel, whether it’s entering a bend or halfway through, and resists understeer like almost no other front-driver, ancient or modern. It’s a cliche to say it, but it really does corner like a kart. This terrific quality is backed by accurate, reasonably quick steering that delivers plenty of feel.

The 33’s assisted steering is numb and not much quicker, though less effort is required. Initial vagueness and a surprisingly lethargic response to inputs don’t help. The Permanent 4 also understeers more. There’s no doubt, though, that the 33 is vastly more effective cross-country. It’s much quicker, of course (0-60mph in 8.5sec, 126mph against the Sud’s 11.7 and 102mph), but it’s also grippier and more effortless. And entertaining, too, the most fun any 33’s ever been, and more than the majority of rival rocket shoppers.

But it lacks the neutral handling and delicacy of response that marked out the Sud, and for that reason it’s often less satisfying. If Alfa could combine these with the extra grip and go, the Permanent 4 would be highly desirable.

The 4 also ought to make less noise, provide a slicker gearshift, a smoother ride and deliver decent ergonomics. Above all, it ought to be better made. But the 33 stands out with its marvellous engine – unmatched for entertainment value in this class – distinctive styling and capable chassis. Those who enjoy engineering will savour its layout, too.

That contrasts well with a couple of the cars in this comparison, the Audi and the Citroen, which abandon completely the philosophies promoted by their predecessors 20 years earlier. The ZX does without a flat four and fluid suspension, the 100 without a rotary engine and step-ahead styling, despite the fact that these approaches yielded such promise. They were killed by commercial cowardice in the first case and, in the second, spectacular warranty bills.

The Sud concept, on the other hand, remains intact to a startling extent. But on its own that’s not enough to make the 33 a class leader 20 years on. Alfa has not had the money, nor perhaps the will, to develop the mechanicals to the pitch they might have reached today. It’s to the Italians’ benefit that most rival manufacturers have been similarly reluctant to advance. Richard Bremner.


 

{CONTENTPOLL [“id”: 29]}


 

1971 vs. 1991 Where’s the progress?

Cost

We’re paying a lot more for our cars now than we did 20 years ago, once you take inflation into account.

Example: in 1971, an Escort 1300XL cost £1004 including tax, whereas today’s Escort 1.4LX is £10,125. In the meantime, the Retail Price Index has risen so that £1.00 in 1971 would buy what £6.74 buys now. Thus you might expect today’s Escort to cost just £6767.

Similar figures apply pretty well right across the spectrum. In 1971, a Jaguar XJ6 4.2 auto was £2969; multiply that by 6.74 and you’d expect to pay £20,011. Instead, Jaguar asks £29,880 for an XJ6 4.0 auto. The table gives more examples of then-and-now prices; in each case, there’s a gap between what inflation would lead you to expect to pay, and the actual price now – and sometimes it’s a chasm: an Austin 1800 (£1246) points to a price for a base Rover 820i of £8398. not the actual £17,181.

Don’t imagine the recent VAT increase signals an overall rise in tax. In 1971, you paid 30.7 percent purchase tax; now, it’s roughly 8.0 percent special car tax (actually 10 percent of wholesale price) with 17.5 percent on top, amounting to 26.9 percent in all.

Car makers would have you believe labour costs have gone through the roof, but in fact Ford’s line workers were paid 75.5p an hour in ’71; now they average £5.89 – only a small real increase. And Ford in Britain turns out roughly twice as many cars per employee now as it did then.

Perhaps greater sophistication and better equipment could justify higher prices. Our pair of Escorts again: the difference between the expected price extrapolated from 1971 and the actual 1991 price is £3358. What do you get for it? In 1971 you suffered a pushrod motor and cart-sprung live rear axle, and you paid extra for servo-assisted front disc brakes, cloth seat trim, a heated rear window, radial tyres and AM-only radio. Today’s 1.4LX – which has all-independent suspension, a five- speed gearbox and an ohc engine – includes as standard an array of goodies the 1971 car had to do without: halogen headlamps, sunroof, electric front windows, rear foglamps, intermittent wipe, rear wiper, door mirrors, locking fuel filler, side window demisting, reclining seats, clock, tripmeter, stereo radio-cassette player, hazard flashers, boot light and burglar alarm. An impressive list, but is it worth £3358?

Styling, Engineering

Over the past two decades, the choice available to buyers has been lamentably narrowed. We’ve already examined (in CAR journal, July 1990) the way in which cars are looking more and more alike – a trend that’s not convincingly justified by the demands of their aerodynamics or safety.

The real reason could be called prudence or cowardice: manufacturers simply refuse to build adventurous designs in case they turn out heroic failures, opting instead for the safe course of building near-clones of what’s already selling well.

Under the sheetmetal, the convergence between manufacturers is even clearer. Certainly, the transverse engine is good for interior space, and front-drive bestows both roominess and predictable handling, the coil-sprung MacPherson strut is cheap to make and compact. But is this really such a magic formula? In the ’70s, we were offered particular engineering solutions to particular problems; nowadays every car’s much the same. In 1971, Fiat sold the rear-engined 850, the front-engined, front-drive 127 and 128, the rear-engined, rear-drive 124 and 132, and the V6 130. The X1/9 and 126 followed in ’72. Now, there’s little fundamental variation in engineering from the upcoming Cinquecento microcar through the Panda, Uno, Tipo and Croma – taking in the Lancias Y10, Dedra and Thema on the way. In 1971, Lancia offered narrow-angle V engines, flat-fours, transverse leaf suspension, and coachbuilt coupes.

There are some modern exceptions to this oppressive conformity. The Metro’s fluid suspension; the Renault Espace’s space utilisation and unique body construction; the Lotus Elan’s bold styling and clever front- drive engineering; the Citroen XM’s step- ahead suspension; the Honda NSX’s radical aluminium construction; the Audi Quattro’s four-wheel drive – none of these features has hampered sales success.

Detail engineering has moved on, of course. We now have widespread fuel injection, electronic ignition, ABS, turbos, better bumpers, flush glazing, rear-wheel steering (whether active as with Honda, Mazda and Nissan, or passive as with Porsche, VW and Citroen), better auto gearboxes and smoother diesels. But revolutions have been too few, we think.

Performance, Economy

The table gives examples: in general, comparable cars are faster now, and a little more economical. Performance is no longer the preserve of the few, either; an Astra GTE 16-valve of ’91 performs near-identically to 1971 ’s 4.2-litre E-type.

Yet no-one could say performance and economy have leapt ahead. The motivation to improve economy hasn’t really been there, in that a 1971 gallon of four-star cost 35p including taxes, which would be an inflation-corrected £2.36. So fuel is cheaper now than it was, and the trend has been for us to choose to drive faster in quicker, heavier cars.

Engine efficiency has barely risen. For mass-market 1.0 to 1.6-litre engines, power output per litre has risen by just 10 percent or so in most cases. Expect no improvement over the next few years, either: catalytic converters will see to that.

Most consistent improvement has been in top speed, and in design for relaxed and economical motorway cruising. This has a lot to do with aerodynamics and the fall in Cd (Cx – EU) from, say, 04.5-0.50 then to 0.30-0.35 now.

But aerodynamic drag matters only from 50mph-odd upwards, and doesn’t affect acceleration, or fuel used during acceleration. Acceleration has made less progress, because of the seemingly unstoppable trend for cars to put on weight. Again, the table shows the figures.

Sure, the extra equipment we expect these days adds to a car’s heft, but if car makers and their computerised design aids are as clever as they claim, they should be able to save weight elsewhere, chiefly in the metal body of the car. With a few exceptions – the Citroen AX and Honda NSX among them – that hasn’t happened.

Handling, Roadholding

In 1971, you could buy a few front-wheel-drive cars that handled predictably and safely. Now almost every car-maker builds them, for the gap between worst and best is much narrower. And the rear-drive cars – many of which had rude swing axles or cart-sprung live axles – now tend to be better engineered and a lot more orderly on the road, too. But the real enthusiasts’ cars are perhaps little better balanced or responsive than they were. The Lotus/Caterham Seven can still stand proud. In roadholding, though, improvement has been universal.

No question, cars grip better now than they did, and by a wide margin. Who deserves the credit? Not really the car makers. Step forward Pirelli, Michelin et al.

Since the first Pirelli P7-shod supercars emerged more than a decade ago, the wide, low-profile tyre has become accepted for most cars bar the very basic, and their chassis characteristics have had to be tuned to suit. Everything that doesn’t use a beam axle or a De Dion tube has to corner flatter to keep these wide tyres perpendicular to the road. Hence the firm springing and stiff anti-roll bars we’ve become used to.

There are other unfortunate side-effects of ultra-low profile tyres. Once they do relinquish their hold of the tarmac, they go suddenly, and you’ll be travelling fast. Extrovert sideways driving is seldom on the menu these days. Ultra-low-profile tyres tend to follow the camber of a road, and to induce tramlining under brakes. Most noticeable of all, because these tyres are so resistant to changing direction at parking speed, power steering has become far more frequently specified, and even in 1991, not every maker can build a steering servo that achieves the happiest combination of accuracy and feedback. 

High-power front-drive cars demand further compromises in suspension design if torque steer is to be controlled. At least the Lotus Elan offers hope here.

Steering precision hasn’t made much headway. To insulate their cars from harshness and road noise, today’s designers use the cheapest solution, rubber bushings throughout the steering system. The result is often      a loss of precision – felt as rubberiness or a softness of response in the straight-ahead – compared with the best of two decades ago. If you doubt this, drive a Mini.

Comfort, Accommodation

Not one of the modern cars in our four back-to-back comparisons on the preceding pages is significantly more comfortable or space-efficient than its predecessor and they aren’t freak examples. Look at the Mini, Maxi and Austin 1800 – emphatically roomier than a Rover 800, yet two feet shorter). And all the while, people on average, getting taller.

Ride comfort is, at least in a conventional steel-sprung car, one half of a compromise. The ride/handling compromise, road testers used to call it. Now, every maker has arrived at much the same compromise of stiff springs and thick anti-roll bars, brought about by the developments in roadholding we’ve just discussed, and the phrase is seldom seen. True, today’s independently sprung Escort rides better than yesterday’s cart-sprung example, but we can’t buy Renault 16s or Austin 1100s or NSU Ro80s any more-we simply aren’t offered the choice of a soft-riding car.

Where are the new solutions? Active-ride prototypes have been kicking around for a decade, but there’s nothing in the showroom. There’s a semi-active Infiniti, but you can’t buy it in Britain. The Citroen XM’s chassis is ahead of the game and few other makers seem even to be trying to catch up.

In refinement, there has been some progress. Engines are smoother, gearboxes less reluctant (except for Fords, as a 1991 Fiesta or Escort’s change is still a lot less slick than a RWD 1971 Escort’s), clutches smoother, wind noise better suppressed. We also get more supportive seats these days, and improved heating and ventilation.

Buyers love gadgets, and they’re getting more and more. All add to an impression of luxury, and many are undoubtedly of genuine use. But seat, window and sunroof motors add stones of weight to a car. So do the subframes and extra wads of sound insulation that makers are using to defeat the noise demon, when they can’t defeat it by building fundamentally quieter mechanical organs. It’s weight that saps performance, dulls handling and increases thirst and emissions. It’s easy and cheap to add weight, clever to lose it. Car makers aren’t being clever enough.

Reliability, Servicing, Longevity

At last, some real improvement. If anyone says the Japanese didn’t innovate in their early years of car making, point them to the reliability of almost every Honda, Nissan, Toyota or Mazda that ever took to the road. Consistently made, reliable cars are the norm now, due to improved production engineering and greater automation.

In the early ’70s, cars on this island rusted out long before they wore out. Three or four years was the norm before the first rust appeared. Now, we have careful design to eliminate rust traps: PVC wheel-arch liners, plastic protection, hi-tech undersealing, zinc coating, better painting and so on, and progress has been more than satisfactory.

Servicing costs have, in real terms, tumbled. Cortina 1600s had 6000-mile intervals, Sierra 1,6s have the same. In 1971, a Cortina service averaged £29, which is an inflation-corrected £195, yet for the Sierra today it’s just £42. For a 4.2 E-type, you had to spend between £55 and £90 at the garage every 3000 miles; for a V12 XJS it’s just £77-£150 every 7500 miles.

Safety, The Environment

It’s the reign of the legislator. Car companies are given to pleading that they’ve had to put so much effort into meeting safety and emissions laws that they’ve been distracted from moving ahead on other fronts.

Well, they have made real progress here. Active safety first: extra grip, more predictable cornering and ABS brakes play major roles.

In crashworthiness, the gains are harder to measure. European impact laws are still a long way behind those in the States, but are tighter than they were in the early ’70s.

On emissions, the first laws in Britain came into force in 1976, and they have grown progressively tougher. But not until 1993 does Britain enforce standards the Americans had back in 1983.

Modern three-way cats provide clean air, but remember, they do nothing for fuel economy, something that has in any case not moved forward much since 1971. And every molecule of petroleum burned produces carbon dioxide, non-toxic, but, because of the greenhouse effect, likely to be the biggest long-term worry of all.

Car makers are taking laudable initiatives towards recycling, though it’s too soon to say what the results will be, and some eminently recyclable materials haven’t yet found widespread use – aluminium for instance.

But we haven’t seen the big advances, the ones we hoped for during the first fuel crisis 18 years ago, in energy reduction. Cars still cost vast amounts of energy to build and run, and it’s still oil they use. Alternative fuels and different types of engines are coming, they tell us, but we’re getting impatient.

Conclusion

Car makers have got lazy in the past 20 years – and that’s why we haven’t seen the progress we should have done. Those great innovators of the past – Citroen, Audi, Alfa, Jaguar, Lancia, Renault, Fiat, Leyland – have played safe, unwilling or unable to be different. And because the clever companies have gone conservative, the mainstream makers have hardly been keen to rock the boat, either.

The greater conservatism can be attributed to the higher development costs for new models, so that manufacturers are less willing than before to try to do something different – for fear of an expensive failure. It can also be blamed on the tendency for big, conservative firms to swallow up, and expunge the quirks from, the smaller makers (Fiat’s buying Lancia; Peugeot’s buying Citroen). It’s cheaper for a major maker to standardise, as much as possible, every car in its range. The perfidious influence of marketing – which relies on non-experts, used to today’s standards, to unlock the secrets of tomorrow – is also culpable.

But we believe there is real hope, for the next 20 years. Social and political pressures will force car makers to innovate; if they don’t do things differently 20 years from now, they won’t be in business. Such change is good news for the average motorist, and good news for the enthusiast, intrigued by innovative cars. Great cars of the past have often been born from crises (the Mini, don’t forget, was a direct upshot of the Suez crisis, and the threat of massively more expensive oil). The trouble with the ’80s, one of the least innovative decades ever in motoring, was that we all had it too easy.

 INFO
YEAR CAR LIST PRICE, £ INFLATION- ADJUSTED PRICE TOP SPEED, МРН 0-60МРН, SEC AVERAGE MPG WEIGHT, LB
1971 Fiat 128 1100 four-door 925 6,235 88 16.5 31 1830
1991 FiatTipo 1.4 Formula 8,271 8,271 103 12.8 34 2090
1971 Ford Cortina 1600 four-door 1,058 7,13 91 17.2 27 2160
1991 Ford Sierra Sapphire 1.6 Classic 10,207 10,207 103 13.6 31 2300
1971 Austin 1800 Mk2 1,246 8,398 92 16.9 29 2625
1991 Rover 820i four-door 17,181 17,181 126 8.8 33 3020
1971 Ferrari Daytona 9,909 66,787 175 5.8 13 2650
1991 Ferrari Testarossa 123,119 123,119 180 5.5 16 4630
1971 Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow 9,925 68,895 118 10.3 15 4630
1991 Rolls-Royce Silver Spirit 2 93,157 93,157 127 9.9 14 5180

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