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Archive 4
six family saloons assessed in 1999

Six sensible family salons that won't break the budget
come under Stuart Bladon's group analysis.

Comparison with the prices paid by our friends in other EEC member countries seems to show that we're paying too much for our cars. As a result, people are calling in at places like Holland and Spain and finding how easy it is to order a right-hand drive model, go back a few weeks later to collect it and thereby save a few thousand pounds.
   All this is understandably anathema to UK importers and dealers who call such cars 'grey imports' and say that they are not up to the standard of those brought in through official channels. But a good outcome of this and the ever-increasing competition is that for the British buyer prices are more stable and value improving.
   Prices shown in this review were frozen at the end of February, and in many cases they hadn't changed for many months.
   Looking carefully at the six cars in this group, surely no one can dispute that they all represent good value? They all proved very appealing and rewarding to drive and while it may be difficult to select a particular 'best buy', one can say with confidence that none of them will disappoint. They also show that you don't necessarily have to go to the top model of the range to get a very fair spread of equipment and high quality of interior finish.
   These are essentially family cars, though they have wide appeal for all kinds of buyers, and come with 1.8-litre engines in most cases, though two of them are 2-litre models. Ford commendably gives the buyer the choice of Mondeo as saloon or hatchback, with 1.6, 1.8 or 2-litre engine, all at the same price.
   There are many others that could have deserved inclusion in the group, such as the Nissan Primera, Mazda 626, Renault Laguna, Toyota Avensis and Vauxhall Vectra. It is not intended to be an exclusive list but the ones chosen do all seem to be cars of very similar appeal.
   Performance is expressed as the two very representative figures of maximum speed and the time taken to accelerate from rest to 80 mph. Again I have to emphasise that this data does not imply that such speeds should be attained in countries beset by speed limits; the top speed of a car is still an important statistic, even when it is standing in the showroom. The fuel consumption quoted is what the car has actually returned in typical conditions when on test for Wessex Wheels.

Peugeot 406 1.8 LX
Choice is the important thing and Peugeot offers the 406 with sunroof or, at £250 extra, air conditioning. Many buyers (myself included) may want both, in which case you can add the sunroof to the air conditioning model for £410 extra. The ability to order the car without an option about which, until comparatively recently, people in Britain were not concerned, enables Peugeot to offer the cheapest model in this group and very good value it is, too.
   The 1.8-litre engine is the same 16-valve unit as in the Citro‚n Xantia and it is smooth and quiet except at low speeds when there is a trace of jerkiness, especially when it is cold. This oddity was not experienced with the Xantia.
   Also peculiar to the test car was a reluctance for reverse gear, opposite fifth, to engage, and sometimes to jump out, obviously indicating some small fault here. In other respects the change was light with easy action.
   One of the most impressive aspects of the 406 is the comfort, refinement and quietness of the ride, which in many respects matches the Xantia although without the special features of oleo-pneumatics which are unique to the Citro‚n. The handling is also very satisfying, with the car following a perfect line on corners and going through with minimal roll and no excess understeer.    Combined with excellent directional stability, the steering is wonderfully accurate, so that holding the car neatly in its lane on a motorway is very easy even on a windy day. Vented front discs and drums at the rear are the standard brakes for the 1.8 SX (2-litre models and above have all-disc brakes). They are very effective, and it's good that anti-lock control is also standard.    Extremely well-shaped seats, with pull-up lever to give height adjustment, enhance the overall comfort, and there is adjustable lumbar support for the driver.
   When the 406 succeeded the 405, one of the big improvements was the provision of folding rear seats to extend boot space into the car, especially since the 406 is not available as a hatchback. The seats are divided 60/40 and the squabs fold readily down on to the fixed one-piece cushion. The lower part of the Peugeot badge is pressed to open the boot, which is secured with the remote central locking, and the boot space is generous.
   A very good Philips radio/cassette unit is fitted, and a small lever beneath the steering wheel allows the driver to make adjustments of volume, station and so on without taking hands from the wheel. Get used to this and you miss it in a car not so equipped.
   The interior is very attractively furnished for a car with only LX trim, and includes polished wood effect embellishment on the doors and facia. There are also many useful stowage places inside the 406.
   Equipment is good, and there can be no other conclusion than that the Peugeot 406 is a very pleasing, quiet and comfortable car, as well as being excellent value.

Peugeot 406 1.8 LX - £15,350
Extra for Estate - £1,000
Warranty - 1 year unlimited mileage
              - 6 years anti-corrosion
Maximum speed - 119 mph
0-80 mph - 18.9 sec
Fuel consumption - 36.7 mpg
Insurance - Group 10

Hyundai Sonata 2.0 CDX
Coming on to the scene in mid-summer last year, the Hyundai Sonata represented good value for a car of this size and range of equipment, and at the time of writing the prices still had not changed. It comes with 2-litre four-cylinder engine as tested, or with a 2.5-litre V6. Both engines have four valves per cylinder.
   The 2-litre proved very smooth and quiet when cruising; it's only when it's working hard, as in high speeds or when accelerating hard that it gets a bit growly. The five-speed gear change on the test car was inclined to be notchy and awkward to move across from fourth up to fifth.
   Least pleasing feature of the Sonata is the suspension, tending to give a choppy ride with some vibration and vertical bounce on poor roads. There is also a lot of tyre roar on some coarse surfaces. The brakes are very efficient and the Sonata has discs all round and includes anti-lock control as standard on all models.    Adjustable vertically, the steering is heavier than with some competitors, although of course it has power assistance and there is a slight tendency to wander in cross winds.
   Seat comfort could be better. The driver gets two adjusters for cushion height, thus making it possible to set the angle of the cushion to personal choice, and there is also lumbar adjustment of the backrest; but in spite of these facilities one was never very comfortable in the driving seat, while in the passenger seat you are aware of the intrusion of the wheel arch into the footwell area, making it difficult to find space for the feet.
   Everything goes in favour of the Sonata when one examines the specification and compares the equipment with that of rival products. Thus, you get air conditioning as well as a glass sunroof with electric tilt/slide action; and all windows have electric action.    There is a radio with CD player, and the Sonata has such thoughtful provisions as a power take-off so that someone wishing to plug in a telephone, for example, does not have to use the cigarette lighter socket.
   Remote central locking is provided, with the sensible feature that the first press on the sender undoes only the driver's door, leaving all other doors still locked for security until the sender is given a second press. The boot is a very spacious compartment, but its lid is self-locking, requiring the key to open it, or a floor-mounted release lever can be used.
   The rear seat is divided 40/60, and the squabs fold easily on to the one-piece cushion to extend the already generous boot space. Locking catches in the boot ensure that the seats don't give access for thieves to get to the boot after breaking into the car.    Despite some small shortcomings, the Sonata provided very pleasant travel for a journey to Switzerland, and the fuel economy proved impressively good bearing in mind the fact that it had covered little mileage when tested, and would undoubtedly improve with more use. Consumption also tends to be heavier on the Continent, so over here owners should readily obtain 35 mpg from the Sonata.

Hyundai Sonata 2.0 CDX - £15,499
Extra for Estate - N/A
Warranty - 3 years unlimited mileage
                - 6 years anti-corrosion
Maximum speed - 124 mph
0-80 mph - 17.8 sec
Fuel consumption - 30.4 mpg
Insurance - 10A

Skoda Octavia SLXi 20v
Because it looks like a Volkswagen Passat, Skoda's Octavia tends to be regarded as a way to get a Passat without the delivery delays and at much lower price. One shouldn't be misled, because while the quality is good, and the engines and many mechanical components much the same, it isn't identical in other respects.
   In fact, some aspects of the Octavia proved a bit disappointing, especially the rather sharp, joggey ride with a lot of thump and banging noises from the wheels over bumps. Noise levels were also notably higher than is remembered from those of the Passat. So, be content that you are getting a very fine and roomy car for the money, but don't expect Volkswagen levels of refinement and then you shouldn't be disappointed.
   The remarkable thing about the Octavia in SLX form is that it comes with the engine originally developed for the Group by Audi, having five valves per cylinder and delivering an impressive 125 bhp from only 1,781 cc capacity. It gives very good response and vigorous performance, but gets a little fussy at speed due to the low gearing. In fifth, it takes nearly 4,000 rpm to give 80 mph, which is not conducive to quiet, relaxed cruising.
   Other aspects are very good, including the easy gear change action - once the location of reverse alongside first gear is remembered - the very positive steering and reassuring handling. The brakes are very effective for light pedal loads, and the Octavia has discs front and rear, with anti-lock control as standard.    Although a bit on the hard side, the seats are comfortable and well-shaped, and both front seats have rotary adjustment for lumbar support. A ratchet lever at the side gives the driver a useful range of height adjustment. Huge rear legroom is provided, as well as enormous boot capacity and the rear seat is divided 40/60 with clever arrangement for the corresponding part of the cushion to pull forward and tip, allowing very level extension of the boot floor.
   An extremely neat and clear layout for the facia and instruments includes an easily understandable two-stage computer giving useful information such as average mpg and speed. The only weak point is a Grundig radio which gives good tone but is fiddly to use, with tiny little buttons.
   Adding to the appeal of the Octavia is its generous range of equipment, including as standard such items as electric sunroof, air conditioning and alloy wheels. It all adds up to a very pleasing car which is extremely good value.

Skoda Octavia SLXi 20v - £15,499
Extra for Estate - £700
Warranty - 3 years unlimited mileage
Included free - 3 years/45,000 miles service
                     - 10 years anti-corrosion
Maximum speed - 125 mph
0-80 mph - 17.5 sec
Fuel consumption - 32.7 mpg
Insurance - 11

Citroen Xantia LX 1.8i
Any CitroÍn salesman would have to get the potential buyer into the car and out on the road, and then a sale would probably result. There's no doubt that the suspension, with its ingenious combination of compressed gas and hydraulics, gives a very comfortable ride. Absorption of bumps is excellent, with very low levels of tyre roar and thump, while the car also behaves impeccably on corners.
   There's no longer a 1.6-litre engine for the Xantia - the range starts with an eight-valve 1.8, and moves on to the 16-valve 112 bhp unit as tested. This is a very pleasing engine, prompt to start, very smooth and quiet, and providing relaxed motorway cruising.
   It took a little while to find how to work the controls on the steering wheel, but after a short familiarisation session I appreciated how very convenient it is to be able to be able to 'drive' the radio without taking hands from the wheel. There's a pleasantly positive feel to the steering, although a slight tendency to wander was noticed on motorways especially when it was windy.    Reassuring braking is provided, with discs all round and anti-lock control as standard in the LX trim.
   On first entering the Xantia one might be put off by the slightly sombre appearance of the layout with extensive use of dark grey for the trim and facia, but it is soon appreciated that everything is well-planned and thoughtfully laid out, while the softly upholstered seats prove extremely comfortable. A pull-out lever at the side gives height adjustment, and the lumbar support is also adjustable. With this and a height adjustable steering wheel one can set an ideal driving position. A centre armrest is attached to the side of the passenger seat.
   This is a five-door hatchback with clever arrangement for the divided and folding action of the rear seats so that you get an almost completely flat extension of the boot floor, and the tailgate lifts easily, taking the rear shelf up on cords.
   Many improvements have been made to the Xantia for '99, and one which I particularly liked was the provision of automatic wiper switching. It works very well, from the occasional wipe to remove drizzle, to rapid action for coping with the spray from an overtaken lorry. The buyer can choose to have air conditioning or sunroof, or pay £410 extra to have both. Trafficmaster is built in, giving advice on any blocked motorways, usually in time for the driver to turn off and seek an avoiding route.
   I was very taken by this latest Xantia, and thought it excellent and hard to fault.

Citro‚n Xantia 1.8i LX - £14,165
Extra for Estate - £970
Warranty - 1 year unlimited mileage
               - 6 years anti-corrosion
Maximum speed - 121 mph
0-80 mph - 19.6 sec
Fuel consumption - 37.1 mpg
Insurance - Group 10

Ford Mondeo 2.0 LX
An amazing thing about the Ford Mondeo is that it costs the same whether you prefer hatchback or saloon, and regardless of engine size. The three engines available for LX trim are 1.6, 1.8, and 2.0; and even the 1.8-litre turbo diesel is also offered at the same cost although it must cost more to make. So you can choose the model according to whether you value performance or economy, or seek the Group 7 insurance that comes with the 1.6, Group 9 for the 1.8 and diesel, or the Group 11 for the 2-litre as tested.
   In favour of the 2.0 is its lovely response and the eager performance with the engine soaring smoothly up to high revs without fuss, and yet barely audible at tickover or in traffic. Not surprisingly, the Mondeo 2.0 gave us the best performance of the whole group.
   Most of the dynamic aspects of the Mondeo are first rate, as one would expect with such a competent and well-developed car, especially the easy gear change, precise and accurate steering, and the reassuring response to a touch on the brakes. Anti-lock brakes were fitted on the test car, which add £400 to the price of the LX.
   The slightly disappointing aspect of Mondeo is the considerable amount of thump and bang heard from the wheels over bumps and potholes, although the actual ride comfort is good. There doesn't seem to be sufficient noise suppression in the suspension, though the level of tyre roar is fairly well restrained. The behaviour on corners is reassuring - one feels absolute confidence in the way the car will respond, with slight, consistent understeer.
   Extremely comfortable seats are fitted, though the test car benefited from Ghia trim which brings electric height adjustment.    Whether one goes for the saloon or hatchback, the rear seat backrest is divided and either or both parts fold readily down on to the one-piece cushion. A surprising change for Ford, after years of fitting self-locking boots, is provision of an external release button to open boot or tailgate, which is locked automatically with the remote central locking.
   Another surprising feature appearing in the price list for the Mondeo is 'sunroof delete'. Apparently, now that air conditioning is fitted as standard, some buyers actually prefer not to have a sunroof, so it can be deleted at no extra charge on the Ghia, on which it is otherwise standard. Not so with the LX, however, as here you must pay £250 extra to have a sliding sunroof.
   A novelty on the test car was the Blaupunkt navigation system, which is offered for all Mondeos at a clean £2,000 extra. Sadly, I cannot recommend it, because it makes very unsatisfactory choice of routes. All the time, it wants to get the car back on to the nearest motorway even if there is a perfectly good connecting dual carriageway which would be better and shorter, and when you know the area and ignore ridiculous instructions it keeps on urging you to 'make a U-turn if possible'. But if you are in unfamiliar territory it will get you to your destination. The display for the navigator is very small, and is built into the front of the radio/cassette unit, so one loses the cassette facility.
   Mondeo is a satisfying car, with very sound engineering; but one can't escape the impression that nothing is included that the accountants feel might be deleted with impunity.

Ford Mondeo 2.0 LX - £15,850
Extra for Estate - £1,000
Warranty - 1 year unlimited mileage
               - 6 years anti-corrosion
Maximum speed - 128 mph
0-80 mph - 16.9 sec
Fuel consumption - 33.7 mpg
Insurance (see text) - Groups 7-11

Mitsubishi Carisma 1.8GDI GLS

When the new Carisma with its revolutionary direct injection petrol engine was launched at the 1997 London Show, I was asked to carry out an economy run to prove the meagre thirst of this new engine. London to Africa with only two refuelling halts - that was the objective, and the car made it quite easily.
   The first fill-up after being flagged away from Earls Court on the preview day was at Dover, and the car then went right across France without taking on any more fuel until it had crossed the border into Spain. By then the consumption was averaging 63.6 mpg, and by the time the journey finished in Tangier, the overall average had improved to 65.06 mpg.
   Although the car had behaved impeccably on the journey out, when it really impressed me was on the return. Now driving normally and cruising very fast, the consumption was still consistently above 40 mpg, with a best of 43 mpg. In fact, the overall average for the 3,392-mile round journey was only just below 50 mpg at the end (49.73 mpg).
   That shows convincingly what an economical unit this advanced 1.8-litre engine is, but it is also remarkable for its performance and leisurely fast cruising. At one time, when there was an opportunity to test for maximum speed, the Carisma reached 136 mph, which is 6 mph faster than Mitsubishi claims.
   In all other respects the Carisma proved a most pleasing car on this long journey, with suspension giving a very comfortable ride and easy, predictable handling, first rate steering and brakes, and generally low noise levels at all speeds.
   There are many little refinements in the interior design that make for convenience when living with a car for long hours of travel, and the seats, ventilation and lack of noise all combined to ensure that we emerged relaxed and still fresh after long hours of travel. The only thing we regretted was the lack of a sunroof. This is available for the Carisma, but only in lieu of air conditioning - it seems that you can't have both.
   GLS is the top trim specification for the GDI, and at just under £16,000 it comes with full air conditioning but not anti-lock brakes. These add £720 to the price. Value is good, since the prices had not changed for ten months at the time of writing. Four-door saloon or five-door hatchback is available at the same price.

Mitsubishi Carisma GDI 1.8 GLS - £15,980
Extra for Estate - N/A
Warranty - 3 years unlimited mileage
               - 6 years anti-corrosion
Maximum speed - 125 mph
0-80 mph - 17.2 sec
Fuel consumption - 40.6 mpg
Insurance - 11


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