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?
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…
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…
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.
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.
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]