In two previous confrontations, the Golf GTI successfully fended off new challenges to its sporting hatchback supremacy. In its latest form it's better than ever – but so are the opposition. Could it be that among the Escort XR3i, Astra GTE, and Alfasud Ti - the Golf has finally met its match?
From Motor magazine, June 25th, 1983. ©
EARLY NEXT YEAR the car that spawned the first hot hatch and then a whole family of formula-milking rivals bows out to make way for a new model bearing the same name. VW's new Golf GTI is being as eagerly awaited as any car this decade, and the hard driving enthusiasts who made the current model a cult are worried how VW could improve on a car as fundamentally right as this GTI? Clearly, the scope for VW to smudge the GTI's famous sparkle, exists. Who would doubt that there are executives from rival manufactures waiting and wondering with fingers crossed?
Four great cars from the 1980s.
Their problem is that the crackerjack Golf has so far proved unassailable. When, in our 1980 Twin Test, the 1.6 litre GTI shaped up to the car that promised to clobber it - Ford's then carburettor four-speed Escort XR3- it was the challenger that ended up with a bloody nose. A year later, boasting a five-speed gearbox and modified suspension, Ford's hot hope (now an undeniably worthy car) crossed swords with the Golf again but came little closer to drawing blood. And neither did the Opel Kadett 1.6 SR or Fiat Strada 105TC competing in that Group Test. The three-door hatch from Wolfsburg not only had its opponents beaten for pace but also for balance and comfort, too.
Welcome to round three! Here the battle of the hot hatchbacks reaches its logical climax; it's the oppositions final chance to nail the all-conquering GTI before it retires in current form, and by no means is it a lost cause.
Astra GTE - first serious hot hatch from GM.
Since late last year, the GTI has a more powerful 1 8-litre engine, but the best of its adversaries have become more potent. Ford now have the fuel-injected Escort XR3i (£6,287 with optional alloy wheels) and Alfa Romeo's legendary 'Sud has also grown more muscular with age; in Ti Green Cloverleaf form (£6,240) it earns its place in this line-up. But, without doubt, the most serious new challenge to the GTI's supremacy comes from General Motors in the shape of the Vauxhall Astra GTE which even at £6,412, still undercuts the now rather pricey Golf, (£6,808).
Each of these three door hatchbacks has a steel unitary body and water-cooled four-cylinder engine. Apart from the Alfa's which has its cylinders arrange in opposing pairs and fed by twin carburettors, the power units are in-line fuel-injected and mounted transversely On paper, it's the Alfa's packaging that should be compromised by the extra length of its flat-four engine but in the metal, it can boast as much interior space as any rival here of similar length, and usefully more than the four inches shorter Golf. Power is transmitted to the front wheels, in each case, by a five speed gearbox, though the Alfa's ratios are shorter and closer than those of the other cars, especially the Astra's.
Alfasud lacks pace.
The Astra is the car that can most easily afford long gearing since it is also the most powerful. Its 1796cc engine delivers an impressive 115bhp (DIN) @ 5,800 rpm with 111 Ib ft of torque @ 4,800 rpm That just eclipses the Golf; its almost identically-sized engine (1781cc) has 112bhp (DIN) @ 5,800 rpm, 109 Ib ft of torque but at a usefully low 3,500 rpm. The Ford and Alfa tie in the power stakes - both develop 105bhp (DIN) @ 6,000 rpm but, as you would expect, the Ford's slightly larger engine (1596 against 1490cc) steals a small torque advantage, developing a peak of 101 Ib ft @ 4,800 rpm to the Alfa's 98 Ib ft @ 4,000 rpm. As well as being the most powerful, the Vauxhall is also the heaviest car of this group, tipping the scales at 18.8 cwt (against 179 cwt for the Ford, 176 cwt for the Alfa and 16.5 cwt for the Golf).
Only the Ford has fully independent suspension - MacPherson struts, coil springs and an anti-roll bar at the front and transverse arms, longitudinal tie bars and coil springs at the rear. MacPherson strut, coil spring and anti-roll bar front ends serve the other cars, too. The Golf and Astra's rear suspensions, however, use trailing arms linked by a torsion beam axle, with coil springs and an anti-roll bar, while the Alfa's coil-sprung beam axle is located by twin longitudinal Watts linkages and a Panhard rod. All the cars have rack and pinion steering and straightforward servo-assisted braking systems, the Alfa's by solid discs all round, the others' by ventilated discs at the front and drums at the rear.
The Golf may not be the most powerful car in this class any more but, with the best power/weight ratio, it still packs the hardest punch. In the race from rest to 60 mph, it's nearly half a second clear of the field with 8.1 sec, and that's despite the fact that the Astra (8.5 sec) has now elbowed the Escort (8.6 sec) into third place. Curiously, unable to translate its power parity with the Escort into competitive sprinting ability, the Alfa trails with 10.4 sec. the fight in this car just wasn't there off the line.
Despite having the shortest overall gearing, the Alfa is decisively outranked by all but the very long striding Astra in fourth and top as well. Here the Golf is tops again: even in fifth, it covers the important 50-70 mph increment in a very brisk 9.1 sec (11.3 sec for the Ford, 12.7 sec Alfa, 14.5 sec Vauxhall), while if the 30-50 mph time in fourth is taken as the criterion, the Golf truly moves into the firecracker class, putting up a straight 6.0 sec against the Ford's 7.3 sec, the Alfa's 8.8 sec and the Astra's 9.2 sec. Remember, though, that at 18.8 mph/1,OOO rpm, the Astra's fourth gear is 18.2% longer than the Golf's and exactly the same as the Alfa's top. It's also the gear in which the Vauxhall ultimately winds out to a top speed of 115.8 mph. The other cars all peak in fifth, but only the Escort (116.0 mph) got the better of the Astra by a smidgen in our maxing session round Millbrook's high speed bowl, the Golf (115.3 mph) completing a close three-way tussle. With a top speed of 109.1 mph, the Alfa ranks as a quick 1500 but, again, can't match the scorching pace of the others.
Golf interior - note central mounted radio speaker (below ashtray).
As we're always keen to point out, apparently significant differences against the clock seldom seem so large on the road, but this is one occasion where we have to say that the Alfa was simply beaten for pace. Even by taking liberties with the extremely free-revving nature of its sweet-sounding (if rather noisy) flat-four and exploiting its fine smooth road grip to the very hilt, it required determination of almost heroic proportions from the Alfa driver to claw back or even arrest ground lost to the other cars on even a short straight. A pity, because the Alfa's engine still holds plenty of appeal for the enthusiast. Its crisp yet smooth power delivery, its free top end breathing, its sporting crackle on the overrun - the sounds and sensations are inspiringly right. But, there's just not enough punch.
Combining a wide power band and razor-keen throttle response with ideally chosen intermediate gearing, the GTI's drivetrain is still superb. The rewards for the driver are dazzling, with effortless sparkle and urgency from low revs yet almost eye-watering top end vigour. Mechanically smooth to high revs, if no paragon of refinement, the GTI's four cylinder engine remains, in our estimation, the best in the business.
The Golf's unshakeable shadow on most give-and-take roads, Ford's fuel-injected XR3 has certainly got it where it counts and, thanks to more realistically judged gearing than its carburettor predecessor, knows how to use it. It's the harsh and often ragged manner in which the Ford delivers its performance, however, that dulls its potential. Although the engine is clean and responsive to the throttle at all revs, its crisp bark degenerates with maximum effort, becoming thrashy, boomy and, ultimately, tiresome.
We'd certainly trade the XR3i's impressive bottom end punch for a little of the Astra's smoothness and refinement. Here's a fine engine - marginally the smoothest of the bunch, wonderfully tractable, yet endowed with top end potency at least the equal of the Golf's. Lacking the gear-for-gear punch of the Escort and particularly the Golf, the Astra is just as swift across the ground: only the gearchange points are different.
Even within the context of sporting cars, the question of economy, these days, is not dismissed lightly. With the pride of efficiency-conscious car makers at stake, it's an important sub plot to the main performance theme.
On this occasion, we were unable to make a back-to-back mpg comparison on our Group Test run, but on the basis of our normal road test overall figures, it's the Escort that returns the best overall consumption of 30.7 mpg, a remarkably good result and testimony to the effectiveness of the Ford's slippery shape. The Golf and Astra aren't far behind with 28.8 and 28.5 mpg respectively but, disappointingly, it's the slowest car of the group, the Alfa, that picks up the wooden spoon with 24.8 mpg.
XR3 interior - clear and functional.
The Alfa is capable of breaking the 30 mpg barrier as its 31.9 mpg touring consumption illustrates but, although our fuel flow metering equipment wasn't compatible with their fuel injection systems, we would estimate better figures still for the other cars driven with similar restraint.
Five speeds are de rigueur in this class, though only the Vauxhall's fifth gear is an overdrive cruising ratio. Geared at 23.5mph/1,000 rpm, the Astra has, by quite a margin, the longest top-gear stride of the group, a factor which clearly contributes to its good cruising refinement, but its intermediates are correspondingly more widely spaced. The quality of the Astra's gearchange, however, elicited few negative comments with a light and precise, albeit slightly notchy, action to complement the progressive and nicely-weighted clutch.
The Golf and Escort almost match strides at 19.7 and 20.1 mph/1,000 rpm respectively and are geared more for sharp sprinting than minimum fuss on the motorway. If the Ford's intermediates are well spaced, the Golf's are even better still, and on shift quality, it's the VW that takes the laurels with a delectably light and quick short-throw action to which our testers warmed immediately. The Escort's shift won praise as well, offsetting its slightly more ponderous travel with an easy, if wider, across-gate action though, like the Astra's, not without a hint of notchiness. Both cars have smooth and progressive clutch actions.
Astra GTE - good instruments.
The Alfa's gearchange requires a firmer hand than those of the other cars but is satisfyingly positive and precise nonetheless. Its ratios are a fine sprinting set, though with only 18.8 mph for every 1,000 rpm in top, cruising at speed is necessarily more frenzied. The Alfa like its rivals, has a smooth and well-cushioned clutch.
No clear winner, here, but a few surprises, The first is that the once standard-setting Alfa doesn't feel that special any more. In taming the torque steer that was becoming a problem with the more powerful variants, Alfa seem to have erased most of the steering's once excellent feel in the process; it's marvellously quick and precise but simply too light to inspire much confidence in the 'Sud's still ample ability. Wearing very low profile (55 per cent aspect ratio) 190 section Michelin TRX tyres, the Alfa now has tremendous smooth road grip easily on a par with an established lateral-g merchant like the XR3, but the penalty is a loss of the fine directional stability over bumps for which the car was once famed, and a worrying tendency for the front wheels to follow cambers. Given a smooth twisting road, though, the Alfa in this, its most potent form, remains a fabulous tool, its quicksilver responses, near neutral cornering balance and fail-safe lift-off characteristics doing wonders for the driver's ego and enjoyment once he's acclimatised to the lack of steering feedback.
Golf GTI seats - deck chair material used?
What gives the Golf an edge on demanding roads, however, is just that its chassis is so communicative, it almost talks to the driver. So it hasn't got quite the smooth road adhesion of its more exotically-shod rivals (the Golf wears relatively modest 175/70 HR 13s tyres), but its behaviour on bumpy bends is exemplary. Body lean isn't checked quite as tightly as in the other cars but the VW's damping is spot on and its wheel travel generous. Thus the Golf not only turns-in well, but can put its power down out of a tight, bumpy bend where the XR3i, with its more tautly sprung and restricted wheel movements, would simply be scrabbling for grip. Moreover, its mid-corner lift-off characteristics are so gentle that hardly any correction from the steering; beautifully weighted, direct, communicative - is needed.
These XR3 seats lack optional headrest padding.
In initial feel the Escort and Astra are quite alike; taut, flat-cornering, poised. The Escort is all of these things but, despite the introduction of numerous suspension mods by Ford, the car still has its problems in extremis. As already mentioned, its inability to put its power down cleanly in certain conditions is a significant failing and while its cornering balance is basically fine - modest understeer, gentle tuck-in-bump steer can still rear its ugly head at speed along secondary roads, making life harder and less predictable for the driver than it need be. In short, for Astra read Escort without the nasties. Its steering is lower geared that the Ford's but just as precise, not so heavy and more communicative. The grip from its tyres (185/60 HR 14s like the Escort's) is just as tenacious and less affected by bumpy surfaces. Overall, then, the Astra probably reaches the best compromise, combining high levels of grip with real handling ability.
Although better than they used to be, the Golf's brakes are still a let-down. They do the job but inspire little confidence with that dead, soggy pedal. There's little to choose between the brakes of the other cars for feel, progression and power though only the Astra's scored a clean sheet, the Ford's being marked down for rumbling once or twice and the Alfa's for making the car weave with hard use on an uneven surface.
All the cars will seat four adults in reasonable comfort and accommodate their luggage. That, of course, is part of the major appeal; performance with practicality. Despite having been with us for the best part of a decade the Alfa is still a modern-looking shape and provides generous combined legroom though that in the rear is unnecessarily flattered by front seat runners that don't go back far enough for very tall drivers. Both the Escort's and Golf's allocation of interior space is well balanced, too - the Golf is more so since the adoption of slimmer, concave front seat backrests has liberated more rear legroom though, in overall terms, it's still not as roomy as the Escort. But while there's plenty of space to stretch out for the Astra's front seat occupants, its rather bulky hip-hugging Recaro-style seats appear to have robbed an inordinate amount of legroom for people in the back, to the extent that the GTE has the least rear legroom of the bunch. On the other hand, it boasts fractionally the most headroom, closely followed by the Golf, Escort and, getting a little tight for tall occupants, the Alfa.
Superb Recaro seats for Astra GTE.
Each car has a wide-opening tailgate providing access (hindered somewhat by the high sill on the Ford, Alfa and VW) to decently sized and generally well proportioned luggage areas. Both the Ford and Vauxhall took 103 cu. ft of test luggage, the Alfa 89 cu. ft and the VW 86 cu. Ft. Folding forward the back-rest increases the luggage area substantially on all four cars.
By a small margin, the Golf lifts the honours in this category with easily the most supple ride at low speed (though it makes a meal of ruts and sunken manhole covers, thumping over them heavily) yet by no means a deficiency of damping control in fast motoring. Likewise, the Escort indulges in little undamped body movement at speed and, contrary to popular belief, copes well.
AT THE WHEEL
With the possible exception of the Alfa, most drivers should find all these cars acceptably comfortable. As far as our testers were concerned, however, the Alfa was far from ideal. Despite being the only car with a rake-adjustable steering wheel, its driving position is still too Italianate for most tastes, making the steering wheel a stretch and the pedals (in the Alfa's case offset to the left and with the accelerator too near to the brake) too close. None of our testers cared much for the Alfa's new-style seats, either, finding them too softly cushioned, lacking in lumbar support and poorly shaped under the thigh. Although revised for the new Alfa 33, the two column stalk system remains as confusing as ever in the Alfa, though the minor switch gear is well sited and easy to understand.
In the seating department, the other cars are generally as good as the Alfa is poor with comfortable and supportive Recaro-style items the order of the day, though one tester felt that the Escort's would benefit from a shade more lumbar padding. Sensible stalks and minor switch gear is another shared feature. It's the Ford, however, that gets our vote for the best driving position with an excellent and relaxed three-way relationship between the steering wheel, gearlever and pedals. All the controls fall easily to hand and foot in the Golf as well though, with its higher, more upright seating position, the impression is of being perched on top of the seat instead of sitting in it. The Astra would score equal marks with the Golf and Escort but for its rather cramped pedal layout and the slightly awkward too-far-back positioning of its gearlever.
Good all round vision is a feature of all these cars, the Astra's pillars being marginally the most obstructive, the Escort's the least so. All are equipped with rear wash/wipes as standard (the Astra's even has an intermittent facility) and all have mirrors on both doors, though the Astra's have too narrow a field of view, the Escort's fiddly adjustment controls and the Alfa's no internal adjustment at all.
Drivers of these cars are supplied with the sort of information they would expect. Speed, revs, fuel level, water temperature, though in the Alfa's case the latter is placed out of sight-line on the centre console. If it also had a battery condition gauge the Alfa would tie with the Astra on a dial-count, since they both have oil pressure gauges, unlike the Escort and Golf. Only the Golf gets a mpg gauge, or a multi-function trip computer (MFA) for the driver to play with - a pity its average fuel consumption computations are so over-optimistic!
For style, presentation and clarity, the Astra's display wins by a mile, both aesthetically and functionally. Its symmetrically grouped dials and gauges are both cleanly marked and free from stray reflections. The Golf's more compact binnacle - like the Astra's covered by a single angled pane - contains a rather more cluttered display which presents its information in a less easily assimilated way but the dials' individual markings are clear enough and generally reflection free.
Both the Ford's and Alfa's displays are adequate but, with the Ford, you get the most basic complement of dials presented in the plainest fashion and, with the Italian car, a rather old-fashioned collection of individually- faced dials, generous in number but all prone to reflections.
In terms of performance, simplicity and convenience, the Escort's heater is hard to beat. Its smooth acting vertical sliders are unambiguously marked and nice to use, regulating and distributing the ultimately high heat output with fine precision. The Astra's system is also easy to understand and use with a decent heat output but a rather hard-to set temperature slide when lesser degrees of warmth are required. The Golf's system, too, is both uncomplicated and effective, if a little sluggish to respond to temperature slide changes. By comparison, the Alfa's heater controls are idiosyncratic enough to confuse even the most devout student of ergonomics with the blower fan being operated by the right-hand column stalk and the three supporting sliders toting less than obvious markings. Once mastered, however, the heater is adequately powerful and easy to control.
With the heater off, the Escort's four face-level vents admit a vigorous flow of cool air under ram pressure, but they are linked to the heater in such a way that on a cold day (when it's necessary to use the heater on full) it's impossible to have cool air to the face and warm air in the footwells at the same time; on intermediate heat settings the face level air through the two centre vents is cooler than that fed to the outer vents and footwells, but the temperature split is not ideal for every circumstance.
Which one do you want?
The Golf and Astra provide the best comparison, boasting ventilation systems which are totally independent of the heater. In the Astra, the central chip-cutter vents are individually adjustable for direction, though there is only one thumb wheel for volume. Through-put under ram pressure alone is meagre but it can be boosted to a useful level by the fan. Face level fresh air is also available on fan boost in the Golf and its throughput is as effective as the Astra's. The flow, however, becomes rather dissipated since the position of the vents at each end of the facia remains too distant, that on the right directing its output at the driver's right hand. Alone among the four, the Alfa has ram-only fed independent vents, which although better located than the German car's, offer only a weak flow at modest road speeds.
As already discussed, the Ford has the harshest and most intrusive engine when extended, and the Astra the most pleasant as well as the most peaceful when cruising. Both the Golf and Alfa are quite noisy when pressed but compensate - the Golf especially - with sporting engine notes of a crisp and attractive quality. Rather superfluously (in view of its lack of mechanical refinement) the Escort has notably better suppression of road noise than the other cars, while wind noise isn't much of a problem in any of them.
As our blob chart illustrates, sporting doesn't mean spartan, these days. Alloy wheels, cloth trim, cigar lighters, laminated screens, rear wash/wipe and rev counters are common to all of these cars and only the Golf lacks a radio. Unique to the Astra is a headlamp washer system while the Alfa, although lacking a fuel filler lock or internal door mirror adjustment, can boast adjustable steering and a remote tailgate release.
The Escort surely represents most people's idea of what a sporting hatchback should look like. Smart, striking and purposeful yet ultimately understated. You only have to look at the Sierra XR4i to understand how important that last quality is. Inside, too, the XR3i is, thankfully, devoid of the fine red piping now seemingly applied by the mile to any car with sporting aspirations. Build integrity and finish look good inside and out.
Comprehensive road test from now defunct Motor magazine.
GM have done well to inject some visual interest into the Astra's rather amorphous shape without going over the top. It looks almost as good as the Escort while the paint finish and panel fit are even better. The Astra's interior, however, remains basically dull, as does the Golf's, despite the presence of that infernal red piping and deck chair style seat trim. The standards of assembly in each case, though, are high.
Despite its familiarity, the Alfa can still look good and the Ti Green Cloverleaf shows how. With black paint, expensive wheels, a minimum of brightwork, it does wonders for the Alfa's presence on the road. But don't look too closely the 'Sud's standards of build and finish have improved steadily over the years, but the rough edges are still there and look decidedly down-market in this company.
Looking at this contest in the coldest possible light, the Astra seems like the inevitable winner. It's the most accomplished all-rounder, the most consistently good car in the group, which applies to its value for money rating as well. But for all that, it's a rather bland, colourless car; strong on technique but short on soul.
We'd be the first to admit that the Escort has plenty going for it too; the best styling, the most showroom appeal, fine economy, space and build. And that's in addition to its very strong performance and high ultimate cornering power. It's a commercially potent mixture but one that leaves us with a slightly bitter-sweet taste until Ford smoothen and quieten that engine and refine the ride still further, buyers aren't getting a car that's true to its design potential.
Sadly, it's easier to dismiss the Alfa. In this company, the car with the smallest engine is out of its depth - slower than its rivals but thirstier, too. There's still a lot that's good about the Alfa - its sweet drivetrain, its crisp chassis, its roominess - but there's one quality that's lamentably lacking. Muscle!
There's little question that the Golf GTI isn't the out-and-out bargain it once was, but it's equally clear to us that none of its rivals here, not even the Astra, offer more pure driving pleasure. It's the quickest car and the most fun, it's the car with the equal best handling yet the most comfortable ride.
In short, the Golf is the best driving machine, the Astra the least flawed as an overall package. On balance we'd have to call it a dead heat; whichever car you might choose, you'd be getting yourself a real humdinger!
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