MOTOR week ending july 4, 1981
With sales in the executive class barely ticking over, there's a battle royal for a piece of what little action remains. Muscling in here are four
of the main contenders: the Ford Granada 2.8i GLS, the Rover 26008, the Vauxhall Viceroy and the Volvo 244 GLT. Which gets the top job? Read
NOT LONG ago, the bigger executive car was the one to make. With its traditionally conservative engineering and generous specification, it had well-heeled busi-nessmen queuing up — whether it was a Mercedes or a BMW, a Rover or a Ford. And with its tooling investment often rooted in an older, more mundane, model its profit margins were large; in short, it was a high scoring card. That it was more costly to run than a run-of-the-mill saloon only served to underline its status. Then the recession squeezed hard. Big car demand collapsed faster than an England batting eleven as customers tightened their belts and made a mass exodus down-
market. For most of the carmakers, the once ripe and profitable executive car class was now a virtual wasteland. But for those still interested in buying, the good buys — with enormous dis-counts on new cars and slashed secondhand prices — were just around the corner. In this Group Test, we look at four executive cars “after the storm". Although the nosedive in sales has flattened-out, it now seems unlikely that demand for this sort of car will ever climb back to pre-'79 levels. But in the struggle to capture the largest slice of a contracted market, there is plenty of activity among the car makers: wider appeal, better value and improved economy are the targets.
Rising to this challenge Rover, last September, improved and restructured its range: there are now five models, starting with the basic six-cylinder 2300 (£7,061), and finishing with the 3500 Vanden Plas (£13,261). The result of this is a more competitive price spread. The most important model, however, and the one around which this Group Test is based, remains the 2600 S (£9,249), as it is expected to continue to account for more than half of Rover sales and, in conjunction with money saved by closing part of Solihull and centralising Rover plant facilities at Cowley (where, previously, only the bodies were made), spearhead a return to profitability for BL’s talented problem child.
Ford's Granada is also pitching hard for sales in the E8-10,000 sector and in 2.8 GL form, at £9,389, meets the Rover head on. As the saloon version of this car is usually sold with automatic transmission, however, we chose the next most expensive manual model, the £10,108 2.8i GLS, for this comparison — admittedly, a little unfair on the others since with the 160 bhp fuel-injected version of the “Cologne” V6 (compared to the 2.8GL's 140 bhp) the iGLS is signiﬁcantly more powerful. Volvo's £9,225 244 GLT and Vauxhall's £8,545 Viceroy (with £207 worth of optional overdrive) complete ourexecutive quartet, the surprisingly sporting Swede bringing with it an image-shattering reputation for spirited acceleration and wieldiness and the Luton-badged Opel hybrid the promise of Royale standards of smoothness and refinement in a cheaper package.
With the exception of the five-door hatchback Rover, these cars conform resolutely to the conservative, innovation-shy executive car formula, their four-door three-box bodies — none of which varies by more than a few inches from the standard size of around 15 ft long
by just under six feet wide — clothing conventional front engine/rear drive mechanicals. Nor is there anything revolutionary under the Rover's fastback skin, though its 2.6-litre straight-six engine, no longer a must, still looks more impressive than a mere “four” in the sales brochure. Independent rear suspension is desirable but not de rigueur: in this group, live rear axles are the norm, only the Granada being able to boast semitrailing arms. Power assisted steering as standard and servo assisted front disc/rear drum braking, however, are common features.
Although the Volvo's 2316cc in-line four is ranged against the 2490 and 2597cc straight-six units of the Vauxhall and the Rover respectively, with fuel-injection and a high (1011) compression ratio on its side its 136 bhp (DIN) developed at 5,500 rpm actually matches the Rover's power output and betters the VauxhaIl's 115 bhp (DIN) — though these larger engines do deliver maximum power at a more relaxed 5,000 and 5,200 rpm respectively. Ford's 2792cc V6 has both capacity and fuel injection on its side and, as mentioned previously, simply eclipses its rivals in the power contest with an impressive 160 bhp (DIN) at 5,700 rpm. On torque, the Volvo's 144 lb ft doesn't quite measure up to the Rover's 152 lb ft, and it's developed much higher in the rev range: 4,500 against 3,750 rpm. The Viceroy has the least torque, a rather disappointing 125 lb ft at 3,800 rpm, while, not surprisingly, the Granada‘s 162 lb ft at 4,300 rpm ranks as the healthiest output of the bunch.
By way of some small compensation, however, the Viceroy is marginally the lightest car at 24.8 cwt and the Granada marginally the heaviest tipping the scales at 26.1 cwt. Next down is the Volvo (25.9 cwt) and then the Rover (25.6 cwt).
No prizes for naming the car which shows the rest a clean pair of tailpipes: with a top speed of 117.4 mph and a 0-60 mph acceleration time of 9.0 sec, the Granada is, by medium-big saloon
standards, a genuinely quick car.
Not that the others are slow. It would take the Ford a long time, for instance, to make much motorway ground on the Rover which is capable of 116.1 mph and, with its new 26.3 mph per 1000 rpm gearing in fifth, not averse to keeping it up all day. With a 0-60 mph time of 10.4 sec, however, our Rover wasn't much of a sprinter, and there were occasions during the fast convoy sessions when it just didn't have the sheer pace to stay with the Granada — on long up hill stretches in particular. Since our original 2600 test car returned a O-60 mph time of 9.0 sec, we suspect that the example loaned to us for the Group Test may have been off-song.
With out-and-out standing start acceleration second only to the Ford's, the Volvo's O-60 mph time of 9.4 sec represents something of a landmark for a company whose products have often been compared unfavourably with tanks — though its relatively less impressive 112.5 mph top speed does reflect on the amount of drag its blunt shape must create. The sleek shovel nose of the Viceroy, however, can do little to compensate for its comparative lack of power in this company, and it emerges as the slowest car, both on top speed (108.1 mph) and, with a 0-60 mph time of 10.7 sec, standing start acceleration.
The honours are much more even, however, when low speed pulling power is the criterion. Here the Ford, which has only four gears and, therefore, must strike a compromise between flexibility and cruising refine-ment, fails to assert its power advantage over its rivals in this group which keep a long-legged ratio in hand just for cruising: a fifth gear in the Rover‘s case, overdrive for the Volvo and Vauxhall. Comparing 30-50 mph times in fourth, the Ford takes 9.3 sec, the Rover 9.6 sec, the Vauxhall and Volvo 9.2 sec apiece.
So, in everyday driving, there is effectively little to choose between these cars. During the hard driving of the Group Test, however, it was the Granada's performance that impressed above all, feeling the most effortless and refined yet, at the same time, the most potent. The Rover‘s engine made a character-istically sporting straight-six growl but felt slightly agricultural by comparison, revving less freely and responding less eagerly to full throttle: although better than it used to be, its refinement is still disappointing, especially above 4000 rpm. The Viceroy's straight-six is marginally smoother than the Rover‘s but otherwise un-distinguished, feeling rather throbby and breathless at high revs. Nor was the Volvo happiest when revved hard, though its fine flexibility and punchy mid-range torque meant that it was seldom necessary to wring the engine's neck, even when keeping close company with the hard-driven Granada. Used like this, the GLT's mechanical smoothness and refinement was acceptable if not, understandably, on par with that of its six-cylinder rivals.
ln absolute terms, these big saloons handle well, and there's little point inlooking for any one to put on a pedestal of excellence. The differences here are more ones of character than outright ability, though that's not to say they don't, in some cases, add up to a more enjoyable experience.
In the mostly wet conditions that prevailed during the convoy driving, our testers agreed that the Rover was the most enjoyable car to drive fast. Although a little light for some tastes, its steering was judged to be the most direct and responsive with good feel and its roadholding was truly outstanding. Added to this was a sense of wieldiness that belied the car's bulk and despite a fair amount of roll made it feel "chuckable", almost handy. Even when pushed hard the Rover understeered only mildly, and despite its live rear axle's propensity to hop and thump when powered past the apex of a tight, bumpy bend, it was very rare for the tail to step even a couple of inches out of line.
Which is a comment that applies almost equally well to the Granada. Under all conditions, its independent rear suspension's control and behaviour were (somewhat unusually for a Granada, in our experience) exemplary though, unlike the Rover, it did have enough power to slide the tail wide when trying very hard: a deft dab of opposite lock would neatly bring it back in line. ln fact, quick, taut responses were the Granada's forte, albeit tempered with a forgiving nature. What we couldn't get enthusiastic about was its steering which, despite its undoubted accuracy and sensible weighting, lacked genuine feel.
In stark contrast, the Volvo's steering was more than generous in the information it relayed to the driver's hands, as well as being nicely weighted and reasonably direct. “Cumbersome” and "ponderous" might once have been apt words to describe a Volvo's handling, but not any more; and the be-spoilered and Pirelli P6-shod 244 GLT is anything but. The Rover probably has more outright grip in the wet, the Granada swifter responses, but for sheer predictability and unruffled poise the Volvo takes some beating. Mild understeer characterised the car's natural cornering balance in slower bends, giving way to a more neutral attitude at speed; full-blooded oversteer was not difficult to provoke (though more often than not the lightly laden inside rear wheel would spin first), but when a tail slide does occur it is easily caught.
So where does this catalogue of virtue leave the Viceroy? In essence, its handling is very sound with body roll and understeer both well contained and no bad habits. But by the same token, its behaviour doesn't warrant any special praise within the context of this group. Its recirculating ball steering, was judged to be reasonably communicative but less direct and responsive than the others, with some vagueness about the straight ahead position. And its limits of adhesion, in the Wet at least, were marginally lower.
With the exception of the Ford, whose front seats were found lacking in both lateral and thigh support, our testers pronounced the cars comfortable to sit in — the more so of the Rover and the Volvo —- but not even these are beyond criticism. The Rover’s seat, although comfortably sprung and shaped could do with more rearward travel for tall drivers and the Volvo's (which, like the Rover, has lumbar adjustment), lacks sufficient side support. Although generously proportioned and correctly supponive, the Viceroy's seats were too firmly padded, some thought.
The Granada's driving position wound-up at the bottom of our testers’ score sheets too, even the taller ones complaining that when the seat was set to achieve full depression of the long-travel clutch, the non-adjustable steering wheel was too close to their chests. Better liked was the driving position of the Volvo, though it was criticised for the steering wheel being set too high. Most popular in this respect were the Rover and the Vauxhall, the former having a height and rake-adjustable steering wheel, and the latter a height-adjustable seat, as also had the Volvo. The minor switchgear is well located on all the cars and, with the exception of the stiff action of the Ford's column stalks, works well.
Apart from the usual speedometer, and water temperature and fuel gauges, each of the four cars is equipped with a rev counter and all except the Volvo have oil-pressure and volt gauges.
All the displays are neatly presented and clearly marked, none more‘ so than the Vauxhall's which is really an object lesson to other manufacturers in reflection-free readability. The Rover's deeply recessed dials are also clearly marked but their tops are shrouded from the view of taller drivers and, depending on the position at which it is set, the steering wheel may partly obscure some of the minor gauges.
The Granada's major dials are large and well located but, as with the Rover, the arrangement is spoiled by the location of the two auxiliary instruments which are almost completely
obscured by the steering wheel rim. The single angled pane which covers them, however, at least ensures that the display is free from stray reflections.
The Volvo's display, also of the single-pane type, is more attractive than the Granada's and easy to see.
Contrary to what you might expect, the Viceroy (the slowest and the lightest car) also proved the least economical. At the end of the day, having completed several circuits of our fast and varied Surrey/Sussex test route, it returned a rather disappointing 18.1 mpg. Admittedly, there wasn't much opportunity to use its long-striding overdrive, but we were expecting something better. At least the Granada’s 18.3 mpg ties in more realistically with its superior performance. Better still, though not by much, is the Rover’s 18.9 mpg. It's the Volvo that again provides the surprise, however, with a commendable overall consumption of 19.4 mpg.
Under conditions of gentler driving 24 mpg or more should fall within the grasp of all these cars.
Although the Rover is the only car herewith a five-speed gearbox it isn't the only car with five speeds, as both the \/auxhall and the Volvo boast an overdrive. Geared at 26.3 mph/1000 rpm, the Rover's fifth gear is purely for cruising with good economy and refinement on the motorway; its intermediate ratios are also high but reasonably close. Unfortunately, the quality of its gearchange is unpleasantly heavy and notchy, and often obstructive when hurried: in this respect we feel that the Group Test car was untypical. The Rover's clutch was judged to be smooth and progressive. The two cars with overdrive are almost as long-legged as the Rover, the Vauxhall being geared at 25.0 mph/1000 rpm and the Volvo at 24.0 mph/1000 rpm, with similarly wellspaced intermediate ratios. There's not much to choose between their gearchange actions either, both being reasonably precise, light and quick but requiring rather long throws. The Vauxhall’s clutch engaged earlier than the Volvo's, but both were felt to be just as well cushioned and progressive as the Rover's.
Which is more than could be said for the Granada’s which suffered an overlong travel and sharp take-up. In contrast, the Ford's gearchange was, marginally, the slickest of the bunch, only a hint of notchiness taking the edge off its light and enjoyably snappy action. On the motorway, however, the Granada must concede defeat for although its engine is remarkably refined at speed, its 20.7 mph/1000 rpm gearing means that at 80 mph, its doing 822 rpm more than the Rover, and feels correspondingly more busy.
There was little to choose between the brakes of the Ford, Vauxhali and Volvo; all have effective, powerful, fade-free systems with unobtrusive servo assistance. As does the Rover — but its brakes were criticised by our testers for having a disconcerting amount of dead travel.
More than performance and handling, space and comfort are the major attractions in the executive class. Certainly, with such generous external dimensions, there would be real cause for concern, if any of these cars were anything less than comfortably roomy. Nothing much separates them on overall space for driver, passengers and luggage, though even small differences in proportioning can have a dispropor-tionate bearing on comfort.
Taking the conventional three-box saloons first, the Granada emerges as the best package, its wheelbase advantage being successfully translated into more rear legroom when the front seats are adjusted to suit people of average height. And although its rear seat is rather slab cushioned, it at least holds three-abreast without the centre passenger having to sit on a hump. Despite its appreciably shorter wheelbase and narrower build the Volvo is equally accommodating in practice, conceding only a little leg and shoulder room and compensating with generous headroom and the most comfortable rear seats of all. The Vauxhall's wheelbase is a little longer than the Volvo's but its rear legroom isn't quite so good; headroom and shoulder room are ample, however.
The hatchback Rover is also a comfortable four-ﬁve seater, though its limited headroom is bad news for boutfant hair-dos, and its rear seat legroom has been obtained at the expense of stretching room for tall front-seat occupants. With its wide-opening tailgate and folding rear seat, however, it's clearly the most versatile car — even if its 12.7 cu ft “boot” is, by a small margin, the least voluminous. The Ford's, Vauxhall's and Volvo's conventional boots take 13.2, 12.9 and 13.1 cu ft of luggage respectively.
Like roominess, a good ride is something big car buyers tend to take for granted: if big car makers choose to use live rear axles and go for sharp handling too, that's their lookout. In fact, the live-axled cars in this group - only the Ford isn't - do ride acceptably well, though not without certain shortcomings.
The Viceroy, for instance, has an impressively even and well controlled ride at speed and also copes well with small bumps around town. Ask it to accelerate hard in a low gear over a poor surface, however, and the liveaxle betrays its presence with a thump and a jolt. The Volvo's axle is better located and doesn't suffer from these effects. Overall, however, its ride is a little more lively at speed and verges on the jiggly around town, though even severe bumps fail to upset the car's already praised feeling of composure and stability.
The best rides belong to the Ford and the Rover, the Ford's for being consistently unruffled over a wide variety of surfaces — though its low profile Michelin TRX tyres do introduce some harshness at low speeds; the Rover's for its unexpected suppleness and for its excellent motorway ride though, like the Vauxhall's, its live axle sometimes hops about on bumps.
There are no significant criticisms tolevel at any of these cars here, though the forward setting of the Volvo's central door pillar can obstruct the view from the driver's seat when, say, emerging from a side turning, and the Rover's tailgate lacks a wash/wipe: though this is only a problem when moving at low speed after the car has been standing in the rain. The Rover's more rounded shape is the least easy to place in confined spaces, however.
No complaints here, either. A useful feature of the Volvo's system is its ability to combine heated air with the fresh air coming through the face level vents so that ventilation can be provided at any temperature including the possibility of arranging a warm feet/cold face compromise. It is also possible to get warm air to the footwell and cool air to the face in the Ford, but only when the heater slide is in the middle parts of its travel. The Flover and Vauxhall can also provide ample cool air independent of the heater; our only (minor) criticism of the vauxhall's system is that the air flow could be better diffused and less concentrated.
All these cars have heating systems that are notable for their power, flexibility and controllability. If anything, the Rover's system is the most impressive with its easily-understood controls and particularly pro-gressive temperature regulation. The Volvo's system is almost as good and can provide plenty of output within a couple of miles from cold. its controls, however, are rather fiddly and confusing. ln contrast, the Vauxhall's arrangement of vertical slides is plainly marked and easy to use; output is powerful and well diffused. ln the Ford, throughput of hot air is both adequate and easy to control; the system works in such a way that the temperature of heated air in the upper half of the car is always a few degrees lower than it is in the footwells, except when operating on the maximum heat setting.
Generally, these are all soothing cars to travel in. With its ultra-long gearing in top, the Rover is, mechanically, the most relaxed at speed. On the other hand, its engine is vocal under hard acceleration, though wind and road noise are seldom obtrusive. Nor are they in the Vauxhall whose engine noise is also reasonably muted through most of its rev range, only becoming a little throbby at high revs in the gears.
The four-cylinder Volvo is a little out of its depth in this department. Up to 70 mph, its levels of engine and wind noise are well subdued; speeds above this, however, promote
increasingly intrusive wind noise and a more dominant engine note even when overdrive is engaged. Road noise, however, is well suppressed at all times, despite its low profile tyres.
Although handicapped by its lack of a specific cruising gear, the Granada cruises no more noisily than the Rover up to 90 mph or so; above that, its engine starts to sound noticeably busier, though not strained. Hard acceleration brings a mildly harsh edge to the Ford's otherwise crisp and sporting V6 engine note, however. Wind and road noise were judged to be reasonably well contained.
As must be clear from the accompanying blob chart, none of these cars lacks for creature comforts with items like cloth trim, head restraints, a laminated windscreen, power steering, remote mirror adjustment and a clock common to all of them. It's worth noting, however, that the Rover is the only car with adjustable steering and power windows; that the Volvo alone has alloy road wheels and a driver's seat tilt adjustment; and the Vauxhall is the only car without a sliding sunroof. Winner on blobs: the Rover.
Great variety here. While all the cars seemed well screwed together and painted to similarly high standards, their interiors represented a considerable divergence in approach and execution.
The Volvo's interior, for instance, was meticulously neutral, verging on the bland, with materials, colours and shapes chosen to create a sort of negative style — a bit like Swedish furniture: neither particularly offensive, nor particularly pleasing, but nicely put together and detailed.
For stark contrast look no funher than the Vauxhall. In fact, stark isn't the word. One tester compared its interior to the inside of a Wimpy bar — all ochre plastic and plastic wood
though, in isolation, the crushed velour trimmed seats were thought attractive. The Granada's interior proves that extensive use of plastic mouldings needn't look cheap and tasteless, striking an
appealing compromise between practicality and ﬂair, without a rough edge to be seen anywhere.
The Rover's interior design and appointments didn't greatly inspire our testers, the take-away instrument pod, as always, looking strangely ill-at-ease perched atop the othen/vise not unattractive facia. The trim material and carpeting, however, appeared suitably
plush and inviting.
A close contest. If one thing emerges from this Group Test, it is that standards are high in the executive car class and that with profit margins cut back to the bone, all these cars offer better value for money — both perceived and actual — than their predecessors of three or four years ago. Whether this, and the tooth-and-nail rivalry it breeds, are enough to re-float the market to former levels in the long term now seems rather unlikely. But the competition is healthy, and we can reasonably expect the high standards to be maintained.
To pick a winner here isn't simple as no one car obviously outshines the others and the issue is clouded by Ford's inability to supply us with a manual carburetted Granada for the Group Test run — that specification is only available to special order. That accepted, it's the Ford in more powerful and dearer iGLS form which gets our vote: by a short nose. Apart from its somewhat peculiar driving position, it has no serious weaknesses, and just enough strong points to tip the balance in its favour: vigorous yet refined performance in injected form, crisp responsive handling, good accommodation and a reasonably supple, yet well-controlled ride are among its major attributes.
For someone who needs the versatility of a hatchback, on the other hand, there can be one choice: the Rover. And you wouldn't be sacrificing that much in terms of outright ability either. Our test car wasn't quite as sprightly as we would have hoped but there was still much to commend it: unequalled refinement and comfort at speed, for instance, better economy than the Granada, and outstanding sure footedness in the wet.
In turn, the Rover only just steals second place from the Volvo which shattered a lot of images and made more than a few friends during its stay with us. Far from being out-gunned by its six-cylinder rivals, its spirited acceleration and fine flexibility put all but the significantly more powerful Ford firmly in the shade. lt wasn't tops on ride comfort and engine refinement, but its handling turned out to be delightfully well balanced and predictable, and its build and finish are beyond criticism.
Which leaves the Viceroy as the also ran. It is a measure of the high class standards that, although last in this group, the Vauxhall is a perfectly pleasant car, with no bad points to
speak of. Well, perhaps, just one: 18.1 mpg is poor for a car of the Viceroy's really quite modest performance. Yes, we missed the impressive power of the Royale from whose engine the Viceroy’s
2.5-litre unit is derived. And we missed its sharper handling too. In essence, the Viceroy is a faster,plusher and quieter Carlton, which is a sound proposition and, at £8,752 with overdrive,
sound value too. But while there are faster and more economical cars in this class, the Vauxhall option isn't the one we’d choose.