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350th post: Presenting 4 COUPES GROUP TEST! by...

350th post: 4 COUPES GROUP TEST! by...
WHATCAR? UK, as featured in February 1997 Issue.

BMW 328i E46 Coupe vs Fiat Coupe 20v Turbo vs Honda Prelude 2.2 VTI-S (BB8)  vs Nissan Silvia S14


HONDAFUL!


Honda's new Prelude has more power and ability - but so has the quickest Fiat ever built. Is it all over for BMW and Nissan?


Everyone who says that all cars are the same these days hasn't been watching what's been happening to coupes recently.

The new Honda Prelude (here on Valentine's Day, 1997) and Fiat Coupe (on sale since November 1996) are proof enough. Throw in the strong-selling BMW 328i and Nissan 200 SX and the argument gets stronger. Two cars with turbos; two without. Two front-driven; two rear-drive.

The latest Prelude is longer and taller to increase cabin room, and less eccentric in its dash design. Some say it's duller for it. But with the demo pack of side skirts, rear spoiler and larger wheels/tyres fitted to our test car (£2995), we wouldn't agree. And there's always its magnificent 2.2-litre VTEC engine to keep you entertained. There's another novelty in its semi­automatic Sequential Sports Shift gearbox, too.

The biggest change on the Fiat is the adoption of 20-valve five-cylinder engines in place of 16-valve fours. As before, there are standard and turbo versions: the latter, as tested here.fs Fiat's fastest production car yet.

The Nissan, the beneficiary of minor styling and interior tweaks, also goes down the turbo route, while the BMW 328i relies on a large-capacity, multi­cylinder engine. It is expensive, though, and if you lease (and most do with cars like these) the Fiat will cost less per month.

From this melee of styles and layouts we have to produce a winner which best exemplifies what coupe motoring is all about. Picking the best from this store of talent is no easy task.


CONTENDERS AT A GLANCE






Honda Prelude 2.2 VTi.

More space, fewer eccentricities in new Prelude.


BMW 328i E36 coupe

"BMW 328i is silky. easy-going. but snarls as revs increase·"


PERFORMANCE

BMW ••••

Fiat •••••

Honda •••

Nissan ••••

The Honda has the least power (185hp) and most weight (1346kg); lacks the turbocharger-fed boost of the Fiat and Nissan or the cubic-capacity and milti-cylinders of the BMW; and also has the sapping effects of the £1200 Sequential Sports shift transmission. So it's hardly surprising to find it the slowest of the group. Still, there are some who'll trade ultimate performance for a smooth, fully automatic gearbox . to help them through city snarl-ups with the option of dictating the changes manually elsewhere. You slip the lever into Drive, slide it to the right into a secondary groove and nudge it forwards to go up the 'box or backwards to come down.


It gives you total command, too. Forget to change gp and it will hold the gear until the rev limiter cuts in at 8000rprn, accompanied by that rising wall of music which distinguishes Honda's 2.2-litre VTEC engine, There's no better four -cvlinder engine in the world. Change down too soon, when the revs aren't right and its as jerky as a clumsily driven manual. It only takes over the downshifts if you forget, and then merely to prevent stalling. There are frustrations in having only four gears rather than the five offered by the manual gearbox, though.


The ratios are too widely spaced (1st is good for 41mph, 2nd for 73 and 3rd for 110) and with an engine as high revving as the VTEC, whose modest 153lb ft of torque peaks at 5300rpm, this is something you notice. Let the revs dip below 3500rpm and it feels flat. It then becomes brisk rather than fast until 5000rpm, the point at which the VTEC magic comes into play to alter the valve gear operation and put the engine's full might at your disposal.


All this talk of gear spacing and rev bands will be totally alien to the Fiat driver. The change from this car's former 16valve four-cylinder engine to a 20-valve five, still of 2.0 litres, has largely eradicated such matters frorn the Coupe turbo's agenda. There's still a smidgen of throttle lag, the delay between squeezing the accelerator and getting a response, if you let the revs fall too low, but it's been massively shortened. You'll notice it in vastly improved driveability. With the old car, everything happened too drastically for peace of mind. In the New one, despite hefty increases in output to 220bhp and 228lb ft, it's much easier to regulate your progress. Torque peaks at a lowly 2500rpm and turbo boost is on tap from 2000.


A shortish straight on a narrow road offers overtaking opportunities drivers of the other cars might have to think twice about; from 30-60mph in third it's 1.2 secs quicker than the next best BMW, while in forth the gap widens to 1.9 secs. It's advantage for lane changes on the motorway is no less impressive. It's smoother too, thanks to a balancer shaft, though the Fiat's engine doesn't match the silkiness of the Honda's or BMW's. But the increase from four to five cylinders removes the lovely rortiness of the old car's exhaust note: there's now a deep rumble reminiscent of the original Audi Quattro.




Above: Excellent dash same as in 3-series saloon. radio dealer-fit option so costs extra. Seats hard but comfortable. height-adjustable



Above: BMW has biggest boot (14.2cuft) and best rear cabin space. Leather seats cost £1245 extra


FIAT COUPE 20v turbo
"The Fiat Coupe has boldest styling and its detailing is delightful!"

Above: Wonderful cabin feels so good to sit in, if short of stowage space; seat height fixed, but wheel adjusts for rake and reach to compensate
Above: Coupe's boot a reasonable 10.2 cu It and is useful shape; poor legroom in rear, though headroom is acceptable

NISSAN 200SX (SILVIA S14)

"The Nissan 200 SX's rear-wheel drive is an enthusiast's delight"



Expect similar performance from the Nissan, which is also turbo boosted, and you'll be disappointed. Its outputs (197bhp and 1951b ft) are achieved at higher revs than in all but the Honda; the gap between second and third gear ratios is wider than in the Fiat; the engine needs more stoking before its turbo boost becomes apparent; and despite some form of variable valve control, its torque isn't as accessible.


You're forced to use the gears more often to keep the revs above 2750, where everything seems to come together. That's no problem:

Nissan's shift is fastest of the four (no Fiat or Honda tranverse engine/gearbox installation to corrupt the linkage here).


There's nothing demanding about driving the 200 SX, but there isn't the same well of boost to call upon as there is in the Fiat. Result: it's left flailing in the Italian's slipstream everywhere. Rev it hard and it's. more gruff and throaty; too.

What's impressive is the way the BMW also outpaces the 200 SX in everyday motoring proving there's no substitute for cubic centimetres and cylinders when you're seeking greatest flexibility. The 2.8-litre six­-cylinder engine is as silky as the Honda unit, as easy-going as they come in the way it deploys its 193bhp and 206lb ft, and has a lovely snarl as its revs increase.


It spins so freely that in the lower three gears you're at the rev limiter before you know it, but there's no need to drive it that hard. Light weight, low internal friction and yet another form of variable valve control (to improve torque at slower engine speeds) give the 328i the cleanest low­speed pick-up of the quartet.

Honda Prelude 2.2 VTEC £23,495


'There's no better four cylinder engine than the Prelude's VTEC'

Above: Prelude boot is shallow 10.0cu ft but lid opens wide; rear has enough space for adults on a short journey.



Above: Dash dreary. but self-concealing radio is neat standard sunroof makes headroom tight for the tall; wheel adjusts for rake.



HANDLING AND RIDE

BMW ••••

Fiat •••

Honda ••••

Nissan •••


WHAT a disparate bunch. A mixture of front- and rear-wheel drive assisted (or otherwise) by various forms of traction control. The BMW came to us in £3130 more expensive Sport guise with revised suspension and bigger wheels and tyres, while even the Honda had striking 17in alloys with 215/40 tyres instead of the standard 205/50 16 set-up.


These days most coupes are driven by the front wheels, so it's an enthusiast's delight to find the BMW and Nissan adhering to old-school principles. Least corrupted of the lot is the Japanese car, which sends its power and torque to the rear end with only a limited slip differential to aid the cause.


And yes, you can find yourself in Hollywood car-chase-style slides. A tightish bend, low gear and early stab of power and you're travelling sideways, especially if the surface is damp. It all happens in such slow motion, though, that total control is hard to lose and easy to regain.

The steering is direct, firmly weighted and reasonably informative. It must be said too, that such behaviour only resul from provocation or excessive clumsiness. There's nothing scary about the 200 SX if it's driven with common sense.

There was a time when BMW ­could be even more wayward, but try similar antics in the 328i and the Automatic Stability and Traction device intervenes, either ­by braking a spinning wheel or getting the management system to pull the plug on the engine for a second.


Switch it off and you still need to be brutal to get the car out of shape when riding on the Sport version's expansive tyres (225/45R17 front, 245/40R17 rear) such is the way it settles on its haunches and cling to the road. It makes the 328i reassuring through fast sweepers and S-bends, though the tyres are prone to being diverted by surface changes. The handling's weak link is the limp steering at the start of a turn.


The Fiat wheel feels light too, and with only 2.2 turns between full left and full right rudder it evokes super-sharp responses, so a period of familiarisation is best advised. There's no nervousness about the 20v turbo's behaviour, just a tendency to follow the contours of bumpy B-roads a little too closely.

The engine management system will, where necessary limit turbo boost in first and second gears to tame wheelspin, while a traction control mechanism prevents you flying off the outside of an injudiciously approached corner. All that's needed is a bit more feel and, at times, composure.

All VTEC-engined Preludes will come to the UK with four-­wheel steering, though our early production car didn't have it. No matter - even without the rear wheels lending a hand or any form of traction device, there's masses of grip. The Honda is softer than its three rivals, but capable of covering all manner of ground with immense stability and serenity - it's more grand tourer than sports car. It has beautiful steering which increases in weight and self­centring effect as cornering forces increase, but even at low speed it's firm and positive.



Despite its shallow tyres, it serves up the most supple, sooth­ing ride, too, though with a fair smattering of road noise. The BMW, underpinned by stiffer sports suspension, is too firm to swallow sharp ridges, though it's never harsh, and neither the Fiat nor the Nissan tread lightly enough over low-speed town obstacles. Considering they all are put performance uppermost, there's not much to complain about, though.



Above: Boot is smallest here at 8.5cu ft and seats too cramped for adults; all-black cabin trim feels gloomy

Above: Armrests and centre storage bin make driving seat feel confined; wheel adjusts for rake. but seat has no height-adjustment


All four have disc brakes all round, ventilated at the front, with anti-lock back-up. Our only complaint concerns the sogginess and lack of initial response in the Fiat.



DRIVER APPEAL

BMW •••

Fiat ••••

Honda •••

Nissan ••


This is what gets you into the showroom in the first place and keeps you happy long after you've driven away. It's almost inevitable that the Fiat should win here, but it earns this accolade not just for the boldness of its styling or the delightful details which finish it off.



The Fiat is the shortest and narrowest of the four, yet it doesn't feel it. You get two-way steering adjustment (tilt only in the others), so even though its big, snug seat is set at a fixed height, you've every chance of finding an ideal, roomy driving position, and you're unencumbered by the console boxes which restrict elbow room in the two Japanese cars. That does, however, leave you short of oddments space. It has lovely switches and dials, too, all topped off with that swathe of body-colour plastic running across the dash. If only it had the no-quibble quality feel of the Honda.


Unforthnately, the Prelude's excellence in workmanship and materials is not echoed by it's interior design. You can dress up the exterior like our car's but not the cabin, which looks like that of an upmarket Accord saloon.


The Honda is short of front headroom (it's the only one with a standard sunroof), and the steering wheel ought to telescope to allow both the short and the tall to find a less compromised driving position. It does, however, have the most rearward seat travel. The unimaginativeness of your surroundings is lifted by a tray between the front seats which converts into a couple of cup­holders, and an optional hi-fi which disappears behind a flap when switched off to look as though the unit's front panel has been removed.

Sitting in the BMW; you don't much feel like you're in a coupe, any more than you do in the Honda. The impressive driving position, facia layout, switchgear and interior features are just as they would be if you'd bought a 3-series saloon. The seat is solid and Germanic but surprisingly comfortable over distances and there's somewhere for everything, but nothing distinctive about the place. The same criticism is often used about the exterior design, though that hasn't stopped the BMW regularly featuring as the UK's top-selling coupe.



The Nissan has recently been revised to try to capture some of the aggressiveness that's missing from the BMW. It gets a redesigned front end, which looks rather fussy and

layered, and a minor interior upgrade. It's hardly a welcoming place, though. The cabin is black and gloomy, and it feels cramped unless you enjoy being hemmed in by centre console, armrests and steering wheel.



All four of these cars have what might be termed essentials in a £20,000-plus coupe except the BMW, which is delivered without a hi-fi system. Honda runs to standard air-conditioning. All have driver airbags and engine immobilisers, but only the Fiat and Honda have passenger airbags, too.



SPACE & PRACTICALITY

BMW ••••

Fiat •••

Honda •••

Nissan ••


If you wanted room for 4 adults in something a little out of ordinary you'd buy a sports saloon. Still it's good to be able to fit a couple of children in occasionally, while a boot big enough for a couple of sets of golf clubs (or similar) is necessity. That was the rationale behind Honda's decision to make this Prelude longer and taller than the last, at the risk of losing it's purity of shape.



It's not the most spacious though. The honour goes to the BMW, often critised for rear-seat space as a saloon but comfortably off when measured alongside rival's 2-door cars. It had a lot more rear legroom than the Fiat and Honda, both which are just acceptable (the Japanese car imposes a knee-up sitting position), while the Nissan's rear accomodation is Hopeless for adults.



All except the BMW have tilt/slide front passenger seats to ea e access to the rear, though those in the Nissan and Honda won't return to their previous position afterwards. Headroom in the back of all four is a problem, too, though you can live with its shortfall for a while in all but the Nissan.


The biggest boot is the BMW's; the Fiat's has the best shape; the Nissan's is poor despite the switch to the space­saver wheel and tyre used in all four to increase luggage capacity. Each has fold-down rear seats, split in all but the Honda, with through-load hatches for long loads. All are reasonably practical when the need arises.


Fiat's attraction lies in its detailing: badging, racing­style fuel filler, even key and fob make you want to own one


Nudge to right, then forwards for up the 'box, backwards for down - Prelude's semi-auto gears. Has cruise control and 'self­hiding' radio



VERDICT:

Once you've decided to go for a coupe, your concerns are different from those of saloon or hatchback buyers. Costs and practicality matter less for once than image and enjoyment.

There's raw, crude entertainment to be had from flinging the Nissan around; sophisticated pleasures to be found in the flexible BMW; GT comforts in the beautifully crafted Honda; and giggle-inducing excitement from the Fiat.

For all the wonderful qualities of the BMW engine, the car doesn't feel enough like a coupe. You might as well buy a 3-series saloon. You'd gain a bit of versatility and lose nothing.

So it's the Honda and Fiat that tempt us more. The Prelude lacks interior charm. You'll enjoy comfort, refinement, faultless quality and an engine that sounds so good it should be recorded on CD. We can understand if you choose it.

But we'd take the Fiat. There are few cars with the capacity to thrill like this one - and for such a reasonable price. If Fiat had asked £25,000 we might have raised our eyebrows - but only a little. Instead, you're getting 150mph performance for a lot less. Climb in, buckle up and hang on for an experience you won't believe .

SPECIFICATIONS: Double click to enlarge...




END OF A WONDERFULLY WRITTEN 4 CARS SHOOT OUT. One of my favourite Article.



Source: Whatcar? UK,. February 1997 issue (page 50 to 59). A WHOOPING 9 pages total. Painstakingly scanned and typed by Jeff Lim (yours truly).

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