Keith Adams ruminates about some of the cars sold by British Leyland’s competitors – and wonders why it’s still so fashionable to knock our once-great nationalised carmaker even though its mistakes were echoed across the wider industry.
Here, in the fourth article of this occasional series, we look at the Audi 80 (B2) and compare its fortunes with the Morris Ital. Were we really that bad?
Audi 80 (B2): Efficient, simple and dull?
Bet you never thought we’d be comparing the Morris Ital with the B2-generation Audi 80. You know – the one that formed the basis of the amazing Quattro. But before you choke on your coffee and accuse us of putting lambs to slaughter, it’s worth drawing up the parallels – because there really are more than you’d imagine.
The two were facelifts of cars that were born in the early 1970s – and remained on sale until 1984. In the case of the German car, the original Audi 80 (B1) went on sale in 1972, a year after the Morris Marina was launched amid considerable glamour in Cannes in 1971. The B2 would go on to be launched in 1978, whereas the Ital followed a couple of years later before going off sale to be replaced by the Austin Montego in 1984…
That’s how, for four years between 1980-1984, these two cars went head-to-head for the hearts and minds of company car buyers in the UK. So, that’s the preamble out of the way, what of the cars?
The second-generation Audi 80 was part and parcel of Audi’s supremo Ferdinand Piëch’s desire to take the firm upmarket – but to achieve this without building heavier, more powerful, faster cars, as many of its rivals had been doing. That would be too easy for a company headed by an uncompromising Engineer. Instead, they would be more efficient.
So, the Audi 80 (B2) was larger than its predecessor and its engine range was broadly similar, spanning 1.3 and 1.6-litres (the top model being bored out from first generation model’s 1471cc), although the smaller of the pair was not offered in the UK. It was also distinguished by its neat and tidy styling by Giugiaro, which not only gave it class, but tied it in closely with the range-topping 100. But what made the 80 particularly clever was that it tipped the scales at less than 1000kg, it had a low-drag (for 1978) body and was impeccably engineered. These qualities really set it apart from the opposition.
At launch, the top-of-the range 80 GLS boasted 85bhp and put in a sprightly performance that put this 1.6-litre car on a level footing with most of its 2.0-litre rivals. In its July 1980 group test against the Mazda Montrose (626) and Princess, What Car? magazine said of its performance: ‘Light weight is an Audi hallmark and the Audi 80 is no exception. This philosophy allows the 1600cc overhead cam engine to achieve the same results as the heavier Mazda’s slightly more powerful 2.0-litre unit. Both cars accelerate to 60mph in a rapid 12.1 seconds.’
That efficiency was extended to the way the car handled – although it was less direct in its response than the 80 (B1) thanks to that additional wheelbase and length. What Car? again: ‘Audi has its damping rate sorted out, for though by no means smooth, the 80 is comfortable to travel in apart from the mildly disconcerting float on fast A-roads. When pushed to extremes, it will run wide on tight bends (as do most front-driven cars) but it conveys taut, responsive impression heightened by the throaty engine – but marred to some extent by excessively low-geared steering.’
So, a tidy performer blessed with neat dynamics, albeit nothing to get too excited by. Maybe, but the combination of lightness, interior quality and strong design meant that Audi was already gaining an appetite for charging a premium. What Car? concluded of the 80 GLS: ‘It is without doubt a good car, perhaps the best in this group, but in a guess the price contest it would be undervalued by some £1000. Like BMW buyers, Audi prospects are generally sold on the marque before they sign, but there’s no denying the appeal of the car’s quality feel. It’s a pity that it takes an Audi owner to recognise the deep-down sensibility of the design – something that is perhaps more important in the long run than instant showroom glamour.’
Sexiness would subsequently come to the 80, though. First with the fuel injected GLE model of 1980, powered by the same 110bhp engine you’d find in the original Mk1 Volkswagen Golf GTI. With a 0-60mph time of 9.2 seconds and a maximum speed of 112mph, it was up there with the BMW 320 – not bad for a relatively large car powered by 1588cc.
Once again, What Car? was impressed, concluding in a group test with the Alfa Romeo Giulietta 2.0-litre and BMW 320: ‘The Audi 80 GLE is not cheap, but it is well equipped and it is easily the most attractive of the group. Its appeal is not instant – extended acquaintance is needed to appreciate its cruising quietness, its convincing quality and overall efficiency of operation. It is quite spacious, creditably fast, and economical. Poor steering and hard-pressed engine are problems but what lets it down in this celebrated company is something less tangible personality – its relative lack of soul.’
The move upmarket would continue with the arrival of the five-cylinder 80 CD in 1981, as powered by the same 115bhp 1.9-litre engine you’d find in an Audi Coupe. That was followed by the 80 Quattro in 1983, which gained more power and four-wheel drive to become one of the era’s more interesting mid-sized saloons. It seemed that Ferdinand Piëch’s wishes were beginning to come true for Audi.
The 80 then received another facelift in 1984 gaining softer front and rear styling as well as a new marketing approach that saw the five-cylinder models spun out into their own range, called the 90. It was a strategy that worked – and, by the time the B3-generation 80 and 90 rolled out in 1986-1987, the firm was charging eye-watering amounts of money for its entry-level models. Not bad for a car that originally differed from the Volkswagen Passat in its badges and model line-up.
So, Audi 80 or Morris Ital?
This has to be an easy win for the Morris. Sorry, just kidding! Of course it’s a win for the opposition.
In truth, the Audi 80 and the Ital really weren’t on the same planet, despite their similar timelines and intended customers, as least in the early days. The 80 was actually in the same price bracket as the Princess, and that appealed to a very different set of buyers. I must admit that I do have a dog in this fight – I own a couple of Audi 80 CDs, and have a long-standing thing for these compact saloons with their warbling engines, styling that’s neater than a Lufthansa air hostess’s uniform and their roomy, almost industrially stark interiors.
However, looking at the Ital alongside an Audi 80 (B2) you can see what BL was trying to achieve with its Marina facelift – and could have pulled off had the expectations not been set so high with its all-new nameplate. The front and rear styling of the Ital were very similar to the Audi – and, before you remind me that it was Harris Mann’s work, Ital Design were involved in both.
But where the Audi could bimble up the motorway at a rep-friendly 90mph all day long, the Ital would have its driver’s knuckles turning white trying to do the same thing, such was the waywardness of its high-speed dynamics. In its September 1980 issue, What Car? compared the Ital 1.3 HLS with the Talbot Solara and Datsun Bluebird, and wasn’t impressed with its dynamics.
‘All aspects of the handling and ride come firmly under the mediocre heading. Most owners will probably only have to take a fast corner because they have unwittingly approached it too quickly, as there is little positive encouragement to enjoy the handling. Being rear-wheel drive, it follows the normal pattern of front first and rear afterwards, but it is probably the tail which is the worst offender. The leaf springs are simple and cheap to produce, but the rear end hops around without much provocation both on corners and on bumpy surfaces. The overall effect isn’t that bad for normal driving, and the ride is reasonable, but in view of the fact that we’re talking about a car with a new name, it’s slightly disappointing to have to think of the car as just an updated Marina.’
In concluding, What Car? placed the Ital plum last, saying: ‘If BL had brought us this latest offering as a new series Marina, then our expectations would have not been so high. But if they are going to allow themselves the prestige of a new model name, then buyers will expect more than just a facelift.’
Me, I’d agree with all of that. Although for some reason, I do secretly quite desire a Morris Ital. There’s something about it that I find indecently intriguing, especially a 2.0 HLS auto. Would it be enough to tempt me out of my Audi 80? What do you think? Probably not – at least not for more than about ten minutes and a series of bends…