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…
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
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]