Tested : Austin Maxi vs Renault 16 vs Volkswagen Passat

Back in the mid-1970s, the family car of the moment was very much a hatchback – but two of the most popular five doors for your money harked back to the 1960s.

Which, though, was best in 1975 and now: the Austin Maxi 1750 HL, Renault 16 TS or Volkswagen Passat LS? Keith Adams decides…

Austin Maxi vs Renault 16 vs Volkswagen Passat
Three-way fight between 1975 family hatchbacks – Austin Maxi, Renault 16 and Volkswagen Passat(Photography: What Car? magazine)

Best 1970s hatchbacks: Introduction

This group test is the most clear reminder yet that the family car market was a diverse place in the 1970s. There might well have been a rapid move from all of Europe’s carmakers to follow Fiat and Volkswagen’s lead in building small front-wheel-drive saloons and hatchbacks with those all-important transverse engines and end-on transmissions, but it’s interesting that none of this group was so-engineered.

There’s also an interesting age spread, too. The original reason for this group test was to compare the then-new(ish) Volkswagen Passat five-door with its closest rivals, the Austin Maxi and Renault 16. Both were ageing and both were better-equipped than the German upstart. This diversity in design and age was a reflection of the huge change the European car industry was going through at the time, and the era of the celebrity Designer/Engineer was beginning to wane as a new era of orthodoxy hove into view.

These were the best C-segment family hatchbacks of their day, then. They would soon be joined by the Chrysler Alpine but, at the time, it wasn’t clear whether this format would end up being a universal one. There was still a whiff of utility about the hatchback, which some manufacturers fought shy of.

Across Europe, the saloon was still king – in the UK that was epitomised by the Ford Cortina, which had established itself as the country’s most popular car. We weren’t alone – in Germany, Opel stuck with the saloon format for the Ascona, as did Fiat with the 131. Renault and British Leyland hedged their bets by offering both while, over in Japan, the saloon continued to rule the roost. In time, the C-segment family car market would mature into a blend of hatchbacks and saloons throughout the 1980s and ’90s, with the hatch being the dominant choice…

Today, they’re a dying breed, thanks to the emergence of the popular family SUV.

Best 1970s hatchback: Character

It’s such a pleasure to gather three hatchbacks and for them all to offer technical intrigue and interest. The newest of the trio was the Passat, which was launched in 1973. Volkswagen hedged its bets offering its version of the Audi 80 in two-door fastback form as well as the hatchback you see here. There was also an estate version offered which, aside from a few badges, was virtually identical to the Audi 80 estate.

Under the skin, it was pretty much state of the 1970s European art. Styled by Giugiaro, the Passat was powered by a brilliant EA827 engine, longitudinally mounted and driven through its front wheels via an end-on gearbox. Suspension was via McPherson struts upfront and a dead axle located by Panhard rods – with coil springs all round. It would be a mechanical layout that the Passat would stick with until 1988, and then return to later…

Of the two, the Renault was the most advanced in years at ten-years old at the time of the test. In 16 TS form, it was very much on the pace with 83bhp and a continuous improvement in the equipment stakes. Like the Passat, its four-cylinder engine was longitudinally mounted, but the transmission was slung out in front of the engine – an unusual arrangement which Renault had moved away from by the 1980s.

Suspension was very interesting – upfront, there were unequal-length wishbones and longitudinal torsion bars, while at the rear, there were also torsion bars – transverse – for its trailing arm set-up. It was designed for maximum ride comfort, with the thick anti-roll bar offering some cornering resistance. For a 1965 design, though, the R16 was cutting edge, with its stylish body tailed off by a wide-opening hatchback – it was perfect for the French middle classes, and soon became a top seller in its homeland.

The Maxi was a mere six-years old at the time of the test, and somehow looked both the plainest, hiding its major talents under its skin. We’ve discussed its styling ad infinitum on AROnline, but it’s worth repeating here that its hatchback tail was a relatively late addition during its development programme, and a welcome one at that.

This was a typical Issigonis product – designed by an Engineer with little understanding of marketing and commercial realities. So it received the all-new overhead cam E-Series engine and five-speed transmission (and new factory in which to build it), but was constrained by the need to retain the BMC 1800’s passenger doors. It received Hydrolastic suspension and was equipped to fight the best Europe had to offer.

In an era when the conventional rear-wheel-drive saloon, ruled the UK roost, this all-British hatchback wasn’t really what the home market wanted – so it never came close to meeting its sales targets. But at the time of this group test, it was recognised as an interesting left-field family car that majored on practicality. If you wanted sexy from British Leyland, you needed to buy an Austin Allegro 1750 SS or Morris Marina TC…

Best 1970s hatchbacks: Performance

Austin Maxi vs Renault 16 vs Volkswagen Passat

The three cars fall in this order of power – Austin Maxi 1750HL, 95bhp; Renault 16 TS, 83bhp; and the Volkswagen Passat 1.5 LS, 75bhp. From that, you’d expect the Maxi to be fastest, with the Passat bringing up the rear. But you’d be dead wrong – as weight plays a significant part. By today’s standards, they’re all featherweights, with the Maxi coming in at 1005kg, the R16 at 1057kg and the Passat at a scarcely-believable 883kg.

Slowest of the bunch is the Renault 16, which posts a 14.0 second 0-60mph run and a maximum speed of 101mph. The Maxi is quicker to 60mph at 13.2 seconds, but tops out at 98mph, and the Passat romps away with a 12.5 second 0-60mph time and 100mph maximum speed.

What the figures don’t tell you is how eager the Renault feels. Its 1565cc engine is refined, idles quietly and absolutely loves revs. It will thrash all-day long on the motorway, and is a real joy to cover distances in. It’s a four-speeder and, at 70mph, it’s spinning at a healthy 4000+rpm – but it’s not unrefined or noisy at that speed, just busy. However, those revs take a toll on fuel consumption, as it delivers just 30.ompg at a constant 70mph.

The Maxi feels altogether more sedate and a whole lot less ready for action. Despite that, the 1748cc engine delivers the good in an unobtrusive way, neither being particularly refined nor unrefined. Unlike the Renault, it’s not particularly happy to rev, and we suspect that the only way to get it to do so would be to spend a session at Downton Engineering and improve the engine’s ability to breathe properly.

But you can’t argue with the fact it’s quicker-accelerating than the Renault and more economical. At a steady 70mph in fifth, it’ll get you 37.0mpg, where it cruises well, considering its fifth gear isn’t that much longer than fourth.

The Passat is the star of this show, and its 75bhp goes a very, very long way. It’s revvy like the Renault, but lacks a little of that car’s refinement and silence – there’s some valve chatter to contend with, and it all gets rather busy at higher speeds. Although it’s quicker and more efficient than the Maxi, it’s surprising to see that its fuel consumption in top (fourth) at 70mph is bested by the Brit, making 36.3mpg. Still, not a bad effort at all.

Best 1970 hatchbacks: Handling and ride

These three fall into two separate camps – the softies (Renault and Maxi) and the firm (the Passat). But let’s start with the Passat because, although it’s firmer than the French and British cars, it’s far from being uncomfortable by modern standards. It soaks up a typical British A- or B-road reasonably well and, although some noisy bump-thump intrudes into the cabin, the effective damping and overall levels of responsiveness make it a pleasurable all-round compromise. Only the weirdly-dead steering stops it from being the best of the bunch.

The Renault is at the opposite end of the scale. It majors on ride comfort above what feels like all else. Get it out onto any British A- or B-road, and the R16’s ability to absorb all surface imperfections, large or small, is absolutely astonishing, giving it an almost Citroën DS-level of ride comfort. There’s a pay off, of course, and that comes at the first corner, where the Renault’s bodyroll can look pretty impressive to anyone watching from another car. But bodyroll is no bad thing if it’s controlled and, in this instance, the Renault heels over perfectly predictably and the driver is usually unaware of just how much angle there is, even if it feels less responsive than the Passat.

The Maxi verges on the side of comfort, where it almost matches the Renault’s pillow-like ride. But where it scores over its French rival is that it feels altogether less roly-poly in corners. It’s not quite the ‘big Mini’ in terms of feel that the 1100/1300 or 1800/2200 are, but there’s a lot to like here. The driving position is the worst of the three, though (although, to be fair, none are perfect), and it somehow conspires to make this tidy-handling car feel a little less wieldy than it might. That’s a shame, because if there was more feel, the Maxi would have been the winner here.

So, it’s a win to the Renault, followed by the Passat and Maxi – but it is worth saying at this point that all three set very high standards of excellence in different ways.

Best 1970 hatchbacks: Cabin and controls

The Maxi might have the most boring-looking dashboard and interior but there’s no denying its brilliant packaging. There’s more passenger space than most executive cars, and the boot space benefits enormously by its flat-folding rear seats. No car here comes close to what the Maxi offers. You’ll not fall in love with its plank-like dashboard and bus-like driving position, but you’ll get used to that, and absolutely love the panoramic all-round visibility.

After the Maxi, the R16 feels much more inviting and luxurious. You sink into the seats and will appreciate the flamboyantly-styled dashboard and controls. The driving position is good, and the gearchange is an absolute delight. Although it’s roomy in its own right, it can’t hold a candle to the Maxi for front and rear legroom, while the rear-seat folding arragement lacks the Maxi’s simplicity.

After these two, the Passat feels plasticky and altogether more functional. It’s efficient and the ergonomics offer none of the idiosyncrasies of the Maxi and Renault. Interior room for passengers is acceptable, but shaded by the Maxi especially, while the luggage space is excellent. The main mark down is the odd driving position, with the steering wheel offset towards the centre-line of the car. You get used to it, but somehow there’s an impression that this car will leave leave the driver and passengers less rested on a long journey than either of the other two cars.

Best 1970 hatchbacks: Verdict

For What Car? magazine back in 1975, the verdict was pretty clear cut. It summed up in its group test verdict in simple terms – Renault for comfort, Maxi for practicality, and Passat for everything else: ‘in terms of comfort the Renault wins outright. The penalty for the R16 and Maxi’s soft riding comfort is paid for in both cars with slightly imprecise, stodgy handling.

‘Those who prefer more enjoyable handling and high standards of roadholding would appreciate the firmer riding, but still comfortable, Passat more. The Passat, being the most recent car also has the advantage of sleek Passat modern styling and a smart interior with the up to date switchgear that the others badly lack.

‘So it boils down to horses for courses. For pure load carrying, the Maxi; for comfort, the Renault; for styling, performance and handling, the Passat. The Maxi could have been best all-rounder, but for British Leyland letting its design fall behind.’

So, back in 1975, the Austin Maxi really was the epitome of the British Leyland nearly car. A brilliantly flawed package, let down by dated styling inside and out – a reminder once again that a rebody of this, rather than the Allegro we ended up getting, could have changed the game for our national carmaker. That, though, was then, and this is now…

As classics, it’s hard not to be seduced by the Renault’s sheer vivacity, styling and sense of cleverness without being geeky. The Maxi feels like a Plain Jane superbrain in comparison – it’s clearly the more complete of the two, and offers more all-round competence, but lacks the sense of occasion and flair that comes as standard with most Renaults of this era, and especially the 16. There’s also no disguising the Maxi’s frumpy styling compared with the Renault’s.

We’ve been here before, comparing the Renault 16 and Austin Maxi, and calling the verdict for the former – and there’s no reason to change this thinking in 2021.

What of the Volkswagen Passat, though? Yes, it’s quantifiably the best car here – and, unlike the other two, has a descendent in production today. Mechanically, it’s the car that most closely adheres to the modern family car idiom, with only its longitudinal engine betraying its Audi roots.

It’s the best built, the best to drive, and it also looks great thanks to the design genius of Giorgetto Giugiaro. But it’s also the most ordinary to drive – and, if you’re looking for a classic car to excite you, that matters a lot.

In the end it comes down to a two-horse race between the Passat and the R16. The Maxi is ruled out for being best at leaving you frustrated at what might have been. The call between the Renault and the Volkswagen is a head-versus-heart decision – which means that it can only go one way, as classic cars are always about the emotion over rationality. As such, the Renault is the one to have despite the Passat being the better car.

[Original photo, thanks to What Car? magazine]

Keith Adams

58 Comments

  1. I’m waiting for the anti German comments……

    The Renault is the most interesting car here, and as all French cars use to be, quirky, stylish and comfy. It is the one I would have.

    The Maxi is just to plane Jane. My great uncle loved his though, though not as much as he previous wheels, an Austin 3000.

    The Passat for me is a bit plain Jane, not as smart as the Golf. It never sold that well here, and was quite rare to see one, even though we had two dealerships in the area.

  2. Renault did not leave the “engine in cabin” layout in the 1980s, th 1969 Renault 12 had the engine in front of the wheels already. Of course the 1968 Renault 6 and 1971 had not because carried-over from the Renault 4 platform. Then came the Renault 15:17 12-derivative coupés, Renault 30 in 1974, 20 in 1976 with engine forward box, 1976 Renault 14 with transverse and box in sump – Peugeot-designed, Renault 18 in 1978 on the Renault 12 platform …
    Why speaking about Fiat ? Fiat had only 127 and 128 FWD, the 124/125/130/131/132 were live-axle RWD.

  3. I do enjoy your articles. My Dad had two Renault 16s. so you prompted a nice trip down memory lane! His first one was a 16TS like the one you tested, but earlier – ‘J’ reg – 1970 I think. I can sort of understand your closeness of judgement between the 16TS and the Passat – but I’m glad you ended up making the “right” choice, as I personally think the Passat is ugly & boring.

    Stirling Moss gave his opinion of the Renault 16 in 1970, when he said, “There is no doubt that the Renault 16 is the most intelligently engineered automobile I have ever encountered and I think that each British motorcar manufacturer would do well to purchase one just to see how it is put together” – I don’t recall him ever paying such a compliment to a Passat!

    My Dad’s second one was a 16TX from 1977 (‘R’ reg), and I think the Passat wouldn’t even have a look-in against that. The 16TX had a larger 1647 cc engine, with Weber carburettors, married to a five-speed gearbox. It also had extras, like electric front windows, which very few cars in that part of the market had at the time. I’m pretty sure it did more than 100 mph, and it felt faster to 60 mph than the TS, though we didn’t actually time it, but it had a full 10 bhp more, at 93 bhp, so I’d be confident that it was. Both of his Renault 16s were great cars, but the TX was definitely the best. Thanks for getting me to remember them!

  4. The Renault 16 would be my winner, French suspension, long wheel travel nose down tail up stance fro rear r seat passenger comfort, as a passenger in a Renault 16 it was the first ever 100 mph event for me, courtesy of a friend , the Renault easily atained the ton and rode with aplomb, French car designers were the masters of ride and speed back in the 1970s

  5. A bit contradictory, you said that you couldn’t vote for the Maxi because it might be emotional, then you say that the vote for the other two is head over heart even though the Passat is a better car, you are either using emotion to make you decision or using actual facts – Yes if it were down to me the Renault would be the one, only because I prefer it, never liked VW’s, the Maxi is a good car for what it is, but so flawed in many areas, yet was better in so many area’s than the other two, if I had the cash then, then I would have had both the Maxi and the Renault, and would do today.

    But if then it were my own money for a car to keep, then it would have been the VW, it had a better rep, even back then, far superior to anything from BMC-BL, and Renault were going through issues of their own, well, they still are… Will it ever end.

  6. I’d have the Renault as it’s the nicest if not the best and has the most flair / character – perhaps because its qualities are more uneven with some – comfort – being exceptional. Not sure about the 14 second 0-60 for a 16TS – all other road tests have had it in the low 12s

    • Yes Anthony when reading on the net 0-100kph 12.9s so probably in the low 12s for 0-60mph.
      The Renault 16TS all alloy hemi engine with its camshaft on the head gasket surface of the block was very healthy. It powered the famous Alpine 1600S rally-car and many others like the Renault 12 Gordini, Renault 20, Renault 18 and even some “Hemi 807 Lotus Europa”, somewhere between 83 and 160bhp.

    • This is the figure that What Car? achieved in its original group test. In the interests of fairness, I quoted that for all three. In reality, it was around 12 seconds, as per the Maxi vs R16 twin test I linked from this…

      • Spot on Keith – I do remember What Car getting some odd performance figures at the time although not always on the slow side – I recall a 2.6 Talbot Tagora getting a 0-60 in the 7 seconds….. I think Car tested a 16TS against a Passat and Alpine and preferred the Alpine unless comfort was your priority in which case the Renault won. I recall the Renault did very well even then – it had the best economy and performance (12 seconds I think) was the quietest and most comfortable – impressive for the oldest design

  7. As has been hinted, the VW was the more ‘modern’ car and was one of the seedlings leading to the bland and mundane of later years. My perspective is always ‘what is the most fun to drive’. All this stuff about luggage capacity, interior room, ride etc is of course important – and in varying degrees for different people with different needs. But I’ve only ever been interested in the driver experience. Like Keith, having chucked all of them about in their day, the Renault is so far ahead as to be in a different league. Yes, it rolls like a pig but, as has been mentioned it really doesn’t matter! Just like with a 2CV you could put up some amazing journey times by building that roll into your progress – and by driving so smoothly the ground is covered effortlessly. As advanced drivers say ‘keep off that brake pedal’.

  8. I only have the experience of driving my boss’s Maxi 1750 but personally liked the look of the MK1 Passat . After the long run of the Beetle, the K70 then Passat and Golf are where VW’s march on the world really began.

    • Well up to a point, when the K70 came out is was a rebadged NSU design.the Passat was a fastback(not hatchback) version of the Audi 80 and soon after the Audi 50 was offered as the VW Polo, VW’s neglect of the water cooled engine and decline in sales of the Beetle and other air cooled cars badly affected the company. Fortunately VW had bought Audi (then Auto Union)from Mercedes in 1964 and snapped up NSU five years later which was on it’s knees after the Ro80 disaster,both of these marques were rebranded as Audi. So VW got it’s new cars from acquiring companies rather than it’s own R&D,one area that the company spent shed loads of money on was advertising and it’s this,that has allowed VW to position itself in the place in the market it occupies today.

  9. Just think, 3 years earler, Volkswagen’s offering in the family sector was a Beetle based estate car that was primitive to drive and stark in the extreme, and the company was heading down the drain. Then came cars like the Golf and Passat, ultra modern fwd cars with water cooled engines and vastly better refinement and performance, that totally turned the company round. Yet my choice in this group would be the Renault 16, a cossetting and refined car to drive that still looked good after 10 years.

    • The Passat was just an Audi 80 hatch.
      The Audi80 was the successor of the DKW F103.
      VW were clever not to axe Audi design office (ex DKW with Mercedes engine) when they purchased-in from Mercdes !

    • The VW cars replacing 411/412 were modern by VW standards, but merely conventional compared to cars by manufacturers Renault , Citroen and BMC/BL. VW were breaking out of their obsession with air-cooling, swing axles and rear engines and also facing official critiscism over safety issue such as the Beetle petrol tank as a fire hazard in a collision. Today VW may rule Europe thanks to the EEC and EU support, but give me a Honda Jazz over a VW Golf every time

      • @ cyclist, safety legislation and emissions controls had killed Volkswagen in their biggest export market and buyers in Europe were finding their cars crude and antiquated. By 1973, VW was in big trouble and going the same way as British Leyland,. Luckily the tie up with Audi and the Golf saved them as continuing with the Beetle and 412 would have killed them,

  10. I would probably say the Renault 16 though it’s not a perfect design, as the engine design was a little behind the others by the mid 1970s, & rust proofing was weak. My Dad remembers most of them seemed to have vanished from British roads by about 1982.

    The early front engined VWs also seemed to also rust early on, as mentioned above the Passat wasn’t as innovative as the Golf but a big jump ahead of the 411/412 which were the last attempts to develop the Beetle.

    • The seventies were terrible for rust, all brands. This due to cheap steel and very low protection, some wrong designs with water resting places.

      • People were both naive and hungry for cars in the newly affluent 1960s and 70s, the car makers could design and build terrible cars and someone would buy them, not the same today where it is a buyers market and there is plenty of free knowledge around as to the merits of the various models around

    • Richard – I disagree about the R16 engine design being a little behind by the mid 70s as it was still relatively new. It was light, smooth, good on performance and economy and very tuneable. Setright called it structurally one of the finest of the 60s – so by the mid 70s I’d put it ahead still of much of the competition – certainly against the E series, B series and the Alpine’s unruly engine

      • OK if you say so, Renault were little slow to use overhead camshafts on their engines, which were becoming more popular by the mid 1970s.

        • It’s nearly OHC, if you look at it. But if you remember the Pinto engine for example, it was terribly rough noisy all iron steel, even the head, no hemi chambers, OHC is not at-all the sign of any refinement. Even the Passat had then parallel valves and a poor output. Out of the 3 the Renault was the most refined by far.

  11. The Renault 16 no questions asked. It still is quite a modern car, whereas the Passat is, was, and (nearly) always has been a yawn of a car. For the Maxi I feel sorry because beneath the humdrum looks (to my eyes) a very capable car was lurking. So much potential, so little fulfillment.

  12. The problem for VW in the 50s and early 60s was that they were relying on Porsche for a lot of there design input, who in turn kept churning out the same ideas rehashed. They come up with the EA266 and EA128 and the EA97, which cost VW lots of cash but we’re development deadends that we’re never produced, but helped financed Porsche.

      • The 411 was NOT a Porsche design. It’s the EA266 which was – kind of a preliminary Golf with flat-four under rear-seat.

          • Looking at it, I would have thought that EA266 was a ( commercial) accident looking for somewhere to happen . Engines under the floor have always ended in trouble, and even partly submerged engines have given owners and maintainers nightmares – consider the A class Mercedes as a prime example. Further, I am not at all sure that it was not also a dynamically dangerous design : a particularly worrying aspect is that the centre of gravity would move fore and aft radically depending on the load carried, with the handling varying between borderline understeerer whan fully laden to potentially disastrous oversteerer if you had 4 in the car with no luggage or even worse with luggage in the rear as well. I can well understand why it was canned as soon as the new VW chief held the reins

          • It was another example of the disaster that VW was in the 60s. The Audi 60/VW Polo were said to be NSU designs, while the Golf has been claimed to be the planned NSU 60, to sit below the NSU K70. In fact it was the stubborn refusal of Audi bosses that the Beetle was built in Ingolstadt which VW wanted to do. If Audi and NSU hadn’t arrived to influence VW we may have never seen the company they are today.

          • Yes true, Ingostadt was purchased to make beetles, and in those days Nordhoff did not cut the ex-DKW and NSU R&D heads and projects surprisingly. This was the best accident that could happen to VW, and later-on came cunning Piëch. No fun for the engineers – he really was terrible – but the best for the customers and shareholders.

  13. Of course the other reason (that I don’t think has been mentioned) – as to why the Maxi lagged behind in this comparison, is that any tester would have to find first gear in the porridge bowl that BL called a gearbox. Meanwhile the other two would be off down the road!

  14. Renault was the most successful European car importer in Britain in the seventies. They were making cars that were good looking, good to drive and very comfortable, with reasonable reliability for the time. Their cars had none of the eccentricities and complicated maintenance that Citroens required, and were cheaper than Peugeot, whose cars were expensive and quite rare.

  15. One of my ex colleagues had 2 Peugeot 305s as company cars. They were actually comfortable and good performers and had a rarity value at the time. However they were another car that gets little recognition nowadays

    • I always liked the Peugeot 305 along with it’s predecessors the 204 & 304,.the 305 came out later in the 70’s than the other three and only came as a saloon & estate not a hatch. The mid sized 305 was a smart little car a cut above it’s competitors with it’s styling by Pininfarina which was far better than either the Ford or GM styling departments could knock out. Apart from the lack of a hatch the only slight gripe I’d have is that they never made a cabrio or coupe model as I thought these versions of the 204 & 304 were quite distinctive and rather exclusive

  16. I’d agree that the VW Passat, while competent enough, would be a really dull car to own as a classic!

    The 412 would be a much more interesting vehicle to own, the ultimate rear engined VW

    • The first generation Passat was a dull looking car and sold in small numbers due to being quite expensive and offering nothing much over its rivals. It wasn’t until the eighties that the Passat became a decent selling car when the B2 model was launched, which was a better looking car, Then came the blobby 1988 model, which was a complete backward step.

  17. For me, the problem with the Passat (and most other VWs of the time) was that the interior was extremely spartan and plain. They all seemed to be flat, hard, black plastic, apparently designed by the same person who did vans. All other manufacturers had much better-looking interiors in comparison.

    • @ KC, probably hard wearing and rattle free plastic, but I always found Volkswagen interiors sterile and dull and the cars meanly equipped. Certainly a top of the range Passat had none of the wood, badging and velour trim that made a Cortina Ghia so welcoming, or the interesting colour coding you had on a Cavalier GLS where a red car would have a similarly coloured interior with some luxuriant red velour trim. Also you’d have to fork out extra for a radio, a trait that was common to most German cars well into the eighties.

  18. Glenn, I remember those velour interiors on Cav MK1. Once I saw a white GLS coupe with red interior and it looked quite swish.

    Turning back to Passat’s, one of our company Cortina estates was replaced by a silver Passat 5 door in 1984. That car was much better kitted out and a decent performer (can’t remember the engine size). It was also replaced with a 1987 D reg Passat… nice gearchange on that car as I recall. A radio was standard fit by then (Blaupunkt?)

  19. Looking at them in light of current interest in ’70s cars:
    Passat – minority interest I think. Despite arguably being the best car of the three the words ‘desirable’ and ‘early Passat’ are unlikely bedfellows.
    Maxi – a genuine classic – but only as a prime example of how to mess up an essentially good idea. Most famous for helping to kill the company that made it.
    16 – much admired, a big seller and never properly replaced. Quirky and genuinely interesting although unlikely to be as highly prized in UK as contemporary Fords.

  20. I had the opportunity to drive all three: a Renault 16 office hack, my Maxi and my Dad’s Passat. The latter two were 1980s cars so improved compared with this test. I never did get along with the Renault. I felt I’d disappear into the seats and I just couldn’t cope with the column gearchange as I kept changing from 1st to 4th. I loved the Maxi and it’s ability to swallow things hasn’t been replicated until people carriers and Skoda Superb Estates – I even transported two timpani in it! My Maxi was a Hydragas version and was very comfortable. The Passat swallowed the motorway miles very well. It was X registered and my late Dad’s last car. As far as I’m aware it had a life of a good 20 years.

    • You should have got a 240 or 740 estate – they swallowed anything and were the antique dealers wheels of choice

  21. I had a ’78 16TL, super smooth, quick enough, comfortable, able to take a lot of stuff in the back. It was economical too, 40mpg was not uncommon on a run. Several friends had various incarnations of the Maxi, and it seemed a worthy machine, let down on some by quality issues, but the 5 speed gearbox was a nice touch for motorway driving. I was a shame that the Maxi looked a bit bland and didn’t have the little touches like headlamp adjustment for when it was loaded up. As for the Passat, well the ones I came across in the trade seemed dull, with harsh engines, uncompromising seats, and crashy suspension, mind you they may have been better when new. I’d happily have another 16, I’d not be upset to own a Maxi, but I’d not be rushing to have a Passat. Maybe some horrible experiences with Audi’s has coloured my judgement of VAG products.

  22. “The Maxi feels like a Plain Jane superbrain”
    I must admit I would never atttribute that to a Maxi, I can never get over the lasting impression I have of the Maxi that it was slow, unattractive inside and out and had stodgy handling. What would attract the 70s carbuyer to a Maxi? Its load capacity maybe, but surely that was it, as noted, the 70s buyer in the UK much preferred the booted saloons of the day!

    I found the other statement a bit bold too!
    “If you wanted sexy from British Leyland, you needed to buy an Austin Allegro 1750 SS or Morris Marina TC…”
    Describing a Marina or Allegro as sexy is going too far in my opinion.

    The distressing thing about BL was that despite having Ital design at their disposal, they managed to turn out such unappealing car designs. It seems that BL somehow managed to learn the wrong lessons at the wrong time, i.e. Ford carried over parts, like engines and gearboxes, but never a panel.
    A new car has a new body, i.e. new panelwork and where parts are carried over BL manged to carry over the wrong parts, i.e. the marina with the god-awful torsion-bar and trunnion setup – which shook violently above 70 mph if there was any wear in the trunnions – that setup should have been abandoned pemanently with the Minor.

    Did BL actually do sexy? The concept of halo models didn’t really exist within BL, surely the only reason for the Mini Cooper coming into existence was that John Cooper started souping up the standard BL fare.

    Whereas at Ford, people like Walter Hayes used the motorsport programme to create an image to make the standard models more desireable. Which, in turn, lead to the special (RS) models – partly to satisfy homologation regs but also to sell higher priced cars – but this approach created what we now know as the halo model.

    I think the aformentioned ‘SS’ model (dodgy name) or TC models were more a result of the rest of the market offering higher priced, higher power, better specced models as an alternative to the 50 bhp standrd cars. BL couldn’t afford to ignore this market and were oblidged to offer models with bolt-on goodies from the factory which usually didn’t offer much as a package over the standard car.

    The BL approach seemed to involve using marques to be sexy, i.e. using Triumph or Rover for prestiege, or Jaguar for people with the money. This is really the opposite approach of many manufacturers of the day and not really sexy.

    Ironically Ford adopted this policy in some respects, by buying Jaguar, Land Rover and Aston Martin, they stopped building the Granada and instead distanced the mass market product (Ford brand) from its prestiege brands by buying prestiege marques. In the same way as Toyota use Lexus.

    • Glad to see someone shares my antipathy towards the Maxi. Ugly, slow, noisy and breathless engine, recalcitrant gear change, and heaving suspension. I’m at a genuine loss to understand it’s popularity on this site. If you genuinely required that sort of load carrying ability on a regular basis… buy a van!

    • Ford was not always like that. In fact at the beginning of the 60s they were seen as stuffy. John Barber in a Motor sport article said “You must assess where motor sport can help in areas where your company is weak. For example, in 1959, Ford had the Tin Lizzie image and young people were buying the Mini”.

    • True that in the past mass-market brands could lift their income and image with bigger or sportier cars but this failed in more recent years like for example VW Phaeton or see what top of the range Renault, Citroën, Ford, Opel or, worse, Fiat are. VW have purchased prestigious brands to make money but apparently Volvo did not help Ford at-all, not speaking of JLR and Aston, Fiat does not seem to make a lot with Alfa-Romeo nor Maserati, they live on Jeep and RAM only. Lexus and Infiniti seem to perform in the US but had to leave Europe, inventing brands does not work there, see DS – who does not in China either so far.

  23. Yes daveh but that’s what Walter Hayes was brought in to do, get rid of Ford’s dreary image and reputation for poor reliability and ‘sex up’ the product for Joe Public. He and the car design team combined to sigfnificant effect and the rest is history, as they say.

  24. Just to get back to the article though, the Passat (especially with hindsight) is way out in front, the crisp lines and the layout which was simple but purposeful was the recipe that would help VW achieve massive sales volumes. After all, which car would you pick as a classic car, despite the rudimentary mechanicals you know the VW will do what is is supposed to and probably not break down unless thrashed.

    • I could have a ride in a Passat in the early 70s, its styling was unappealing, interior was desperatly black and underequipped, seats were made of concrete – and for long this was a VW feature and it was overall noisy. It’s owner said it was crisp driving anyway but nothing to do with a Renault 16 TS cocoon.

  25. My dad bought a Maxi 1750 in 1972 for his retirement. If he had still been working, it would have had to be returned, so bad were the initial quality issues. It felt surprisingly wheezy and lifeless. When approaching a hill, by the time you’d got it into the gear you thought you needed, you certainly needed the next lower gear. I lived in Whitby at the time and it coped with steep hills much less well than my Riley Elf. However, it was great on motorways and very stable. When dad was terminally ill, some friends took him and my mum on holiday to north Wales in their Renault 16. My mum was amazed that a family car would be so comfortable and quiet. She offered me the Maxi after dad died. I preferred to keep my Allegro 1300, which felt altogether livelier and more suitable for a man in his 20s! As for the Passat fastback, when you opened the boot, all the raindrops on it poured into the boot. The hinge design was optimised for access and not to ensure that the front edge of the lid was above the rear window and could drain into the channels around the opening.

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