It'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
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.
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
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
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
Back to Archives