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Archive 21
Car Review sporting

Stuart Bladon selects six of his favourites from the
wonderful choice of sporting coupés on the market.

During the first 10 of the 26 years which I spent on the staff of the magazine Autocar, the technical editor was the late Harry Mundy, later well known as the engineer who was largely responsible for the Jaguar V12 engine. He liked to make profound statements, never to be contradicted, one of which was his definition of a coupé. "A coupé," he used to say, "is a closed two-seater." If that held true today, many of the so-called coupés on the market would need to be renamed. Even the new big Renault Avantime is being hailed as a coupé and, in a sense it is, since it has only two side doors, but it's more of a giant hatchback at the back - certainly not the popular concept of a sporty car, designed with the emphasis on handling and performance, to bring the pleasure back into motoring.
   Practicality demands now that most cars should be able to take at least four people and a better definition is that a coupé is a car of elegant styling, with fixed roof and only two side doors, whether with a lift-up tailgate or separate boot; and what variety of coupés there is on the market! They come in all sizes and at a wide range of prices and the ones covered here are just six personal favourites from the intriguing choice available.
   To be successful as a sporting coupé, a car must essentially be 'fun' to drive - a word which many of the dreary anti-speed brigade would like to have banned from the motoring language! But having fun at the wheel doesn't mean driving unsafely. On the contrary, it's far better to be concentrating on the job in hand, enjoying the fine handling of a thoroughbred car, and fully in control, than to be wandering along half asleep and not giving full attention to the 'life-skill' task of driving.
   Although the authorities blame everything on speed, it is actually inattention which is the cause of most accidents. Sporty cars such as the ones we are dealing with here, encourage one to take pride in one's driving.
   Except where stated otherwise in the data tables, the fuel consumption figures quoted are thoe actually recorded for Gear Wheels when we had the cars on test. Acceleration from rest to 80 mph is given simply as a yardstick for assessing performance, which is particularly important in a sporty coupé.


Peugeot 206 Coupé/Cabriolet
"It's not a convertible," I was told, when the Peugeot 206 Coupé/ Cabriolet arrived in my absence. The mistake was understandable, because it certainly doesn't look like an open car, but I had seen it going through its routine of putting the top up and down at motor shows and knew that, when it's closed, it looks just like a fixed head coupé.
   "Just watch this," I said and turned the ignition key, then released the two quick-action catches at either side of the top of the wind-screen. A steady press on the roof operating switch then took the car through its top-lowering sequence. First, all windows go down together; then the boot lid opens at the front and the car's roof moves rearward and goes through a kind of scissors action, to fold neatly away before closing the lid down again on top of it. Result: a very neat two-seater open car with no folded hood in view.
   Closing up is similarly easy, the only hand action necessary being to refix the two screen catches once the roof is in position and the Peugeot 206 Coupé/Cabriolet is then as snug and secure with the top in place as any fixed-head model.
   For normal access to the boot, it opens at the rear, taking a lower frame with it, and space inside the compartment is reasonable. If the top is to be lowered, however, a net screen must be pulled across, which ensures that there is room in the boot for the top to fold down into it. If the net barrier is not in place, the top will not operate. The whole arrangement is very similar to that of the Mercedes-Benz SLK, except that with the SLK the whole rear panel rises when the boot is opened, instead of leaving a lower frame in position.
   Even in poor weather, I found this little Peugeot fun to drive with the top down. It doesn't shake and most of the slipstream passes over the top, so the occupants don't get buffeted about. There is plenty of warmth from the heater to keep one snug even when the outside air is fairly chill. There is a small rear seat, fine for two children and just about possible for two adults on a brief trip if they don't mind being a bit short of leg and headroom.
   The 2-litre engine is smooth and free-revving, giving hardly any audible sound when the top is down, in spite of rather low gearing. On test, it gave 29.6 mpg and accelerated from rest to 80 mph in a very creditable 14.3 sec.
   The 206 CC comes with choice of two 16-valve engines. You can have a 1.6-litre for £14,480 or, as tested, with the 2-litre 138 bhp engine at £15,995. The 1.6 also became available recently with four-speed automatic transmission at £15,380. These prices are inevitably very high compared with the starting figure of £7,940 for the cheapest version of the 206, but convertibles always cost more even when they don't have this ingenious folding rigid top. As for being a coupé, and eligible for inclusion in this review of 'closed two-seaters', well - it is one - with the top in place!

Peugeot 206 Coupé/Cabriolet 2.0 - £15,995
Engine - 1,997 cc atmo indirect injection
0-80 mph - 14.3 sec
Maximum speed - 127 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
- 12 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 29.6 mpg
CO2 emissions - 191 g/km (tax Band D £155)
Insurance - Group 12

Toyota Celica
It's a reminder of how car prices have become more competitive in the last couple of years, that the Toyota Celica was launched in September 1999 at £19,255 - a decidedly high price for a coupé with only 1.8-litre atmo engine - but now it is available at £2,275 less. The current price of £16,980 for the Celica is much more attractive and it is certainly a car of striking appearance which looks more expensive than it is.
   Celica's four-cylinder 16-valve engine has varying valve timing (VVT-i) and produces a commendable power output of 140 bhp. Although the figure is high, the car's performance on the road seems rather lack lustre, needing a lot of use of the gears and high revs to get a move on, though it helps that a six-speed is standard.
   Since we tried the Celica, a more powerful version with 190 bhp has become available, but it's a lot more expensive (£20,495) and the peak power is achieved at enormous revs, unlikely to be used by any thinking owner. So this standard model is the one to buy, now offering much better value.
   It handles confidently and steers well; the brakes are effective, with discs front and rear, but need fairly heavy pedal loads. What I didn't like in the Celica was the very limited range of seat height adjustment and the feeling of sitting too low with nothing of the car in view ahead of the wipers. The seats have pronounced wrapround to hold one in place well on corners and there are large headrest hoops which effectively block the view for anyone sitting in the back. The rear seats have folding backrests to allow extra load space when no-one is sitting there. Clambering into the back is a bit of a struggle.
   It was good to find that the Celica has a sunroof, but only later was it discovered that this is not standard. It comes as part of an option pack. It is a glass panel, electrically operated, and lifts at the back first, then slides rearward parallel with the roof.
   We were surprised that such a car should not have any interior map reading light. A Sony audio unit is fitted having both cassette and CD slots, but spoilt by minute lettering for its control buttons. A large, clear display shows what station has been selected, once one has worked out what buttons to press.
   The Celica's instrumentation could be clearer: it has orange-on-black marking for the speedometer and rev counter, while coloured bars across an arc serve as the fuel and temperature gauges.
   Celica is essentially a three-door hatchback rather than a coupé, and the tailgate opens to reveal a roomy luggage compartment, with full size spare wheel beneath the floor. The tail door is secured with the remote control central locking and opened by a release concealed beneath the plinth - a big improvement on previous self-locking arrangements needing the key every time to open.
   The sleek low-drag body of the Celica, combined with an efficient engine and fairly high gearing (23.1 mph at 1,000 rpm in sixth) make this quite an economical car, returning over 33 mpg even in swift driving. It is also the only one in the group that - just - manages to scrape into Band C for emissions-based annual tax, saving £15 a year. Now that the Celica is offered at a more sensible price it deserves to sell better and be less of a rare sight on the roads.

Toyota Celica VVTi - £16,980
Engine - 1,794 cc atmo indirect injection
0-80 mph - 14.3 sec
Maximum speed - 127 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
- 12 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 33.7 mpg
CO2 emissions - 185 g/km (tax Band C £140)
Insurance - Group 13

Alfa Romeo 147 Selespeed
Launched at the beginning of this year, the sporty little 147came first only as a three-door hatchback, though a five-door model followed in the summer. For this test appraisal we were able to drive the147 with 1.6-litre engine and five-speed manual gearbox, as well as the interesting new 2-litre with the semi-automatic box which is offered by Alfa, called Selespeed. A 2-litre five-speed manual version was also added later.
   It takes a little while to get used to Selespeed, which is essentially a manual gearbox with electronic actuators for clutch, gear change and throttle. To drive away, simply place the foot on the brake pedal, move the selector to the left and the figure 1 appears in the little window between the instruments. It's now in first gear, ready to move off as soon as you release the brakes and press the accelerator. It will stay in that gear until commanded to change up, unless you take it up to the top of the rev range, in which case it will change up automatically.
   In addition to the floor-mounted selector, there are small levers, called paddle switches below the steering wheel on each side, with finger-reach.
   Hustling along in the mountains I found this rather good: hands firmly on wheel, yet able to change gear up or down just by a touch. The only time it was not so good was when both hands were needed on the wheel and it wasn't in the straight ahead position, because the 'paddle' controls don't rotate with the wheel. Rather than fumble for them it's better then to use the manual selector.
   Selespeed takes control of the accelerator as well and I admired the sporty way in which it 'blips' the accelerator when changing down.
   Not so good is when reversing or manœuvring, because it's difficult to progress gently. The car seemed to move off with a bit of a surge. In traffic, a button labelled 'City' can be pressed and the transmission then operates fully automatically.
   Whether with 2-litre Selespeed or the 1.6-litre manual (which I preferred), the Alfa Romeo 147 is certainly a lively and responsive car. It takes to mountain motoring as if to say: "This is what I really enjoy." The handling and steering combine to make one feel confident in the 147's behaviour.
   The little 1.6-litre engine with twin overhead camshafts, varying valve timing and four valves per cylinder, develops 120 bhp. The 2-litre gives an impressive 150 bhp. Both versions are very low-geared, no doubt in the interests of lively performance, with the result that they sound rather fussy at speed and the fuel consumption is on the heavy side.
   Although the 147 is essentially a driver's car, there are a number of detail points which detract from its overall appeal. For example, the floor on the passenger side is congested, leaving nowhere to place the left foot; the wipers park clumsily a little way up from the base of the windscreen; and there is no intermittent rear wiper action.
   The interior of the 147 is finished in a rather crude looking matt black plastic and the instrumentation is surprisingly basic. A display of LED figures is used for the distance recorders and neither I nor my colleague could read the trip read-out.
   Inevitably the suspension is firm for sporty handling, but the result is that there is a lot of nervous movement on poor roads and levels of bump thump and tyre roar are fairly high. A temporary spare wheel is in the well beneath the boot floor.
   Main appeal of the 147 is certainly in the quality of the engineering and the smoothness and zestful response of both engines.

Alfa Romeo 2.0 Selespeed Lusso - £17,340
Engine - 1,970 cc atmo indirect injection
0-80 mph - 14.6 sec
Maximum speed - 129 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
- 8 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption (official average) - 31.7 mpg
CO2 emissions - 210 g/km (tax Band D £155)
Insurance - Group 15

Vauxhall Astra Turbo Coupé
In the bad old days they used to call it 'badge engineering' - giving a different name to a modified version of the popular family car and calling it something else; but manufacturers are much cleverer now. By real engineering they are able to economise on the major expenses of the basic structure of a car and then develop it into something with very special appeal - a technique widely used by Volkswagen and shown with similar ingenuity in the Vauxhall Astra derivatives. We now have a very pleasing Convertible based on the Astra, as well as the high performance Turbo Coupé.
   The body is much more different from the Astra hatchback than appears at first sight, with fixed rear side and back windows and a separate boot opening - so it's a true coupé by any definition. But it's under the bonnet that the real change has been made, with the 2-litre 16-valve engine boosted by turbo to give 190 bhp. It's a very pleasing engine indeed, devoid of any noticeable turbo delay in response to the accelerator and soaring round to 6,500 rpm when pushed, with a magnificent howl of power. But it is also docile and smooth when gentle progress is needed.
   I fancy there'll be a ready demand for gear knobs for the Astra Turbo, because although it was not particularly cold when I had the car on test, the icy feel of the stainless steel gear knob in the morning was horrid and could be painful in really cold weather. But the gear change itself is precise and light in action, with a fine range of power in all gears. The performance is, indeed, startling, as shown by our acceleration comparison which reveals it to be faster even than the Jaguar XK8. Jaguar might reply: "Well if we're looking for turbo performance you need to try the XKR!"
   With so much power going through the front wheels, it's not surprising that one feels the steering tugging slightly this way and that in hard acceleration from low speeds, as the wheels scrabble for grip; but what is slightly surprising is that the steering has no adjustment for column height or reach. The driving position suited me well, but some drivers may find it less comfortable. Controls for the audio (radio and a CD unit in the facia locker) are on either side of the steering wheel.
   The handling is excellent, with the car sitting down confidently on corners and responding with hair-line precision, but it has been achieved at great penalty in terms of ride comfort. There's not much rubber or air between the shapely alloy wheels and the road and the suspension is also rock hard so that you find yourself steering carefully to avoid any bumps or teeth-jarring cat's eye studs.
   Black and grey leather gives a slightly sombre but perhaps appropriately sporty look to the interior and the seats, with deep side bolsters, are certainly shapely and hold well on corners. Both front seats have ratchet height adjustment.
   Some coupés make it very difficult for anyone to get into the back, but it's easy with the Astra, thanks to the large handle for tipping the seat forward to let someone into the back. The Astra Turbo Coupé is also well-equipped, with trip computer, ski-flap through the folding rear seat and good all-disc brakes with ABS; but there's no sunroof option, of course, and no rear window wiper. It could certainly do with one to cope with the way that rain water lies on the glass in wet weather.

Vauxhall Astra Turbo Coupé - £18,995
Engine - 1,998 cc turbo indirect injection
0-80 mph - 10.4 sec
Maximum speed - 153 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
- 12 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 31.4 mpg
CO2 emissions - 214 g/km (tax Band D £155)
Insurance -
Group 15

Audi TT
As soon as it arrived for test, I took a sneaky look at the back of the Audi TT Coupé and there was a twinge of disappointment; oh, well, perhaps even with a mere 180 bhp it should go quite well! What I had seen was the fact that it had only one exhaust tailpipe. This is one of the few external differences which shows that the less powerful engine is fitted. If you see two tail pipes, then you are looking at one of the hot ones, with 225 bhp on tap.
   I needn't have felt disappointed - even in less powerful form the TT is an absolute fire cracker. Press the accelerator down hard and it's like they say on the fireworks instructions: 'light the blue touch paper, stand well back and observe interesting effect!' There is momentary delay, because this is a turbocharged engine and a second or so must elapse before the pressure builds up. Then it's away, with a lovely snarl of power and real punch-in-the-back acceleration. How Audi manage to obtain so much power from an engine of only 1.8-litre capacity is remarkable, but the turbocharging and the fitting of no fewer than five valves per cylinder - three inlets and two exhaust - are the key to it all. In true Audi fashion, it is beautifully engineered and everything works delightfully well except for a slight notchiness of the gear change.
   The gearbox, indeed, is another of the differences between the 180 and 225bhp versions of the TT Coupé. The less powerful model has a five-speed gearbox and the more powerful TT has six speeds. Is it worth the extra? £24,050 is the price for the standard model - still £2,600 less than at launch - and a whopping £2,700 extra for the 225 bhp engine, six-speed gearbox and a few other details such as the trip computer takes the total to the dizzy heights of £26,750. Whichever version is driven, the hairline steering, beautifully balanced handling as a result of the quattro four-wheel drive power delivery, with phenomenal road grip, and zappy performance make the TT Coupé a delight on the road. But it is a bit noisy - and there's quite a lot of thump and bang on poor surfaces plus some roar from the tyres. As to be expected, the ride is very firm.
   It's a slightly sombre interior, with everything in a silver and black
theme, but still very inviting with lovely leather seats giving excellent location and support, clear instruments and a very ergonomic layout for all the minor controls. It's really a three-door hatchback rather than a coupé and getting in and out may prove a struggle for the less agile. A diminutive rear seat is fitted, which would take two small children provided the front seats are moved forward, or one adult can ride in the back for a short distance without too much discomfort - I proved it.
   Very fast, great to drive and fun to own and even to look at, the TT Coupé is a little gem. The alternative is even better - the delightful TT Roadster with power-operated hood - still more fun from Audi.

Audi TT Coupé 180 - £24,050
Engine - 1,781 cc turbo indirect injection
0-80 mph - 13.1 sec
Maximum speed - 140 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 30,000 miles
- 12 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 29.5 mpg
CO2 emissions - 226 g/km (tax Band D £155)
Insurance - Group 18

Jaguar XK8
A motoring writer gets used to the familiar question: if money were no object, what car would you have? I have always been ready with the answer - a Jaguar - but for some years gave it with less conviction. I never liked the appearance of the XJS and, as the legendary value provided in the times of Sir William Lyons gave way to much higher prices, so quality also seemed to slip.
   In recent years, with Ford's help, they have transformed the products and the XK8 is, to my mind, just magic. The way in which it wafts along so effortlessly and quietly, is wonderful. Here, we are looking at coupés, but the Convertible may also be included and I can think of no better way to travel on a fine day.
   When trying the Convertible last summer, the weather was by no means fine all the time. There were several bouts of quite heavy rain, but as long as the car can keep moving, occupants remain well sheltered from the damp.
   When the time comes to close the top, the hood raising operation is entirely automatic - just keep a finger on the button and the hood comes steadily over, down on to the windscreen. Then, a claw pops up out of the top of the windscreen frame to clasp the hood and bring it firmly down on to the seal.
   My only regret is that Jaguar resorted to the rather old fashioned idea of a clip-on tonneau cover to fasten over the hood when folded. It isn't essential to fit it and doing so takes only about a minute, but it does mean that it's necessary to get out of the car and unclip it before the hood can be raised. At the rear, the tonneau cover is neatly secured beneath the forward edge of the boot, which also helps to guard against expensive theft of the cover.
   The only other aspect of the XK8 which slightly disappoints is the instrumentation. The dials are too small and deeply recessed, making them hard to read in bright sunlight. I had much better instruments in the Jaguar 240 which I ran some 35 years ago.
   Everything else about the XK8 is simply delightful - the comfort of the ride, the quietness and wonderful response of the V8 engine with its excellent five-speed automatic transmission and J-gate control, and the impressive roadholding and brakes - are all part of the magic. It was also commendably economical in relation to its weight and performance, returning 25.5 mpg overall.
   Living with the XK8, one discovers all sorts of clever little details. For example, use the windscreen washers and the jets come directly on to the glass from the end of the wiper arm and give three sweeps; then, a few seconds later, one more quick return sweep of the blades automatically clears any last drops of water.
   Another is the way that the boot can be opened by a press on the remote locking keyfob, even if in pocket or handbag; and of course the car comes with every luxury such as electric seats and mirrors, with memory pre-sets and very competent air conditioning.
   Yes, I don't lack conviction any more when I say that this is what I would have in the often-imagined scenario of 'if money were no object.' But it would have to be the Convertible for me, even though it adds another £6,650 to the price of the coupé.

Jaguar XK8 - £48,700
Engine - 3,996 cc atmo indirect injection
0-80 mph - 11.1 sec
Maximum speed - 155 mph
Warranty - 3 years, 60,000 miles
- 6 years anti-corrosion
Fuel consumption - 25.1 mpg
CO2 emissions - 281 g/km (tax Band D £155)
Insurance - Group 18

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

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