By Peter Waymark
British Leyland’s Austin Allegro, which is announced today, is probably the most important new model to appear since the formation of Leyland five years ago. With a choice of four engine sizes, 1100, 1300, 1500 and 1750cc, it is out to compete in 60 per cent of the British car market, and Leyland has high hopes of its chances on the Continent.
A sensibly thought out car, with many plus points, no glaring faults and competitively priced, the Allegro is likely to do well although its ultimate success may depend on how reliable it proves. Reliability is what the motorist is demanding more and more and British cars, rightly or wrongly, have a tarnished reputation in this field.
The Allegro follows in the tradition of the Mini, 1100 and 1800 in having a transverse-mounted engine driving the front wheels. It was planned as eventual replacement for the 1100/1300 range, although the latter will remain in production for a further year or so. A judicious updating of the 1100/1300, which dates back to 1962, the Allegro is designed as a compact car, easy to park and to manoeuvre in traffic, yet providing a comfortable ride for four, and at a pinch, five, people.
It is six inches longer than the 1100, three inches wider and is fractionally higher. Passenger space is the same but there is more room round the engine and a much better boot giving 40 per cent more luggage space. Compared with the 1100 it has a more streamlined bonnet curving down to a low radiator grille, and a stub tail somewhat reminiscent of the Hillman Avenger.
Indeed, overall it looks a bit like several other popular family saloons and tends to support the view that cars are getting more and more similar. But styling is a subjective thing, and other people have found the Allegro’s looks more distinctive and appealing than I do.
The model’s main technical innovation is a new Hydragas suspension system in which the wheels are sprung on permanently sealed bags of compressed nitrogen.
These replace the thick rubber cheeses of the Hydrolastic system, of which Hydragas is a direct development. The use of gas gives a much softer spring, reflected in an exceptionally comfortable ride over rough surfaces but without undue roll on corners. The handling and ride are the Allegro’s best features. The other novelty is a squared or quartic steering wheel. The advantages claimed for this are a better view of the instruments on the dashboard and easier access for the driver.
I can only say that I found both arguments faulty: while one gets used to the quartic wheel, it is no improvement on the round one and in some situations, notably when taking a very tight corner, it is positively awkward. Several measures have been taken to make the car quieter, particularly at motorway cruising speeds, and the difference, compared with the 1100/ 1300 is noticeable. A raked steering column makes for a better and more relaxed driving position and there is a long range of adjustment for the driver’s seat. The deep contoured front seats, similar to those. used in the Marina, give excellent support.
I am delighted that the entire Allegro range has heated rear windows as standard equipment: among other standard items are hazard warning flashers and radial ply tyres. The brakes are discs in the front and drums at the back, with servo on the 1500 and 1750 models. The minor controls (again from the Marina) are contained on two stalks mounted one on each side of the steering wheel and include electric screen washers and two-speed wipers.
All four Allegro engines come from existing models: the two smaller ones are those used in the 1100/1300 cars, while the overhead camshaft 1500 and 1750 units are from the Austin Maxi. Allegro may be a musical term meaning “lively” but in no case is the performance exceptional, the best option, possibly, being the 1500 which suits the lighter Allegro much better than it does the Maxi. Of the four engines, the 1300 and 1500 are likely to be the most popular.
The 1100 is comparatively noisy and lacking in power and is only £36 cheaper than the 1300.; while the 1750 Sport offers only marginally better acceleration and top speed than the 1500. As a rough guide, 0 to 60 mph acceleration times range, from about 22 seconds on the 1100, 17 seconds on the 1300, just over 15 on the 1500, and just under 15 on the 1750. Top speeds are 79 mph, 87, 92 and 95 respe6tively. I have driven all four cars briefly and the 1300 for a longer period. Some choke is needed to start the car, even in mild weather, but the engine warms up quickly. In none of the cars is the gear change as good as it might be, although the five-speed unit used in the 1500 and 1750, fortunately, is better than it was in the Maxi.
The rack and pinion steering is precise enough, if a little heavy (or it might just be that “‘quartic” wheel), but for a small car the turning circle of 33ft is surprisingly large. I have praised the handling and ride. Possibly because the engine is quiet, wind and road noise are a little more marked than they might be. I found the 1300 engine acceptably quiet for motorway cruising up to the permitted 70 mph, although Continental drivers exceeding this speed will find that an unpleasant roar sets in. There was not a great deal of pep for quick acceleration from about 50mph.
Fuel consumption seemed disappointing, only just over 30 mpg, as against the 38 recorded for the existing 1300. Finally, in trying to assess the Allegro’s prospects, a comparison might usefully be made with the sort of competition it will be up against, and why go beyond Leyland’s Marina? A totally conventional and unpretentious family car, aimed particularly at the fleet market, the Marina has done so well that it is now Britain’s second best selling car.
It has the Allegro’s advanced engineering, is less compact and offers inferior handling and ride; But it has a lot more space and better performance. The 1.8 Marina, which is a pretty nippy car, costs almost exactly the same as the 1300 Allegro. The Marina and the Allegro represent two contrasting approaches to the family saloon of the 1970s, and it will be interesting to see where the motorist’s preference lies.