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Archive 2
six small hatchbacks assessed in 1998


Up a cog from the comparison round-up of the six
small hatches in the spring issue, we now assess
the next group, five-door cars up to £13,000.


I
t's fascinating to note how cars grow up. Take the Ford Escort, for example, which started life as a small saloon but has developed over the years into a much more roomy and practical five-seater hatchback. It's far different from the original, and be ready for the next version, due later this year, to be even more advanced.
   We had a glimpse of it at the Geneva Show, called Focus, and it looks as futuristic as the Ford Ka and Cougar. But although soon to be replaced, the Escort can still be a sound buy, especially if dealers will be discounting to dispose of stock ready for the new one. So Escort has been included in this group, along with rivals from CitroŽn, Fiat, Rover, Vauxhall and Volkswagen.
   As in the first of these group comparisons, we show the time taken to accelerate from rest to 80mph, which reveals much more about a car's performance than the oft-quoted 0-60 time, and the fuel consumption is what the car actually returned on test, rather than the official and often rather misleading figure. Where it has not been possible to carry out a full test, we have had to rely on launch impressions, and quote the official figure.
   Prices shown are those applying at the beginning of last month (May), and as is general practice nowadays, they are OTR (on-the-road) including delivery, plates and a year's tax, as well as the nasty £25 first registration fee which was slipped in for all new cars this year. We're told it's to pay for the cost of registering them; so where does the £150 car tax go, not to mention the thousands accounted for by VAT on every new car?

CITROEN XSARA LX 1.4i
Bearing strong family resemblance to the larger Xantia model, Xsara was introduced by CitroŽn last July to replace the worthy ZX, and even in this least powerful form it's a very pleasing car, comfortable to ride, easy to drive, and very well planned and put together. The engine pulls very well at low speeds without need for a lot of gear work, and although it gets a bit noisy at speed, it remains quiet over most of the working range.
   The suspension uses a space-saving layout at the rear and gives an exceptionally comfortable ride, spoilt only by the quite high level of tyre roar on some surfaces. Steering is accurate and helps to let the driver keep it neatly in-lane on a motorway despite some tendency for the car to be deflected quite a lot by cross winds.
   Adjustable vertically to suit the driving position, the steering wheel also has repeater controls for the audio system, either side of the wheel. On switching to another car I quite missed this convenient safety feature.
   Very effective brakes on the test car included the optional anti-lock provision, which is recommended for the extra £520 cost.
   Interior design is very functional and well arranged, with the centre console sweeping up into a cover for the instrument nascelle, including the central cool air outlets, and ventilation and heating are excellent.
   The rear seat folds for extra load space, either on to the cushion or the cushion can be tipped first giving a very level extension of the boot floor. But a slight drawback is that the seat is in one piece - if you want someone to be able to sit on one side and tip the rest then you have to graduate to the SX trim, which is not available with the 1.4 engine; so it costs nearly £1,100 more, but comes with air conditioning. However, there is a Comfort Pack available for £360 extra on the 1.4, which provides a divided rear seat, driver's seat height adjustment, map pockets on the backs of the front seats, and velour upholstery - all combining to make it well worthwhile, I think.
   Even in standard LX form, the Xsara is well equipped and comes with front fog lamps, electric front window lifts, and electric action for a proper tilt/slide glass sunroof.
   It's a very pleasing car, the Xsara, and this year CitroŽn extended the range to include an estate car and the three-door, which is ingeniously marketed as a Coupť.

Citroen Xsara LX 1.4i - £12,635
Extra for 1.6 - £360
Maximum speed - 109mph
0-80mph - 24.1 sec
Fuel consumption - 41.8 mpg
Insurance - group 6


FIAT BRAVA 1.4SX
Brava and Bravo - how can one remember which is which? Brava is the five-door hatchback, and Bravo - which sounds the more sporty name - is the sporty three-door version. For this test I had the Brava with 1.4-litre 12-valve engine - twin inlet valves with single exhaust valve per cylinder. The 1.4-litre engine develops 80bhp, and gives lively performance, much on a par with that of the CitroŽn Xsara. Despite fairly long travel and a little notchiness, the gear change is easy to use, and reverse is found easily provided one remembers to press the lever down for the movement back, opposite fifth.
   The Brava handles tidily with light and accurate power steering, but it is prone to wander about a bit on motorways in cross winds. Firm without harshness, the suspension gives a good ride and there's not a lot of road roar on coarse surfaces. The brakes respond well, but again anti-lock control comes only as an extra, and without it the wheels are quite prone to lock up in hard braking on wet roads. It is priced surprisingly high, at £753 extra.
   Initial impression on entering the Brava is that the interior seems almost a sea of light grey plastic, but in fact everything is well laid out, with a neatly arranged radio/cassette unit completely built-in. There should be no risk of car radio theft because it's all fully integrated as part of the car.
   This SX version of the Brava doesn't get a rev counter, but it comes with electric sunroof, height adjustment for the steering wheel, and a divided and folding rear seat.
   Familiar Fiat practice is that the lamps are wired through the ignition, so if you stop the engine at night with the headlamps on they are extinguished, but then - if you don't turn them off - they light up again when you drive off in the morning. A good safety feature, especially for those with young children, is that the radio is independent of the ignition. Tape or radio can be left playing without need to leave the key there.
   The body shape is practical, except for the very thick screen pillars which make a major obstruction to visibility. Not popular with some owners is the arrangement of a self-locking tailgate with release lever on the floor near the driving seat. The Brava has central door locking, operated by key. A temporary spare wheel under the boot floor saves space.

Fiat Brava 1.4SX - £12,285
Extra for 1.6 - £325
Maximum speed - 106mph
0-80mph - 24.9 sec
Fuel consumption - 39.4mpg
Insurance group - 6


FORD ESCORT 1.6 EFi
No doubt Ford are running down the Escort test fleet ready for replacement towards the end of the year, and were unable to provide a 1.4-litre, so it was necessary to use a 1.6 and make allowances. This 1.6-litre engine is certainly an excellent unit, having twin overhead camshafts and 16 valves. It gives 90bhp compared with 75 from the eight-valve single ohc 1.4-litre unit - quite a lot of difference for an extra £500, especially as it also proved very economical.
   All the controls are excellent, with light, accurate steering and very good directional stability, and the five-speed gearchange has very easy action. The only disappointing aspect of the Escort on the road is the suspension, which gives rise to rather high levels of thump on bumps, with a rather unyielding ride, and quite a lot of tyre roar. Improvements in this department will be welcome when the successor comes.
   LX trim includes such features as electric height adjustment for the driving seat, an advanced alarm and immobiliser system, and a glass sunroof with tilt/slide action, but it is operated by a winding handle. A large, empty slot appears beneath the steering column where the release would be positioned for adjusting the steering reach on higher specified models.
   An excellent feature of the Escort is the radio/cassette unit with sensibly large control buttons and a small removable section in the centre of the pushbuttons for security. The speakers are high up in the front doors and to either side of the rear shelf. It can be upgraded to a CD player at extra cost. Rather a gloomy central roof light is fitted, and there's no map light.
   For extra load space, either part of the 60/40 divided backrest can be folded down on to the one-piece seat cushion. A familiar Ford feature is that the tailgate is self-locking, but has an electric release. One becomes accustomed to two other peculiarities: the first is that the key always seems to turn the wrong way - rearward to operate the central door unlocking, and forward to lock; and that the wiper switch lever on the steering column goes down for intermittent and then up for constant run and fast speed. On most cars the switch is progressive, going through intermittent and then to low and fast speed.
   These little oddities apart, the Escort is still a very worthy and satisfying car, and it's no surprise that it is Britain's best selling car ever, and second highest in Ford's history

Ford Escort 1.6 EFi - £13,095
Less for 1.4 - £500
Top speed - 105mph
0-80mph - 22.4 sec
Fuel consumption - 38.5mpg
Insurance group - 6



ROVER 214 Si
There's not much doubt which of the six cars tested here created the greatest impression of luxury and ambience on going inside: the Rover 214 Si. It's not just the little embellishments of a strip of polished wood on the passenger side and around the heater controls, it simply does look very comfortably furnished and neatly finished inside.
   It also scores well with its very efficient little all-aluminium K-Series 1,396cc engine having twin overhead camshafts and 16 valves, developing 103bhp - that's even more than the 1.6-litre Escort; and it shows in the performance. On both top speed and acceleration, the Rover 214 Si is comfortably the fastest in the group. The engine is a bit harsh when working hard, but quiet at low speeds or when cruising lightly.
   The 214 feels a very compact and manageable car, with steering which feels light yet direct, going with excellent directional stability and predictable, not excessive, understeer on corners. The suspension is good, giving a level ride with good bump absorption, but there's a fair amount of tyre roar on some surfaces.
   The seats are well shaped, and the driving position is good despite the lack of height adjustment for the seat. The steering column is vertically adjustable. The screen pillars are very thick and rather badly obstruct the corner vision.
   A good radio/cassette unit is fitted, and its frequency display is shared with the clock in a neat unit at the top of the facia - the display temporarily overrides the clock during radio adjustments, and then reverts to show the time and selected programme.
   Remote central locking secures all doors and the tailgate, which has a separate pushbutton release, and there is an automatic anti-theft isolator for the engine.
   If one wonders how Rover do it for the money, the simple answer is that an awful lot is extra. Our test car had anti-lock brakes at £500 extra, central locking (£200), electric action for the door mirrors (£200) and front windows (£300), and passenger airbag (£350). These add up to a formidable £1,550 extra; but at least the electric glass sunroof is standard.
   The 214 is also rather smaller than the other cars of the group, and might seem a little tight for space in both the rear compartment and the boot. But the rear seat is divided 40/60 to tip down on to the one-piece cushion for extra load space, and if the 214 can be considered big enough it certainly has a great deal to recommend it.

Rover 214 Si - £12,950
Extra for 1.6 - £450
Top speed - 115mph
0-80mph - 17.6 sec
Fuel consumption - 42.1mpg
Insurance group - 6


VAUXHALL ASTRA 1.6 LS
After a lot of preamble at three international motor shows, the new Astra is here at last, and very pleasing it is, too. The range is enormous, going from 1.4-litre to 2-litre, with prices starting at £11,720 for the Astra Envoy 1.6 three-door.
   The 1.4-litre five-door LS costs £13,195, yet the 1.6 is actually cheaper: £12,945. This is why we have included a 1.6-litre amongst a group of predominantly 1.4s. The difference is explained by the fact that the 1.6-litre is an eight-valve engine, less advanced than the 16V 1.4, and giving 75bhp instead of the 90bhp of the 1.4 Ecotec engine. The new Astra was assessed during a very busy international launch based in Austria.
   Not far from the launch HQ was a test track on which a circuit had been laid out with many cones to be knocked over, and an area for a brake test on wet surface. The test through the cones certainly gave ample opportunity to confirm that the new Astra, no matter who was at the wheel, would not disgrace itself in the humiliating way that happened with the Mercedes-Benz A-Class. But I confess to being caught out by the understeer and an excess of zeal at one time, and demolishing a cone.
   The tests certainly added conviction to the claims about the good handling, and the Astra in all versions tried behaves very well on the road, and it steers well, all versions having power assistance. Vauxhall have sensibly adopted the electro-hydraulic system for powering the steering, which saves fuel compared with the more conventional arrangement in which the pump is driven directly from the engine.
   New features for this kind of car are the provision of a service indicator, a first aid kit, an electronic stability programme (coming in September for certain models), and a fully galvanised body which has enabled the makers to provide a 12-year warranty against corrosion.
   There were some comments that the interior was rather 'bland', but I found it much to my liking, with a functional console capped by a clear display showing time, temperature outside, and radio station. The radio itself is fairly high up for access, with the rotary heater controls beneath and on models at the top of the range there are remote controls on the steering wheel for the audio unit.
   A very sensible grab handle on the inside of the door is particularly appreciated by the front passenger, but not so good is the uneven front floor, and restricted space for feet, due to intrusion of the wheel arch.
   Initial impressions of the Astra are very favourable as a functional car which is enjoyable to drive and feels good when you ride in it as a passenger.

Vauxhall Astra 1.6 LS - £12,945
Extra for 1.4 - £250
Top speed - 106mph
0-80mph - n/a
Fuel consumption (official average) - 39.8mpg
Insurance group - 4


VOLKSWAGEN GOLF 1.4E
Like the Vauxhall Astra, the Golf from Volkswagen has been a long time in the coming. Last July came the first news of how the Golf replacement was shaping up, and the international press launch was held in the following month. Not until February this year did rhd production start, and the UK launch began on schedule at the beginning of May.
   At first glance, the new Golf looks remarkably similar to the old one, but VW respond to criticisms of lack of originality by saying that the design was so popular they didn't want to spoil it - just make it better. In particular, the front is more swept-back and aerodynamic, and the whole car now sets very high standards indeed. The 1.4-litre 16-valve engine is new, and develops 75bhp.
   Even as you get into the Golf, see the interior with the neat facia and console and the wipers hidden away almost out of view, and then adjust the seat using the ratchet lever for height adjustment, and set the steering wheel for ideal position of height and rake, you begin to feel that this new Golf is quite something.
   Get it out on the road, and it impresses with the refinement, especially the quietness of the engine and the lack of tyre roar or thump. It also gives a very level ride on poor surfaces, and handles in very confident fashion when taken fast through tight bends.
   The brakes are also very reassuring, all models now having discs all round, with venting for the front brakes, and anti-lock control as well as electronic brake force distribution, on all models as standard.
   Especially impressive on all of the test cars tried at the launch in Germany was the Blaupunkt navigation system, which will be an option. It is incorporated with the controls for the audio unit on the console, with a large and very clear screen giving excellent map display.
   It will be an enjoyable car to drive in the dark, I suspect, particularly because of the high-output headlamps, all now enclosed behind a single glass including fog lamps and turn indicators, and because of the unusual lighting of the instruments. The background appears in violet, on which the red pointers stand out extremely well. The instruments are also very clear to read by day.
   Exploring around inside the car, I was intrigued by all the neat little detail points which will delight the owner - though of course some of them are confined to the dearer models.
   There are also a number of options of the sort not normally expected in this class of car. You can get an automatically dipping rear mirror, wipers that turn themselves on when it starts raining, and a radio which will memorise the last four minutes of traffic warnings.
   All of the body is galvanised, which has enabled Volkswagen to back it with a 12-year anti-corrosion warranty. In addition, there is a three-year unlimited mileage mechanical warranty, with the second and third years being operated by the dealer. But although VW point out that the new one is better value than its equivalent in the previous range, it's still a bit expensive, with only the E trim five-door available below our £13,000 price limit.

Volkswagen Golf 1.4E - £12,455
Extra for 1.6 (S trim) - £1,225
Top speed - 106mph
0-80 mph (n/a); 0-60mph - 13.5 sec
Fuel consumption (official figure) - 45.6mpg
Insurance group - 6

 

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