Tested : Kadett vs Allegro vs Lancer

Carole Nash Classic Insurance Specialists

We’re moving towards the 1980s, and the hottest new ticket in town is GM’s exciting new front-wheel drive Opel Kadett/Vauxhall Astra.

To see how good it was, What Car? magazine pitched a saloon version against the Austin Allegro and Colt Lancer. The result was pretty clear then – but would it be the case now? Keith Adams decides.


First among un-equals?

Opel Kadett vs Austin Allegro vs Colt Lancer

It’s fair to say that General Motors took its time to join the FWD party. In Europe, where the supermini had been king since the onset of the ’70s, and before that BMC, Saab, Simca, Fiat, and so many others took the plunge in making their cars more space efficient and sure-footed, Vauxhall and Opel sat on the sidelines watching the world changing rapidly. But the General was plotting, and didn’t want to go down this route until it was actually sure it could get it right first time.

And that’s why a good five years after the groundbreaking Volkswagen Golf (and fifteen after the Autobianchi Primula), Opel rolled out its interpretation on the theme, the Opel Kadett. It was the autumn of 1979 (therefore we’d have to wait six months before the badge-engineered Vauxhall Astra went on sale), and the class of the medium-sized saloon/hatchback field included the Peugeot 305, Volkswagen Golf, and Alfa Romeo Alfasud (despite having been on sale for more than seven years). The big sellers in this sector in the UK were the Ford Escort Mk2, Vauxhall Viva and Austin Allegro – none of which would be considered dynamic or packaging masterpieces, despite their obvious appeal.

And in this market, the Kadett looked like a product of a new generation – a genuine 1980s car. it boasted an up-to-the-second technical specs. A revvy new Family One overhead cam engine,  mounted transversely, driving the front wheels through an end-on gearbox. It had independent front suspension by McPherson Struts up-front, and a beam axle at the rear, with trailing arms and coils hanging off it. If any car stuck to the letter of the 1970s FWD family car ‘template’ as defined by Dante Giacosa, this was it.

At launch, the Kadett was offered in two-, three-, four- and five-door saloon/hatchback (and estate) form, with the ‘saloons’ being unusual for sharing the same basic bodyshape as the hatchback, but with a separately-opening bootlid (with natty external hinges), like an Alfasud… or Allegro. It’s one of these that What Car? decided to test first.

In 1979, the maligned Allegro was still selling reasonably strongly in the UK. Combined with the Morris Marina, the six-year old car’s top ten performance, meant that BL was still the second most popular supplier of medium-sized family cars in Britain. To keep things fresh, it received a facelift to become the Allegro 3, and that saw the addition of black bumpers, quad headlights, new rear light clusters, dashboard and interior fabrics. Low budget the facelift might have been, but it was certainly effective at making the Allegro look more modern and (whisper it) appealing.

The third car in our trio was definitely the outsider – but just like the Opel, was new in 1979, and looked sharp, fresh and ready for the 1980s. The Colt (that’s what we called Mitsubishi back then in the UK) Lancer EX as styled by Aldo Sessano was European in its outlook, even if underneath the smart suit, it was rear driven and retained the familiar 1.6-litre 4G32 lean-burn overhead cam, pushing out a useful 85bhp. If having a three-box wasn’t your thing, there was always the Colt 1400GLX…

Character

The Opel and the Colt are in incredibly rare on the UK’s roads now, and spotting one on your travels is going to be something of a treat (for car spotters like us). But does rarity equate to desirability? That is an interesting question – and the answer comes down to how you perceive old cars. For us, character isn’t tied in with rarity or indeed ability, because even before we delve into how the three drive or perform, we’d be declaring the Opel as a clear winner in this section.

And starting with the German car, there’s a great deal to be impressed by. Jumping in this car today, and taking it for a spin, you might not feel that you’re getting much in the way of attention from other people, but you’ll be smiling at the car’s all-round efficiency. When development on the FWD GM T-Car began in the mid-1970s, the dynamic and packaging benchmark was the Alfa Romeo Alfasud, and you can see that the German engineering team was very influenced by that car – in many ways, this car feels similar to the brilliant Italian saloon right down to the sporting exhaust note. But reflected greatness is not the same as the real thing, and as good as the Kadett is, today it’s a bit of a soulless conveyance.

The Mitsubishi has that well-honed feeling of efficiency and engineering integrity of many of its fellow Japanese saloons, but its Anglo-European smart suit actually plays against it today, as it’s often the Japanese styling excesses of cars from this era that pulls the heartstrings of certain car enthusiasts today. And that means you’re left with a slightly bland and utterly reliable saloon, and not much chance of being blown away by waves of character. Had this been a 2000EX Turbo, things would have been very different indeed.

And now to the Allegro. In 1979, it was a rather too familiar sight on the UK’s roads, and had become a bit of a national institution for all the wrong reasons. But under the skin, it was still an unconventional, bold, saloon with fluid suspension – and in 1750 form, a modern overhead cam engine, five-speed gearbox, and quite a turn of speed. The facelift had done a lot to give the car more showroom appeal, but in truth, a new body was needed as buyers were increasingly bored by the thing. But today, and viewed as a classic car, there’s something quite appealing about an Allegro 1750HL – it has reasonable pace and excellent handling, and everyone you come across will have an opinion about it.

And for that reason, the Allegro wins this one – a true case of the irrational and illogical prevailing over unremitting efficiency. The Allegro 3 might have become a better car than its forebears in the process of being facelifted, but curiously, it loses some of the classic appeal…

Performance

Take a drive in the three cars back-to-back, and if you were then asked to rate the three for acceleration, you’d swear that the Opel Kadett is the quickest, with the Lancer second, and the Allegro bringing up the rear. But that’s actually the reverse order of reality, which tells you all you need to know about the power delivery of the three cars.

The eager free-revving Opel might have the smallest engine at 1297cc, and it develops the least power at 75bhp, but it feels genuinely lively on the road. The 0-60mph dash is covered in 13.5 seconds, which is slow in absolute terms today, but compared with the repmobile opposition of the day, was very respectable indeed. With a standard-fit four-speed gearbox, the Kadett is a little on the busy side at a 70mph 4000rpm cruise, but in all other areas, it’s absolutely spot-on today for a little bit of fun.

The Lancer’s altogether more smooth and refined. Unlike the Kadett, which needs revving to deliver its best, the Colt has an even spread of power and torque, and its five-speed ‘box is really pleasurable to use, with a light and accurate change. Its acceleration figures eclipse the Kadett’s, too, hitting 60mph from a standing start in 12.6 seconds, and going on to top 100mph. But whereas the Opel encourages its driver to have some fun and drive hard, the Mitsubishi is rather emotionless. As soon as you walk away, you’ll have forgotten the experience.

That’s not something you can say about the Allegro. Although it delivers slightly less power than the Mitsubishi – 80bhp vs 86 for the Japanese car – it’s slightly quicker to 60mph, taking 12.0 seconds. Top speed is also 100mph, so in real terms, there’s little to separate the two. But where the Mitsubishi is smooth and the Opel is urgent, the Allegro just sounds unrefined and – frankly – unpleasant, should you choose to rev it. Its five-speeder is also unpleasant to use, with a remote-feeling change that baulks when it’s cold, and isn’t quite highly-geared enough to calm the E-Series cacophony on the motorway.

So, in this one, the slowest car wins in the performance category – a clear case of not what you do, but how you do it.

Handling and ride

Here’s a controversial one. The Allegro not only handles well, but steers superbly, too. Yes, it’s probably an unfashionable view in today’s automotive book of cliches, but the truth is, by the time the Series 3 arrived on the scene, the Longbridge engineers had tuned its Hydragas set-up comprehensively and turned the Allegro into a tidy-handling, supple riding and sweet-steering family car challenger. Of course. it’s far from perfect, and for those who favour a sporting drive, the softly-sprung Allegro will feel far too insulated and roll too much to appeal, but for the average driver who just wants to make progress on the UK’s pockmarked roads, its big-car feel belies its small-car dimensions.

The Opel on the other hand, rides firmly and corners flatly. Younger enthusiasts will appreciate the General’s approach to chassis engineering over Longbridge’s, especially when if the roads are smooth. But in truth, on UK roads, and in most conditions, the Opel’s sporting set-up will jar and annoy those who appreciate taking longer journeys in their classics. That’s not to say it’s very good indeed – and as we’ve already said, the engineers put a lot of effort into making this a class-leading car, right down to the use of innovative variable-rate monobloc springs.

The Mitsubishi sits somewhere between the two, and manages to fail to excel in any single area. Its ride isn’t bad, and on smooth roads, will seduce its driver into thinking it’s a soft-rider, but when camber and surface changes enter the equation, the damping lets it down. For that reason the Lancer also feels less stable at speed than the other two, so can only come third in this encounter – a predictable result given the excellence of the other two.

As for a winner, we’ll take the Opel. Yes, it’s bumpier than the Allegro, but its also less fun, and clings on better in tight bends. But it is a matter of personal preference, and let’s just say here that the German is the first among equals.

Cabin and controls

The angularity of the Lancer’s dashboard is hardly appealing, even if it does have a single-spoke wheel. You get in, and there’s no feeling of design harmony or warmth. And you sit on a flat, shapeless driver’s seat that simply isn’t comfortable or supportive enough to encourage you to bond with the car. Still, the equipment tally is excellent, and you’ll enjoy the luxuries of electric windows and factory-fitted radio/cassette.

In many ways the Allegro 3 pretty much put right all of the sins of its predecessors. So, that quartic wheel is long gone, the interior room is excellent, and the fixtures and fittings are more than acceptable in terms of quality and design. The interior trim colours and materials also feel more 1980s than ’70s, and we love the bold graphics and easy-to-read typography of the instruments. Again, it was a very effective late-model facelift of a middle-aged car – which back in 1979 added appeal, and today, makes it less of the ironic ’70s classic. So, do you want an Allegro that works? If so, get an Allegro 3.

As for the Kadett, it’s a car that divides opinions. Back in 1979, we loved its modernity and cleanness of its interior design – bit today, it might all come across as being a bit plasticky and soulless. Which in this test, is no handicap, as it’s a failing of all three cars. So, it’s efficient, works well, and devoid of lovability, even if it works the best of the lot.

Running costs

This one’s an easy one to split. In terms of fuel consumption, and servicing costs, the Kadett wins – it will easily crack 35mpg in daily driving, while the Allegro and Mitsubishi are going to have you lodged in the high-20s unless you’re a particularly gentle driver. All three can be insured on classic insurance policies – if you’re over 25 and have a good driving record, expect to pay less than £100 per year for a mileage-limited policy.

For parts availability and specialist support, the Allegro wins by a country mile. You might struggle to find many parts to keep it on the road new and off the shelf (as is the case with all three), but with a great community and club behind it, you’ll never be too far away from fixing your broken down Allegro.

The Opel isn’t too bad if you’re prepared to go online and search for your parts from Germany – especially as it shares so many parts with its replacement as well as the Ascona/Cavalier Mk2. Also remember that as it also wore a British badge, being sold in the UK as the Astra Mk1, you’re also not a million miles away from the part you need.

It’s a tougher gig being a Mitsubishi owner – but the Japanese scene is huge here, and once you’re attached to that, you’re likely to find people who can point you in the right direction. But it will be less straightforward finding parts for one of these than either of the European cars. But then, you know that already.

Verdict

It’s a head vs heart decision here. Ruling out the Mitsubishi is easy, though – yes it will start every day, is inoffensive to drive, and you know that it’s a quality item, but it’s also as dull as ditchwater, and if you’re looking for some classic car appeal, such things matter. However, it is hugely rare in this country, and for something that was once so familiar to now be so alien on today’s roads, there’s a certain appeal to Lancer ownership. Would we do it? Yes, but not over and above the other two cars.

The main story here is Kadett vs Allegro; Britain vs Germany. And that’s a tough call. The Kadett is clearly more fun to drive, and will stay on the road longer if you choose to drive it hard. But the Allegro is comfortable and deceptively quick, and will elicit conversations from strangers whenever you choose to stop. If you took the cold, hard approach and added up the pluses and minuses, the Kadett has to win out – it’s a car of the ’80s that can work extremely well today. The Allegro on the other hand is a product of some of the darkest times in UK industrial history, and therefore has a ton of baggage to carry about with it.

And that’s why we’ll forgo the successful GM front-driver, and take on the amiable loser Allegro instead. Isn’t that what old car ownership’s all about?

[Original photo, thanks to What Car? magazine]

Keith Adams

Keith Adams

Editor and creator AROnline at AROnline
Created www.austin-rover.co.uk in 2001 and built it up to become the world's foremost reference source for all things BMC, Leyland and Rover Group, before renaming it AROnline in 2007.

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.
Keith Adams

35 Comments

  1. I remember the shock of just how far ahead the Astra was when it was launched, there might as well have been 25 years between the Allegro and the Astra, obviously more so with the engine.

    The Family One engine (the Family Two name was applied only to the later 1.6, not the original 1.3) was like nothing seen before with a truly modern OHC engine. Just a shame that it took a little while to sort the initial oil burning problems – early Astras and FWD Cavaliers were infamous for be followed by a small cloud of blue smoke!

    • Few would have ever said the GM Family 1 was like nothing seen before in this class – FIAT had ten years earlier shown the way with the sweet/pokey single OHC they fitted in the 128. This engine alone made the new pride of BL’s ‘E’ Series look and feel inadaquate back in 1969 – as many others who followed in later years.

      Amongst those was VAG’s single OHC engine of the mid Seveties as fitted to the Passat, Golf and many others. Partly the reason the Family 1 suffered with the same oil-burning issues due to iffy valve guides is because GM had copied the VW unit a bit too closely…

  2. To this day I can’t fathom why Vauxhall/Opel offered up it’s new FWD 80s car as a 2/4 dr saloon at launch- even the Alfasud succumbed and became a hatchback in ’81…

  3. Assuming this is from a What Car test again, I would guess their pecking order was Kadett, Allegro, Colt. In my early 20s I graduated from a Mk2 Escort to an early V plate Astra 1.3GL – Sapphire blue with a sliding steel sunroof and the best Alloys I have seen on a car to this day! It felt like I had jumped about 40 years of automotive development.

  4. The “saloon” used teh hatch body shell with a fixed rear window and fill up boot lid like an alfasud so you may not have spotted them. Starge cos the smaller corsa ws a true three box saloon.

    The Mk1 Astra had a short life and was replace aftre just 4yrs but the tear drop model, i reacll the adverts for the GTE’s showing a digital speedo with 126mph top speed.

  5. My choice then and now would be Astra (Kadett), Colt Lancer, Allegro. I find it hard to believe there are any of this model Lancer on the road now?

  6. I bought a 3 door Kadett in 1981. I kept it for 8 years and 65000 miles.Despite needing new camshaft after 18 months, then a radiator and a petrol tank I enjoyed the looks, the interior and the way it drove. Still in nice condition when I sold it in 1989 for £1200. It was cheaper than the equivelent Astra at the time.

  7. In response to Will M, it was the Lancer after this one (the first generation front wheel drive one from 1983/84) that the early Protons were based on. This particular model shared an engine (if I remember correctly) with the original rear-drive Hyundai Pony. There are very few left in Barbados where I reside as well; the most popular one in this market was the 1600 GSR, which was a favourite with our local rally drivers.

  8. I’ve got a 1989 Lancer Gti – 16v saloon that i have as a toy alongside my 2009 Lancer GS4. They are both white and have successive cherished ‘FWH’ registration numbers. Both are a measure of where the Japanese were in competing with European manufacturers of the time. The ’89 Lancer is quick (for it’s day) feels a touch light and tinny but is probably a fair way ahead of the rival Belmont SRi/SXi and Orion Ghia’s at least in performance, handling and styling inside and out. And quite rare, i’ve not checked ‘How Many Left’ but i wouldn’t have thought theres that many still around. My newer 2009 Lancer is still a little tinny panel wise in comparison to a Jetta say, but it’s so different from it’s European rivals as to give it a bit of character as far as modern cars can have character. It looks in certain areas such as the tail styling a crib of the Alfa 156. Certainly to look at and to drive it makes a comparable Jetta saloon seem like a pair of brown M+S courdroy slacks! I really like them both, though i can see where the pair of them could be an acquired taste.

  9. Were any of the Mark 3 Allegros imported from Belgium as a few thousand made it across from Belgium in 1978 and What Car listed a special edition as being partly imported from Belgium?
    However, in Mark 3 form the Allegro finally became half decent and was a reasonable match for a Mark 2 Escort.

  10. Does anyone remember how well the chin spoilers on those Mk 1 Astras used to rust?!

    I do!

    It still looks good though, even after 30 years.

  11. “It looks in certain areas such as the tail styling a crib of the Alfa 156.”……I’m struggling a bit with that one…….

  12. …..Oops, should have read your comment – I thought you were comparing the ’89 Lancer……I agree with the 2009 Lancer comment….I need to read more slowly!!

  13. My dad bought a Datsun Cherry in the mid eighties from a Nissan dealer and had engine trouble, the dealer loaned him a Mitsubishi Lancer and it was an amazing car, electric windows and good kit tally, shame they never caught on.

  14. I ran a 1980 Lancer 1600GSR for over a year and 13000 miles. Fun and reliable car at the time, I repalced it with an equally reliable 84 Galant 2.0GLS and also briefly ran a Celeste GSR around the same time (1992-4).
    All were heavy on fuel and not as quick as their power outputs suggested they should be.

  15. I hired two 1.3 Astras when they first came out. Apart from the very nice young lady in the car hire office, my memories are:
    1) a lot of smoothly delivered power – in a straight line. The 90bhp 1600’s were rocket ships – until detuned to 82bhp.
    2) Scary-to-dangerous levels of torque steer, even with only (by today’s standards) 75 bhp.
    3) Stiff springs, but very soft dampers.
    4) A general “high quality” feel, especially in the interior construction.
    At that time, Mitsubishis were thirsty, and had an unfortunate attachment to recirculating ball steering.

  16. While we’re talking about Astras, I remember visiting an Opel showroom in South Africa, while they were building the Q-ship Mk.2 Belmont with Calibra turbo 4×4 running gear.

    I got a bilingual brochure (English and Afrikaans), and just for fun, asked for the price of a 1.8 saloon with A/C.
    The answer was 77,700 rand – but they could do me a discount.

    Just a few weeks before, I’d been looking at a tatty R8 214 in an Arthur Daley establishment in Bristol. The car was dirty, parts were missing, a test drive was unlikely, and they wouldn’t even consider haggling.
    I wonder if they’re still in business..

  17. The mark 2 Astra, teardrop shape, can anyone remember the Audi GS?

    Launched in UK at the same time as the teardrop Mark 2 Astra, the Audi GS and Mark 2 Astra were identical twins.

    There was one at my workplace, there was never enough parking spaces so late arrivals would block in others.

    Over the Tannoy, will the owner of the Red Astra please go to the carpark and move his car.

    The disgruntled owner would turn up muttering, its not an Astra, its an Audi

  18. Surely a Citroen GS?

    Had a slightly similar fastback outline, like a shrunken CX.

    Stangely, my ZX was sometimes confused for a mk3 Astra.

    I do sometimes like to troll Audi drivers and call them Volkswagens.

  19. @23, mm,

    I’m not suggesting you are mistaken, mm, but I can’t find any info on the web on the Audi GS- admittedly based on a brief google which turned up loads of Lexus GS, BMW1200GS motorbike stuff, etc- I guess it was too obscure to register on Google’s search engine without more advanced searching techniques.

    Anyone got any info on this vehicle- and why Audi would have launched such a car? Was it a ‘marriage of convenience’ in certain markets such as South Africa or South America where unlikely manufacturer collusions seem to proliferate?

  20. @25

    It is a mystery. MM suggests it was ‘Launched in UK’.

    Citroen GS was a hangover from the 70s, so not launched around mk2 Astra time.

    I too would be interested in the result of this conundrum.

  21. The Alfasud was vaguely Astra shaped, and called GTA in South Africa, but it was coming out of production in 1984.

  22. The Kadett was my first car in 1988 bought for 1200 quid. I drove it for three years, loved its handling and ability to go where you pointed it. Much better handling than my current Allegro… although put some weight in the boot of the Allegro and it’s more than a match.

  23. What would a modern equivalent of this roadtest be?

    Astra vs. MG3 vs. Colt?

    Or, given the size of the Astra and the last generation Lancer, the MG6?

    Austin are no more, Mitsubishi no longer sell the Lancer in the UK. (Though in Ireland they’ll sell you something that looks like an Evo that contains a VW TDi…)

  24. Hmm…. Choosing between Allegro & Astra. I think if I was wanting a more all round car, a more relaxed, bigger car feel, ambience I’d go Allegro then and now. If I wanted more emphasis on sporty I’d choose Astra.

    As I’ve said before, time has served Allegro well. What was once dumpy is now solid.

  25. Interesting article – how times change.

    Then it would have been the Astra (although aged 10 I would not have been able to afford or drive it) but now the Allegro because of its character and charm.

    As for the Allegro’s styling its time has come – look at the Audi A1 – was Harris Mann working in Germany a couple of years back?

  26. I do remember Colt being used for Mitsubishis in the late seventies and the Colt name later being reserved for the small hatchback after about 1981. Very well equipped, extremely reliable, cars that for all they looked a bit bland, drove very well and the 1.6 models were said at the time to be as refined as a V6. My dad ( parents divorced as I do mention a step dad who liked Talbots in other blogs) bought a 1981 Galant second hand that had more toys than Hamleys inside, was extremely quiet and powerful on the open road and was completely reliable. In short for similar money to a 1.6 Cortina you got something far better and individual.

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