Warm hatch wonders
With fewer than 50 MG Metro Turbos left on the road in the UK, it’s time to celebrate one of the most fun sporting hatchbacks from the 1980s – by comparing it with the big-selling Ford Fiesta XR2 and cultish Peugeot 205GTI.
And, as Keith Adams reckons, what was best then, might not be necessarily be best now…
It’s impossible to talk about hot hatches without referencing the 1980s. They might have been an invention of the 1970s (or ’60s depending on your point of view), but it was the onset of Thatcher’s decade that truly saw them popularised in the UK and Europe. Many would say that it was down to the brilliance of the Volkswagen Golf GTI, but the car that truly saw them sell on a mass scale in the UK was the Ford Escort XR3, launched in November 1980.
However, Austin Rover wasn’t far behind. In May 1982, the rather smaller MG Metro was rolled-out. Its station in life was to keep the MG flame alight, and also make the Metro a more profitable proposition for its maker. With 71bhp on tap and with a 0-60mph time of 12.2 seconds, it was no XR3 rival, but it certainly opened up the ‘warm’ hatch market. MG didn’t leave it at that, though, and in December 1982, it unveiled the MG Metro Turbo – a 94bhp flyer which, thanks to a little help from Austin Rover’s friends in Hethel, delivered reliable forced-induction performance to the company’s popular supermini. There could have been more power, but that would have needed an upgraded gearbox.
It still wasn’t grown-up enough to go toe-to-toe with the Golf/Escort (the Maestro would do this very ably in another year or so), but it was more than quick enough to give them a headache on the road. It also had found itself in an increasingly crowded market, as more and more manufacturers rushed to offer their own hot hatches. In 1984, the Metro Turbo was joined by two hugely influential players – the revitalised Ford Fiesta XR2, which since the ’83 facelift, was a full-time member of the family, powered by the old XR3’s (non-injection) 96bhp 1.6-litre.
But it was the arrival of the Peugeot 205GTI in the UK in 1984 that really put the cat among the pigeons – here was a sporting hatchback that blurred the edges between ‘warm’ and ‘hot’, and had the potential to offer the very best driving experience, thanks to the mastery of the Peugeot Chassis Engineers. With 105bhp (later upgraded to 115bhp) from its 1.6-litre XU5J engine, it was a league ahead of the XR and MG, and should have been able to wipe the floor with them.
Indeed, looking back today, you’d be forgiven for thinking this. There’s still rather a lot of 205GTIs on the road – compared with the MG and XR, which are near-extinct. The question is, does that popularity mean that it’s a significantly better classic than Ford and Austin Rover’s offerings?
The Ford Fiesta was such a pretty thing when launched in 1976. But, such was the pace of evolution in the supermini sector during the late-1970s and into the ’80s, it was comprehensively outdated by the time its facelift (to become the Mk2) came along in 1983.
That’s probably why the Mk2 really hasn’t stood the test of time too well – it combined the pleasing origami style of the original with an organic-looking nose, and ended up looking a little bit out of sorts. But that didn’t stop the Fiesta selling – following the facelift, which added such niceties as a five-speed gearbox and soft-feel interior, it pulled away from the Metro to become the UK’s best-selling supermini.
Much of that appeal must have come from the halo cast by the XR2 – Ford clearly understood (and still does) what it takes to add sporting flair to relatively mundane offerings. With the XR2, that meant pin-striping, wheelarch extensions, spoilers and (for those who paid a little extra), spotlights. And in the office carpark, it really stood out. Today, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s all a little contrived – but you’d be wrong, because the XR2 really did look rather special. And today, if you see one on the road (which is highly unlikely), it will turn heads.
Mind you, the same can also be said for the MG Metro. The ‘cooking’ version was always a chunkily appealing thing – stubbier and more characterful than the opposition to look at. But the transformation into MG was really rather effective. The Metro received those oh-so charismatic red seatbelts, jazzier instrument graphics and updated seat trim inside – to which were added wheelarch extensions, skirts and two-tone paint. As Metros go, the Turbo looked a million dollars.
Today, to see an MG Metro Turbo in the wild is like spotting a unicorn – wearing a tutu. Dancing to Brotherhood of Man – which is a shame because 20-odd years ago, you couldn’t move from one end of town to the other without tripping over the damned things. They were popular then, but because their survival rate is absolutely abysmal, you’re guaranteed to turn heads driving one. Okay, so many of those admirers might well be avaricious Mini owners, but given the exclusivity of these fine cars, we’re hoping fervently that survival is now guaranteed. It deserves to be.
Now to the Peugeot. By any conventional marker, it’s the best-looking of the three, and when launched, the 205GTI literally tore its rivals to shreds. The basic 205 styling was beautifully resolved – in-house under the leadership of Gerard Welter – and with Pininfarina acting as one of the consultants on the project. And today, it’s considered to be one of the most iconic small car shapes ever devised. When Peugeot added a subtle bodykit and bedecked the interior with red carpets, it created a car so achingly desirable that the sharpest of its rivals just looked old hat.
Today, though, its timelessness probably counts against the 205. Why? Well, it remained in production until 1994, and because of its huge following (and relative resistance to rust), the survival rate is high. Because visually it’s a couple of generations younger than the Metro and Fiesta (despite being launched less than three years after the Metro), it’s yet to gain enough distance from modern cars to easily wear its classic clothes. The Metro and Fiesta are rooted in the 1970s, while the 205 may as well be a 1990s car…
So the Pug should win out in character terms, but to lovers of the underdog, the MG Metro takes the prize here.
An easy win to the Peugeot. Its 1.6-litre XU might give its best above 4000rpm, and need plenty of throttle to get the most out of it, but compared with the other two, it’s a paragon of smooth tractability (aside from round town, when it can get pretty snatchy on and off the throttle). It sounds pretty good too, with no obvious signs of harshness or unpleasantness. There’s a fizzy effusiveness about the 205GTI that enthusiastic drivers will find impossible to resist – you’ll literally end up thrashing yours at every opportunity. And even today, its 0-60mph time of 8.6 seconds and top speed of 115mph are more than enough to keep up with the flow.
The MG Metro Turbo is almost as fast, but not quite. In real terms, it could be said that the with a 0-60mph time of 9.3 seconds and top speed of 110mph, the difference is so small on the road as to not be significant. But it is… The main problem with the MG Metro is that its gearing is widely spaced – through necessity, being a four-speeder – and that means you’re more aware of the difference between on-and off-boost. The less-than-sharp driver will find him or herself outside the turbo’s influence, floundering for power, waiting for boost to build.
But when it’s on-song and flowing, you can’t help but love the MG Metro Turbo. It has that Mini-like engine note, and plenty of turbo whistle, which is a soundtrack shared with no other car. And we love it. And that makes up for a lot of those deficiencies.
As for the XR2, it makes the numbers alright. 0-60mph in 9.4 seconds and 109mph at the top-end, but somehow it’s just less satisfying than the other two here. Actually, it’s not even as nice to drive quickly as the old Kent-engined XR2 (Mk1), which made do with 12bhp less. You can’t even blame the gearing and overall refinement of the Fiesta – its five-speed ‘box is nice to use, with well-spaced ratios, and overall noise levels beat the 205 and Metro. But its CVH is harsh and objects to high revs – and that, frankly, goes against the grain in a sporting car.
Handling and ride
All three are fun, really fun. And that’s because they have manual steering with oodles of feel, quick gearing and low-roll cornering. We’ll not resort to the old go-kart clichés, but if you like a car that steers responsively and goes where you point it, and don’t care too much about ride quality, all will deliver your kicks. But there are important differences between the three that mark out one as great; the other flawed fun; and the other good in places…
Needless to say, the Peugeot has greatness running through its coolant. You flow it round corners almost on instinct and, on an early 1.6GTI like this, you’ll never ever tire of pushing it hard to experience that last nuance of grip just before it starts to slide. Before you start to wonder when the old lift-off oversteer complaint’s coming – don’t. On modern tyres, a 205GTI is faithful and fun – and extremely neutral. The only criticism you may level at it is that it rides a little stiffly – but, on decent dampers, it’s not painfully so.
The MG Metro is fun, but fun for its idiosyncrasy. It steers, feels and sounds like a Mini, and feels even more responsive through the wheel than the Peugeot. And on most roads, it rides well, if not better than the French car, too. The problem with the Metro is rooted in its weird upright driving position and badly-positioned pedals, which just doesn’t feel sporting, and the way the Hydragas suspension set-up works on less-than-perfect roads.
In bumpy corners, it hops and skips and never feels planted, and you’ll be bouncing in your seat on your average British B-road. But – and this is the important bit – you’ll be laughing as you buck and bounce around. The MG Metro Turbo is far more settled than an early miniMetro, and it’s clear that plenty of work had been done on it between 1980 and ’82… but, sadly, it was always going to be limited by not being interconnected.
And the Ford? In terms of handling and ride, it’s a little firmer than the Metro, and in most situations it actually feels more fun. It doesn’t challenge the Peugeot’s all-round competence, because it lacks that car’s fluidity of movement. What it does do well, is feel darty through its fat-rimmed wheel, and turn-in is like a proper GTI. What lets the XR2 down ultimately, though, is its utter lack of ride compliance. On a short drive, it’ll leave you smiling and admiring its responsiveness, but dial-in a longer journey and it just doesn’t let-up, crashing and banging its merry dance.
Cabin and controls
We love the sporting flair of all three – and just how their respective makers have really made an effort to sex-up the interiors of their superminis to appeal to a more thrusting, young, audience. We’ve already said that the Metro’s transformation to MG is pretty effective thanks to clever use of colour and trim, so we’ll not dwell too much on that. What you’re left with is a marginal four-seater that certainly accommodates far better than its modest length would lead you to expect – but that space efficiency comes from – in part – an odd seating position, which takes some getting used to.
Early Metros have a lovely minimalist interior, though. The dash pod looks good, and houses big, bold, well-styled instruments and switchgear. The minor switches – for instance the HRW and rear wash/wipe – are down by the driver’s right knee, and take some getting used to, and the stereo is by his left knee. A flawed effort with bags of character.
The Fiesta is a bit more conventional, and feels very grown-up after the Metro, with some very well-designed switchgear around the main instrument cluster. The instrument graphics aren’t as nice, of course, but that’s more than made up for a stereo that’s actually mounted nice and high in the driver’s line of sight. It’s not quite as roomy as the Metro (which shows just how good a job Longbridge did with its design), but the driving position is far better – and most people will immediately feel at ease. And let’s face it, that’s why so many people bought XR2s back then.
As for the Peugeot – we love its red carpets and overall spaciousness and airiness. Start looking too closely, though, and you’ll find it’s a well-planned nice looking interior that’s made from shockingly brittle plastics. However, they are actually a little more hard-wearing than you’d think (not much, but a little), and finding one now with unmarked or undamaged plastics is very difficult indeed. But get beyond that, and you’ll appreciate the interior room, which shades both older cars, and the surprisingly ample boot.
Another victory, then, for the French car.
In terms of fuel consumption, they’re much of a muchness. Around town, expect around 30mpg, and in gentler driving (as if), you can often get to 35mpg without trouble. Yes, that’s hardly groundbreaking stuff, but at least it’s not thirsty enough to be offensive, and you do get plenty in return thanks to their feistiness on the roads.
In terms of parts supply, the Peugeot is the easiest to get bits for, followed by the Metro and the Fiesta after that. However, in terms of price, what parts you do get for the Ford will inevitably be the cheapest. As for insurance – all three qualify for classic cover (as long as you do), and that means a nice cheap policy in exchange for limited use and a cherished ownership experience.
All three are fun. All three will put a smile on your face. But there can be only one winner.
No beating around the bush here. The Peugeot annihilates the other two cars by such a margin it’s almost laughable. It’s fun, capable and, in today’s money, an absolute steal for all but the most immaculate examples. When new back in 1984, they were priced within £500 (list) of each other, and it’s hard to imagine why anyone would buy an XR2 if the 205GTI was within budget. Actually, that’s a little unfair on the plucky, fun Ford. The XR2 remains your ultimate 1980s rollerskate – possibly not as iconic as the original XR3 (which now commands big money when mint), but a damn sight more fun. You might struggle finding a good one but, if you do, you’ll have lots of fun in small doses in an XR2.
The MG Metro Turbo is probably a patchier all-rounder than the XR2, but we don’t care – it’s faster, more fun, quirkier, more boisterous and comes with a free whistle and chirp. Now it’s a hugely rare car, you’re going to have to pay good, strong money for one that works, is in good condition and has an MoT worth the paper it’s written on. But then, the classic car world doesn’t play by any logical rules.
So – victory by a knock-out to the Peugeot, with the Metro just beating the Fiesta thanks to its sheer Metro-ness…
[Original photo, thanks to What Car? magazine, scanning by Trigger]