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Archive
 10

It's yesterday once more as Stuart Bladon looks
at some modern cars with retro styling which
recall memories of the past.

Were they such good times? - that's the question. There wasn't the current obsession against speed that we suffer today, with the threat of ever more cameras and draconian penalties for those who get caught just a few mph above a limit posted at random, taking no account of weather, time of day, or traffic conditions. But before the wonderful motorway building years of the 60s and 70s, it took ages to get anywhere.
   In my early years on the staff of the Autocar magazine, we used to regard it as a challenge to see if we could actually cover 60 miles in the hour. I often tried but never succeeded, because in the days when there were no motorways and few dual carriageways, one would be going ever so well and think it was 'in the bag' this time, when a town or village would be reached and the magic 60 mph average would collapse.
   Another factor was what the cars were like in those days. To get up to 80 mph, which is a cruising speed for many drivers today, was a rare event, as all but the few very powerful cars lacked the acceleration to reach such speeds before the often inadequate drum brakes had to be applied hard to bring the speed down ready for the next tight corner.
   But people still hanker after the cars of yesteryear, blissfully unaware, perhaps, of their shortcomings in terms of performance, handling, steering, brakes and comfort. One result has been the vigorous classic car movement and another has been the launch of modern classics - cars that look like the products of earlier decades, but have the benefit of modern machinery, bodywork, electrical equipment and technology. They arouse the feelings of nostalgia without the penalties of dynamos, manual steering, drum brakes, carburettors and mechanical ignition systems.
   This look at six 'modern classics' continues our series of group reports previously featured in Wessex Wheels magazine. As before, the fuel consumption figures given in the data panels - unless stated otherwise - are results recorded for Gear Wheels in typical touring and everyday conditions, not manufacturers' claims.

      
       

Chrysler PT Cruiser

It was perhaps the Chrysler PT (standing for Personal Transport-ation) Cruiser more than any other car that sparked off the interest in modern cars built to look like something 50 or 60 years older and it certainly aroused tremendous interest during the test period. The test car was the Limited version, with top equipment.
   Many of the odd things about the PT are very typical of the sort of cars being built across the Atlantic 50 or 60 years ago, notably the almost-flat windscreen, the rising roof line which gives good seating capacity with extravagant headroom in the rear and the wide slatted radiator grille at the front and sloping slab-sided tail.
   Not everything about the PT is retro, though; it bristles with modern technology that would never have been found in the 1950s - things like disc brakes, airbags, chromed alloy wheels and a transversely mounted 16-valve engine driving the front wheels. It also has electric windows front and rear, remote central locking and impact absorbing plastic bumpers.
   To drive, the PT feels much like any other modern car with power assisted steering and a neat-shifting five-speed gearbox, although there's a very dated look to the tall, willowy gear lever rod with a round white plastic knob on the top. The suspension gives a comfortable ride, although with quite lot of thump on bumps, but I didn't like the tendency for the tail to slide rather readily on a slippery surface in spite of having Goodyear Eagle NCT tyres - usually noted for good grip.
   The brakes are very effective, being vented discs at front and solid discs rear. Anti-lock control is optional on the cheapest version.
   Will the average customer who goes for this unusual Chrysler be buying it mainly as a showpiece, purely for local running and to impress friends as well as to have the morale boost of being in a car that is bound to be noticed? If so, then it will not disappoint. But if it is to be used for long distance motoring, then the rather high noise level from the 2-litre engine may become a bit irksome. The gearing, even in fifth, is fairly low and the engine sounds busy when cruising.
   On the other hand, the speed of the PT Cruiser is deceptive. With its high seating position and generally low level of wind noise it doesn't seem to be going particularly fast but, in fact, the speedometer is unusually accurate. When it indicates 80, it is indeed very nearly that - 79 mph. On a dull day, though, one might almost be wondering what speed one is doing anyway, since the speedometer is buried away, poorly lit and hard to read.
   The Chrysler badge in the plinth on the back is also a central release for the tailgate and opening it reveals another thing that one might not have found in the 1950s: the fact that the PT Cruiser is a hatchback with a lift-up tailgate and rear wiper.
   Many who saw our PT Cruiser drooled over it and swore they wanted to have one. So perhaps Chrysler has not been over-optimistic in setting up a European production line for it at its factory in Graz, Austria, where 50,000 a year are now being built.

Chrysler PT Cruiser Limited - £17,195
Engine - 1,995 cc atmo indirect injection
0-80 mph - 19.6 sec
Maximum speed - 118 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
                - 6 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 27.8 mpg
CO2 emissions - 205 g/km (tax Band D £155)
Insurance - Group 12




Jaguar S-Type
During its short production run, before it was replaced by the larger and more slab fronted 420 model, the Jaguar S-Type delighted me. It had all the merits of the Mk 2 saloon, plus the advantages of a larger boot and independent rear suspension. It seemed a mistake, I thought, to call the new model introduced at the 1998 Birmingham Show, by the same name, but perhaps there has been sufficient gap in the meantime for there to be no confusion.
   Initially there was slight disappointment on driving the S-Type for the first time, on feeling a lot of wheel thump and joggey movement over bumps. It wasn't the sort of superlative ride comfort one might have expected; but as soon as the urban constraints were shaken off, the S-Type magic began. It then became delightfully smooth and quiet, with wonderful lack of mechanical or tyre noises - just a slight rustle of the wind around the door mirrors.
   For this test I had the 4-litre version, which comes only with automatic transmission, again with that sensible J-gate layout for the selector, giving the driver complete control. The 4-litre wafts unobtrusively through its automatic changes, giving effortless progress and phenomenal performance, reaching 80 mph from rest in only 10.6 sec.
   Earlier, though, I also enjoyed a brief spell with the less powerful 3-litre model and was impressed to find how tremendously fast, quiet and refined is the S-Type with this Ford-derived V6 engine, which is also the top unit for the new X-Type range. This version of the S-Type comes as standard with five-speed manual gearbox and starts the range at £26,700.
   Among the array of options for the S-Type is a voice recognition system enabling the driver to control such things as the telephone, CD player or climate control, just by talking to it; and the navigation system also features advance warning of traffic congestion.
   One feels snug in the S-Type, with the car fitting around one and it's a comfortable driving position, but with not a lot of space clear around the legs in the front compartment. In the back, where many owners will no doubt travel, there is generous legroom; and the boot, although not very deep, extends a long way forward.
   In terms of performance and efficiency, the old S-Type of the 1960s would be comprehensively 'trounced' by the latest V8 version or even the V6 - acceleration from rest to 80 mph with the S-Type 3.8, 35 years ago, took 17 sec - and dramatic strides have been made on such matters as accident safety and ventilation. But in some aspects such as comfort and visibility, the progress is less in evidence, and when Jaguar displayed the new S-Type alongside a well-preserved example of the original, one could not help admiring the less fussy, simple curvature of the old model's lines, especially at the rear. But times change and even the retro look has to be brought up to date.

Jaguar S-Type 4.0 V8 - £35,350
Engine - 3,996 cc atmo indirect injection
0-80 mph - 10.6 sec
Maximum speed - 150 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
               - 6 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 22.1mpg
CO2 emissions - 299 g/km (tax Band D £155)
Insurance - Group 17


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MGF
If you feel that the MGF is too modern a car to have a place in this feature dealing with 'retro' classics, I can't disagree. It's a completely modern car, but it does bring back memories of the MGB which in its day was - and is still is - one of the best-loved of all classics. The launch of the MGF in Warwickshire in 1995 is one I will always remember, as we were sent off round a route comprising almost entirely minor country roads on which the superb handling of the F could really be exploited and enjoyed to the full.
   Unlike the MGB, which was front-engined and had a live rear axle, the MGF has all-independent suspension and the engine is positioned transversely in mid-position, just behind the seats. This layout contributes to the near-neutral weight balance front-rear and the resultant impeccable behaviour on the road. Two versions of the engine are offered, both of 1,796 cc capacity, and one having Rover's ingenious VVC camshaft gear to alter the valve timing and increase the standard power output from 118 to 143 bhp.
   The difference is very marked, but it tends to be all at the top end and the sympathetic private owner might be reluctant to take it up to the 7,000 rpm level at which the peak power is developed. Although I enjoyed both versions, I think I would be inclined to save the £2,500 difference. In standard form, the F certainly is not sluggish.
   The other important option added last year is Rover's Steptronic automatic transmission at £1,105 extra, which gives the owner the advantage of clutchless driving while also retaining full control of gear steps for optimum acceleration when needed and selecting the right ratio for smooth acceleration through corners.
   The MGF was one of the first cars to go into production with the now widely used concept of electric power steering. It simply means that the hydraulic power for the steering is generated by electric pump instead of directly from the engine by belt drive. The steering is delightfully precise giving all the sensitivity of response that one expects from such a car, but it is regrettable that there is no adjustment for the steering wheel position. The suspension is taut without being harsh and the brakes, with discs all round, are very effective. One gets used to having the handbrake to the left of the centre tunnel.
   Accommodation is poor. I found nowhere to put my notebook and care is needed to avoid doing what I did - put the keys down in the boot, then close the lid. Fortunately I was not far from base when I realised there was no way of opening the boot without the key.
   The hood is very easy to fold - just two catches to undo and fold it back. Fixing the tonneau cover in place is a bit slower but again easy and it is secured at the back by closing the boot lid on to it, which discourages theft of this expensive item. The heating is slow to take effect and then difficult to control as it doesn't respond to its temperature adjuster.
   In spite of these slight drawbacks, the MGF is certainly a classic in the modern idiom - a car to be loved and enjoyed, and driven as a true thoroughbred deserves.

MGF - £16,980
Engine - 1,796 cc atmo indirect injection
0-80 mph - 15.0 sec
Maximum speed - 120 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
                - 6 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 39.1 mpg
CO2 emissions - 178 g/km (tax Band C £140)
Insurance - Group 12



Mini One
All of the other five cars in this review have been driven and tested for this report, but with the new Mini we are a little stumbling in the dark having done no more than examine the car closely when it made its first public appearance in the latest production form at the Geneva Motor Show. But as a reincarnation of what was at one time one of Britain's most famous cars and certainly the one which more than any other influenced world design with its revolutionary concept of mounting the engine transversely at the front, it certainly deserves inclusion here.
   BMW had put a lot of money into the development of the successor and evidently felt it worth persevering with it after the disposal of the rest of the Rover Group. The Mini successor is now on production schedule with launch due for June and an on-sale date of 7 July predicted. The thing which doesn't seem very wise is the choice of name for the base model: Mini One sounds very odd and, in some countries, 'One' will be pronounced 'Own' or 'Ownay'.   The resemblance to the original, while at the same time evolving an up-to-date shape, has been cleverly achieved and there is undoubtedly much of the chic appeal of the former Mini in this more modern design. Less sensible, I think, is the use of a one-piece panel incorporating headlamps, front wings, bonnet and top of the front grille all in one unit which looks potentially expensive to repair following accident damage. But perhaps it would be wrong to presume that the new Mini is aimed at the mass market looking for a small car that will be very cheap to buy and run, which was the appeal of the original.
   Instead, the new one is clearly intended to sell rather higher up the market, where the buyer will be looking for something considerably less basic and with the emphasis more on nimble performance, compactness, practicality and sporty behaviour. This is why there is also a Cooper version with more powerful engine.
   Both versions of the Mini also miss out on the latest tax concessions for cars with engine capacity under 1,500 cc, as they have a 1.6-litre four-cylinder 16-valve engine. In Mini One it develops 88 bhp and, in the Cooper, 114, which is going to give such a small and light car a spectacular turn of performance. Claimed top speeds are 115 and 124 mph. No acceleration time to 80 mph is available yet, but I would expect it to be in the region of 15 sec for Cooper.
   At first, I seemed to be sitting much too low when I tried the driving seat of the Mini One, until I discovered that it has height adjustment, making a good driving position possible. The interior is unusual with a large speedometer in the centre of the panel and a small rev counter in view for the driver, behind the steering wheel. An essential feature which the original Mini never offered is a rear window wiper and the tail design is that of a hatchback rather than a car with a diminutive boot as the predecessor was.
   As one who was there when the British Motor Corporation launched the first Mini at Chobham proving ground in 1959, I look forward eagerly to trying this updated concept.

Mini One Price - £10,300
Engine - 1,598 cc atmo indirect injection
0-80 mph - no data; 0-60 mph 10.9 sec (claimed)
Maximum speed - 115 mph (claimed)
Warranty - TBA
Fuel consumption - 43.5 mpg (claimed)
CO2 emissions - no data
Insurance - TBA



Rover 75
There's nothing very dated or retrospective in the outward appearance of the Rover 75, but inside it is highly traditional and I was struck by the way it impressed the older kind of driver who doesn't want everything to be high tech and digital. But not everyone feels the same about it. "A bit passť and out of date," I was told by one passenger, who went on to suggest that it would have looked alright in the 1950s, but not in 2001. But a little later, an older driver was absolutely enthralled by the classic style of the interior and admired the strange oval-shaped instruments.
   Well, my main concern is whether the instruments are clear to read without taking eyes too far from the view of the road. The dials, with slightly yellow tint and chrome bezels, are certainly a model of clarity. I was also impressed by the lavish appearance of simulated polished walnut trim on the facia and console.
   More important matters are: how easy is it to drive this big Rover and how does it behave on the road? The new 75 is very manageable and 'safe' feeling, and rides comfortably, although with fairly high levels of wheel noise on bumps and tyre roar on coarse surfaces. Although big and roomy inside, the 75 doesn't feel bulky.    Rover offers a huge choice of trim, engines and optional equipment for the 75, beginning with the basic 1.8-litre engine which powered my test car. The range starts with Classic trim, at £16,495, and working up through Classic SE, Club (our test car again), Club SE, Connoisseur and Connoisseur SE. The other engines offered are Rover's own V6 in 2-litre and 2.5-litre form, and BMW's four-cylinder 2-litre turbo diesel. The full permutation of four engines and six trim levels, stretches to £22,995 - more than £1,000 less than the original top price.
   The executive could get quite carried away by the long list of optional equipment, which includes such features as side impact protection for the head at £150 and folding rear seats.
   Rather borderline for power, the 1.8-litre four-cylinder engine suffers from what I understand is becoming a rather common fault these days: it's inclined to surge and be snatchy at low speeds in traffic. But it is a quiet and free-revving unit and gives reasonable performance.
   I liked the tidy action and lovely feel and appearance of the leather-trimmed gear lever and gaiter, and the steering is exceptionally light yet also acts with precision, with leather trim for the centre part of the wheel.
   Light and responsive, the brakes have ABS and are discs front and rear, with internal venting at front. The handling of the Rover 75 is just a shade ponderous, with a tendency to understeer, but the light steering disguises this.
   The seats are as comfortable to sit on as their shape suggests and all seat adjustments can be set while sitting normally, with no need to lean forward. The steering column is adjustable both ways.
   A good radio/cassette unit nestles at the top of the console. Its LED display of chosen station cannot be read in bright light, but perhaps you're not supposed to read it, because there are repeater controls for the audio on the left side of the steering wheel.
   Aura and ambience are the special attributes of the Rover 75 and, in most respects, it's a very pleasing car. It deserves to sell well and perhaps will do so now that the company is overcoming the disruptions of being cast off by BMW last year.

Rover 75 Club 1.8 - £17,595
Engine - 1,796 cc atmo indirect injection
0-80 mph - 20.8 sec
Maximum speed - 121 mph
Warranty - 1 year, unlimited mileage
               - 6 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 30.8 mpg
CO2 emissions - 193 g/km (tax Band D £155)
Insurance - Group 9


Volkswagen Beetle
It surprised the Volkswagen management to find how popular the New Beetle was to prove. After sweeping into America, where it was launched at the beginning of 1998, it became available here with left-hand drive only in April 1999. Right-hand drive versions were available from the beginning of last year, initially with 2-litre engine, followed by an automatic version and, in August, a 1.6-litre model.    To drive the modern Beetle stirs few memories of the chuffling rear-engined air-cooled predecessor which was continued so long in production that the sudden collapse of sales at one time threatened Volkswagen's future. The successor is totally different, of course, with the engine positioned transversely at the front, driving the front wheels, instead of at the rear, and there is a lot more space in the new one as well as much more performance, better handling and steering, and far superior heating and ventilation.
   Not everything is better, though. I thought the engine a bit noisy and fussy, albeit cruising at speeds which the original Beetle could never have reached. The gearing seems needlessly low, which adversely affects the fuel consumption. Such a car should be able to manage 40 mpg. I also remember the impressively resilient suspension of the original, as well as the gearchange which was so light it was almost like working a switch rather than a gear lever. There are no grounds for complaint here against the new one, but it's just one aspect where the modern car is not quite a match for the old, though it does have five gears instead of the original Beetle's four.
   Visibility also suffers a bit from the retro design, with the bonnet in view ahead - something many drivers like to see - but it tumbles away at the front making it a bit difficult to judge just how close the front of the car is to any obstruction; and as is obligatory to meet modern roll-over crash regulations, the screen pillars are beefier and a little more obstructive.
   Against modern cars, it certainly stands out, although the popularity of the Beetle means that it is no longer a rarity and a source of amusement when seen on the road with its curved wings over the wheels protruding beyond the side panels and no concessions to aerodynamics.
   In traditional Beetle form - it has a small flower vase attached to the facia - a homely touch.

Volkswagen New Beetle 2.0 - £14,295
Engine - 1,984 cc atmo indirect injection
0-80 mph - 19.7 sec
Maximum speed - 115 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
                - 12 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 31.7 mpg
CO2 emissions - 230 g/km (tax Band D £155)
Insurance - Group 11




Please note that prices and specifications given in this
feature may change at short notice.

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