ALL too often, pub conversations about cars turn to history, and how old cars are better than new ones – even before you’ve got through your second pint of Old Speckled Hen, someone trots out that tired old cliché ‘things were better in the good old days’.
To find out for ourselves once and for all whether it’s a case of selective amnesia, or whether the finely honed corporate design process has resulted in us losing something in car design in more recent years. We pitched three small family Vauxhalls – a 1982 Chevette, a 1990 Astra GTE and a 2006 Astra Sport Hatch 2.0T to see whether things really were much better in the good old days, or whether it’s more a case of, ‘you’ve never had it so good’?
1982: Vauxhall Chevette
REWIND to its launch year of 1975 and the Chevette was Vauxhall’s first entry into the supermini market – although many Vauxhall aficionados looked on in horror, as underneath it was almost pure Opel Kadett. However, the front end styling and pushrod engines remained peculiarly Vauxhall, and as a result, the range of extensive range, which included two- and four-door saloons, an estate and ‘our’ car, the three-door hatchback.
Looking at the Chevette’s specification sheet today, it difficult to believe we were happy driving such a basic and underpowered car on a day to day basis. The 1256cc engine had already seen plenty of action in the Viva, but with a maximum power output of 58bhp and a torque figure of 66lb/ft, it was beginning to little on the puny side by 1975. Despite the almost embarrassing lack of power, there’s only 826kg of body to shift, and that results in performance, which is far from rapid. It is quick enough to keep up with today’s traffic, with a 0-60mph time 15.6secs and a top speed of 88mph.
The Chevette is a simple car – with a live rear axle, rear wheel drive and a four-speed gearbox – but in its time, it was more than a match for its immediate rivals, the Ford Escort Mk2 and the Austin Allegro. That lack of sophistication is carried over to the interior, too – you climb in and bathe in a sea of orange – but despite the seats looking like tombstones, there’s plenty of support and the driving position is spot on.
There’s not much to keep you amused once you’re in – manual windows, steering and an AM/FM radio are about the only toys you’ll have to play with. If nothing else, the Chevette’s appealing sparseness constantly reminds you how things have moved on in the past 30 years. The ergonomics are fine, with all controls falling to hand, and the same can be said for the well-placed pedals, but with hard dashboard plastics and acres of painted metal inside, you don’t exactly feel safe inside.
On the road, we weren’t expecting much, but in the end, it was difficult not to form an attachment to the little Vauxhall. It’s actually quite fun to drive – and although the steering is as manual as the rest of the car, it’s direct, positive and full of feel. With full car/road communication established, your confidence builds quickly – and although the limits of grip are low thanks to skinny 145-section tyres, it’s very exploitable. In short, once you mentally readjust, the Chevette is a laugh to drive.
Outright speed isn’t an issue – the 58bhp engine leaves the driver with few options – and low overall gearing and no fifth means a cruising gait of 65mph on the motorway. Taking care of your stopping distances must have been a priority, too – with the brakes being remote feeling and powerless. Life must have been a whole lot more relaxed in 1975…
1990: Vauxhall Astra GTE 16V
THERE was obviously untold technological progress between 1975 and 1990 – because on the evolutionary scale, a 1990 Astra feels as removed from a Chevette as a Bakelite radio does from your plasma screen TV.
By 1990 Vauxhalls had become re-badged Opels, and the Astra was as European as they came. If you wanted a Chevette, you had no choice – excluding the HS homologation special, it came with one engine, and it was up to you to take it or leave it. By the time the second generation came along, you had a choice of four body styles, five engines and countless trim permutations.
One look at the Astra’s stats soon reveal where all of the advances had been made in the intervening 15 years. Mechanically, the Astra GTE 16V’s technical armoury looks refreshingly modern and the 16V twin cam engine delivers power and performance which holds its own today. They’d learned a lot in the wind tunnel too, and the slippery bodyshell meant a high top speed and hushed motorway cruising,
The coal-hole interior of this top-spec version boasted a fair few creature comforts – electric windows, power steering and central locking were the stuff of dreams for a ’75 Chevette driver. Even in 1990, you had to be quite high up the company ladder to find a car that featured these toys – and the mid-range Astras retained a feature list that differed little from its ancestors.
Climbing in and taking the GTE for a spin is a revelation compared with the Chevette.
Lighter, more direct power assisted steering give it a far more contemporary feel, and although the ride is little better than the older car’s its roadholding is of a different order. Make full use of the performance on twisty roads, and you’ll become intimate with torquesteer, something the Astra is legendary for, even today.
That 150bhp power plant is pretty special, though – it sounds crisp and pulls hard, delivering a 0-60mph time of less than 7 seconds, hushed motorway cruising. It’s easy to see why every white socks wearing sales rep wanted a GTE – performance was delivered in thick dollops, and any rival GTI was fair game.
Obviously, by 1990, car producers had made huge leaps in performance, refinement and economy, but there was still a long way to go…
2006: Vauxhall Astra 2.0T Sport Hatch
IF the giant leap between 1975 and 1990 technology was in terms of driving, the subsequent 15 years worth of development has taken place in terms of equipment and safety. In a nutshell, they had the driving sorted by 1990, but safety was still in its infancy.
The last Astra may not have been quite be state of the art in terms of suspension technology thanks to the lack of independent rear suspension, in every other respect, its knocking on the door of class leadership. Like its 1990 cousin, you can buy saloon, estate and open topped versions, but a nod to the new millennium has been the introduction of the Zafira MPV version – a car for all those families that an estate is simply not good enough.
Technically, you’d be forgiven for wondering what’s happened in the subsequent 15 years – the power output has only risen by 20bhp, and torque a more promising 40lb ft, thanks to the addition of a turbocharger. However, the onset of tough emissions regulations means that these extra horses are a lot cleaner.
It’s when you climb in the new car that the gap between 1990 and 2006 is revealed in its full glory. Although the seats and wheel feel marginally better in the new car, it’s the equipment tally that brings it home – the 2.0T Sport Hatch, which was no range topper like the GTE was, features Sat/Nav, climate control, and a fully featured in-car entertainment system – things we now take for granted.
Driving the new Astra feels a lot more grown-up – power delivery is smooth and refined, and the engine is considerably more insulated. Whereas the GTE felt as skittish as a wayward puppy on the road, the Sport Hatch feels poised and in control, with only serious abuse leading to wheelspin or torquesteer. Cornering is almost roll-free, and yet the ride is more absorbent and controlled. Steering is more woolly than the GTE’s but only marginally so – and the quicker gearing more than makes up for the fact.
Passive and active safety is the watchword with the 2005 car, and leaving aside improvements such as airbags and crumple zones, the brakes are more efficient, and grip levels are higher. The downside is, if you do lose control in the new car, you’ll be going a lot faster.
Performance is down on the GTE, and that’s down to weight. All that extra equipment and those safety features come at a cost – and the additional 350kg the new car is carrying takes its toll. It might be slower, but we suspect the Sports Hatch driver can drive longer, faster, than his cousin in the GTE.
IT’S easy to look at the 1975 Chevette and conclude it’s a hopeless piece of kit, but we can’t help but warm to its no-frills nature and easy going character. There’s no denying it feels like a dinosaur compared with the 1990 Astra GTE, let alone the current car. For all its lack of gee-gaws, it’s fun to drive in a limited way – and a reminder of a more laid-back era.
The Astra GTE on the other hand is such a quantum leap, you can’t help but be impressed by the progress GM made in those 15 years. Whereas you’d make excuses for owning a Chevette today, you could easily live with the GTE. But despite that, we’ll take the Chevette…
Is the Editor of the Parkers website and price guide, formerly editor of Classic Car Weekly, and launch editor/creator of Modern Classics magazine. Has contributed to various motoring titles including Octane, Practical Classics, Evo, Honest John, CAR magazine, Autocar, Pistonheads, Diesel Car, Practical Performance Car, Performance French Car, Car Mechanics, Jaguar World Monthly, MG Enthusiast, Modern MINI, Practical Classics, Fifth Gear Website, Radio 4, and the the Motoring Independent...
Likes 'conditionally challenged' motors and taking them on unfeasible adventures all across Europe.