LEAGUE OF NOTIONS

Four countries with four different approaches to the luxury sports theme. JOHN CAREY throws diplomacy to the wind to deliver the best bet for your money in the fast, executive class.

ALFA ROMEO 164 QUADRIFOGLIO -v- HONDA LEGEND COUPE -v- ROVER 827 VITESSE -v- SAAB 9000 CARLSSON

REPRINTED FROM WHEELS NOVEMBER 1991

ALFA ROMEO 164 QUADRIFOGLIO

Four cars. Four nations. Four discreetly spoilered rumps to subtly signal intent. All positioned at the top end of their respective manufacturers’ ranges. But the luxury that comes with the territory of price tags ranging between $66,400 and $84,000 is in each case tinged with some overtly sporting intent.

And that’s pretty well the point where the Alfa Romeo 164 Quadrifoglio, Honda Legend Coupe, Saab 9000 Carlsson and Rover 827 Vitesse part company, agreeing only on the employment of front-wheel drive. This group offers a rare breadth of style and choice, not just price.

Most striking of all is the difference between the lone Japanese car and the European trio. The Italians, Swedish and British all offer a variation on the sedan or five door hatch theme, whereas the Legend aims to satisfy with a fresh coupe body on the same platform as Honda’s biggest sedan. That means the coupe shares floorpan, suspension, powertrain, tracks and width with its four door sister, but little else. The coupe body is about 60 mm shorter, some 40 mm less tall, and not one exterior panel is shared.

There are detail differences too. The coupe has slightly firmer front dampers and a thicker front anti-roll bar, to control the double wishbone front suspension. Rear suspension is by double wishbones too, and all Legends use progressively valved gas pressure dampers. The coupe alone, however, has front seatbelt pre-tensioners. Two pyrotechnic gas generators cinch down the front belts in 21 milliseconds from the time a dedicated sensor detects an impact. The front seats themselves have more prominent bolstering than the sedan, to give greater lateral support.

Where the Legend Coupe differs from its predecessor, and the three other cars in this comparison for that matter, is in the north-south installation of its engine. Sitting the sohc 24 valve 3.2 litre V6 and four speed transmission lengthways in the engine bay allowed Honda’s engineers to move weight further rearwards than in the old generation Legend, putting more of the car’s weight on the rear wheels.

V6 boosted over standard 164 gives best power to weight of bunch, reflected in performance figures. Electronically controlled damping delivers dazzling ride and handling, but lack of auto a problem in this class. Italian flair makes this the enthusiast’s car

A large part of the superseded Honda lives on, however, beneath the skin of the Rover, which can trace the Japanese side of its ancestry back to the first Legend sedan of 1986. So the Vitesse’s transverse sohc 24 valve 2.7 litre V6 is as Japanese as raw fish, having undergone the same mid-life upsize from 2.5 litres as the original Legend and 825 powerplant. Its suspension design can be traced back to the same source. The dual mode electronically controlled four speed auto is also from Honda, but the sheet-metal is Rover’s own work.

The Vitesse’s sportiness is largely a matter of cosmetics, relying on fastback styling with aero look additions and low profile tyres on alloy wheels.

The Alfa has the aerodynamic plastic, and the alloy wheels, but there’s a lot beneath the skin. Firstly, more power has been coaxed from the transverse sohc 3.0 litre V6. Torque too. So much torque, in fact, that the Quadrifoglio comes only with a manual gearbox, making it the loner of this comparison. The others offer auto either as standard (Honda and Rover) or an option (Saab).

As well as a power boost, the Quadrifoglio has substantially revised suspension to quell the torque steer evident in ordinary 164s. The electronically controlled damper system is unique to the Quadrifoglio.

Saab also relied on suspension tuning to create the Carlsson, giving it lower, stiffer springs and dampers, stronger front anti-roll bar and larger wheels and tyres. But where the other three have V6 power, the Carlsson has a turbocharged, twin cam, 16 valve 2.3 litre four, fitted with vibration killing balance shafts. The engine is left in the same state of tune as other, lesser 2.3 turbo Saab 9000s. Even so, the power is bang on the pace in this race. Its torque is significantly greater, and produced at lower revs than any of the naturally aspirated V6s.

PRICES, EQUIPMENT

In price, as well as torque, the Saab leads the field. The automatic version tested here is $84,000, the manual version is $81,800. For that money, the buyer is left wanting for very little in the way of equipment.

As with the other three contenders, the Saab has standard anti-lock brakes. Three channel Bosch ABS, to be precise. But the Swedish car is alone in having heated front seats. The driver’s seat has position memory and both front seats have electrically powered adjustment. Leather upholstery is part of the price, along with a host of convenience features, like electric windows and mirrors, central locking, cruise control, electric sunroof, trip computer, removable radio/cassette and six disc CD changer in the luggage compartment.

At $82,240, the Legend runs a close second to the Carlsson. Its specification is similarly complete too. The coupe has ALB (Honda’s own anti-lock system), leather, driver’s seat memory, electric front seat adjustment, central locking, electric sunroof and remote CD magazine. Where the Honda departs from the norm is with its welcome driver’s side airbag. The only significant accessory is a colour coded bootlid spoiler at around $1100.

At $66,400 the Rover looks like mighty clever shopping, since it has most of the comforts of the Saab and Honda for nearly $16,000 less. In reality, the price difference is greater than $20,000, because Rover dealers are eager to shift the Vitesse, and deals $6000 and more below list are being offered. A figure beginning with 5 could well find you in a car with anti-lock brakes, leather, metallic paint, remote central locking, electric driver’s seat (but, alone in this group, the front passenger’s seat is manual), trip computer, air-con, sunroof and six speaker sound.

Midway between the bargain basement Rover and the premium priced Saab and Honda falls the Alfa, listing for $72,900. ABS, Alfa’s adjustable damping system, leather, electric front seat – without memory – and removable radio/cassette are all included in the price. The only option is an electric sunroof, at $1800.

HONDA LEGEND COUPE

With refined, sophisticated drivetrain, Legend is all-round performer, with Japanese levels of build and detail, marred only by wooden steering. Good driving position and instrumentation let down by foot operated park brake and least versatile luggage space

PERFORMANCE

The Rover sheepishly trailed the pack when the printouts from our Leitz Correvit were analysed. While the Vitesse isn’t exactly a slouch – as its 0-100 km/h and standing 400 metres times of 9.8 and 17.1 seconds respectively testify – it’s left in the wake of the sprinters. The ‘Vitesse’ badge is something of a hollow claim.

With a power to weight ratio of 11.6 kg/kW, the Rover burdens its engine more heavily than the others. It’s a similar and equally significant story in the torque to weight stakes. Again the Rover’s number is highest, with 6.7 kg/Nm. The engine might be willing but it simply isn’t able to push the Vitesse’s 1485 kg kerb weight into action with the same authority as the others. From a standing start it trails the Alfa by a full second to 60 km/h. While the Honda and Saab keep fairly close station with the Alfa, the Rover falls gradually further behind.

And through our standard rolling start increments – performed with the transmission set in Sport mode – the Vitesse’s numbers provide a similar picture. As speeds increase, so does the gap between the flying Saab and the flailing Rover, with the Honda hard on the Saab’s tail.

While the Rover does manage to beat the Alfa in the two lowest increments – 40-70 km/h and 60-90 km/h – the comparison is unfair. The Vitesse’s auto kicks down into first when the throttle is floored at 40 km/h and is still in second at the 90 km/h mark.

At the top end of third gear, its V6’s voice swelling in a spine-tingling crescendo, the Alfa is quicker from 100-130 km/h not only than the Rover, but also the Honda and Saab.

The Alfa is blessed with the best power to weight figure of the group, 9.7 kg/kW, while its torque to weight is second best, at 5.4 kg/Nm. Just compare those numbers with the Rover to judge the magnitude of the British car’s performance handicap.

Since the Alfa’s 1420 kg body is the least bulky and its engine musters similar power to the Honda and Saab, its superiority in the standing start tests is hardly surprising. After wheelspinning briefly at launch, the Italian car flew to the 400 metre marker in 15.7 secs, posting the best times all the way to 100 km/h in the process. But while the Alfa’s 7.9 second dash to 100 km/h is guickest, its 10.8 secs 0-120 km/h time is egualled by the sprinting Saab, which by then is into its stride.

The Swedish car weighs in at 40 kg more than the Italian, but even that significant difference can’t erase its torgue to weight advantage. The Saab has a monstrous 300 Nm at its disposal and is the only car with torque to weight below 5.0 kg/Nm, even if only by one 10th of a kilo. Its power to weight, 9.9 kg/kW, is bettered only by the lighter Alfa.

Because the turbo Saab’s huge torque peak occurs at an accessible 2000 rpm, more than 2000 rpm below all three naturally aspirated V6s, it should dominate the rolling start tests. And it does, but not so clearly as expected. Only in the 80-110 km/h test does the Saab decisively beat the Honda, where its 3.7 secs is two tenths quicker Through all the other increments, the Japanese coupe is within hundredths of a second of the Swede. But while the Honda is bang on the pace from a rolling start, its 1560 kg bulk tells in the standing starts. The effect of the weight is revealed by the coupe’s ratios: power to weight at 10.8 kg/kW, torque to weight 5.7 kg/Nm. Both figures are better only than the Rover So the Honda’s initial jump from the line isn’t as urgent as either the Alfa or Saab. It is four tenths behind the Saab to 60 km/h, but doesn’t concede any further ground. Indeed, it even regains a tenth here and there. At the 400 metre mark the difference is only three tenths, with the Saab breaking into the 15s and the Honda in the very low 16s.

The big Honda’s speed at the 400, however, is the same as the Saab’s: 143 km/h. That is 2 km/h slower than the Alfa, but a comfortable 11 km/h ahead of the outclassed Rover. There is little to choose between the other three.

The Alfa has an edge from the red light standing start, at the price of demanding manipulation of its gearbox. The Saab and Honda both deliver effortlessly automatic overtaking.

ROVER 827 VITESSE

Pom aplomb revealed in walnut dash, but Anglo-Japanese 827 is a generation behind Legend Coupe – sharing 2.7 litre V6 and auto of its ancestors. Vitesse performance is far from breezy in this company. Disappointing despite bargain price

FUEL CONSUMPTION

Turbocharged engines needn’t be thirsty – especially if they’re set up for massive mid-range torque, like the Saab, rather than a wild top end at the expense of a woolly lower register. The Swedish car consumed unleaded at the average rate of 13.2 litres/100 km during the test. Its best was 12.4 L/100 km, its worst 14.7 L/100 km. Although the Saab’s average consumption was higher than the Alfa, it was precisely equalled by the Rover. Its 2.7 litre V6 had to work harder than the other engines. Wide throttle openings and frequent recourse to lower gear ratios were needed to keep the Vitesse in touch with the three more powerful cars. It was little surprise, then, when the Rover returned 16.1 L/100 km – the worst single consumption figure of the comparison.

The Alfa, on the other hand, gave the most frugal overall consumption, with 12.1 L/100 km – its five speed manual gearbox certainly aiding its cause. But just to demonstrate how efficient a computer managed automatic transmission and engine can be, the Alfa’s best consumption of 10.5 L/100 km was bettered – just – by the Honda.

Considering the Japanese coupe’s portly kerb weight, its achievement of 10.4 L/100 km is very creditable. Unfortunately, a botched fuel fill prevented a direct comparison of the Honda’s fuel consumption average. A comparison of the remaining unspoiled figures showed the Legend’s thirst was slightly less than the 9000, slightly greater than the 164 and line-ball with the Vitesse.

ON THE ROAD

The Alfa’s adjustable damping system endows it with a beguiling blend of ride suppleness and handling crispness. When it’s left switched to automatic mode, that is. With Sport selected, the only detectable difference is the disappearance of the car’s smooth demeanour on straight roads with imperfect surfaces.

Throughout the test, roads that felt smooth in Automatic were revealed as pimpled and dimpled by the switch to Sport. But it proved impossible to detect any difference in the 164’s cornering behaviour between Automatic and Sport modes. Which is as it should be, since the electronically governed dampers’ reaction time to cornering forces is measured in milliseconds.

The provision of the dashboard switch looks very much like a victory for the marketing department (wanting to make a feature of the system) over the engineers (who had clearly optimised their set-up to function without driver interference).

Whichever mode is chosen, the Alfa encourages drivers to drive, to get involved in the task at hand and to enjoy it. Pleasant mechanical sounds from the engine bay are an incitement to use the engine to the full. Rear passengers can hear the crisp exhaust note swell and shrink, although it isn’t actually intrusive – more a distant, pleasant accompaniment. In fact, the Alfa gave the highest sound meter readings in every test mode. None of the noises, except perhaps the whining of the fuel pump when the Alfa is at idle and some tyre rumble over coarse road surfaces, will offend an enthusiast driver.

The 164 Quadrifoglio’s powered steering has the best weighting and more feel around the straight ahead. It’s also better when lock is wound on. Turn-in response is swift and certain, despite the Alfa having the narrowest, highest profile tyres of all. It is a progressive understeerer, but remains essentially neutral at all but higher speeds. In extremely hard cornering, the only serious flaw of the Alfa’s otherwise laudable chassis dynamics reveals itself. Pressure on the inside front wheel is lifted enough when powering hard past the apex of tightish turns to allow the tyre to spin away the enthusiastic engine’s torque. The effect is perhaps due to the excessive stiffness of the front roll bar.

SAAB 9000 CARLSSON

Turbocharged, twin cam 2.3 litre produces huge torque at low revs and very sporty performance. Most expensive of the lot but comprehensive equipment extends to three channel ABS and heated front seats. Beside the Legend Coupe, 9000 shows its age

The Alfa’s handling has a genuinely sporting flavour and its manual gearbox is more of the same. Although the Quadrifoglio’s manual-only specification will do it harm in a market segment that expects auto shifting, its gearbox is probably the most sympatico we’ve ever encountered in a big and powerful front driver. Like the steering, the gear-lever communicates. It has a precisely defined gate, but isn’t notchy, and slides between ratios as slickly as a gigolo slips between the sheets. The weighting of the clutch is just right too, making the gearchanging process a pleasure, not a chore.

Which is just as well, since the three automatic boxes are slick. All give creamy smooth shifts. The Honda’s transmission, however, is King Island to the Dairy Co-op Rover and Saab. Its shifts, in terms of both fluidity and aptness, are a cut above those of the other autos. Its engine, too, is very civilised, with the 3.2 litre V6 giving the four-speeder barely audible, turbine smooth thrust to work with. The Legend sounded quietest to both front and rear seat occupants, and the sound meter backed that up. The distant sound of rack rattle over washboard surfaces was all that disturbed the serenity inside the Legend.

Drivetrain performance is the Honda’s strongest suit on the road, because in other respects it fails to achieve similar heights. The steering is wooden; too light and rather taciturn when it comes to telling the driver what the front tyres are doing. It takes some practice before threading the Legend along winding bitumen can be done smoothly. And while the Legend can match the Alfa’s cornering speeds when pressed, it is uncomfortable doing it. Into corners, the Honda’s understeer is more pronounced, and its turn-in less sharp than the Alfa. The Legend’s chassis is amenable to midcorner attitude adjustments with the throttle, but out of corners that have been attacked hard, the coupe’s tail lurches as steering lock is wound off. A quick correctional twist of the wheel is needed to stabilise it once more. Such behaviour isn’t quite in keeping with the car’s station.

Like the Honda, the Saab feels dull edged in comparison with the Alfa. Its steering delivers little feedback, although it does kickback occasionally when the front wheels strike mid-corner potholes. The Carlsson understeers predictably, kneeling down hard on its outside front wheel – so hard that sometimes its suspension contacts the bump stop. Its suspension isn’t so overtly sporting as the Alfa, or the Honda for that matter, despite its lowered and stiffened stance. It feels less well tamed than these two as well, a design generation older in fact. The Saab pitches and rolls more when pressed, and its dampers don’t feel as though they’re in complete control. This is especially so over badly broken surfaces, where the driver is always aware the suspension is working hard. This bump/thump from the suspension makes the car’s ride sound worse than it actually is. For all that, the Carlsson is benign enough, with predictable, if relatively languid, responses to wheel and throttle inputs from the driver.

The Rover is, if anything, a little less willing to turn in than the Saab. And once turned in its understeering attitude is least adjustable of all with throttle, unsurprising since its engine lacks the power and torque of the others.

In some respects, the Rover shows just what one generation of Honda design is worth, since its major mechanicals are derived from the previous Legend. That car was criticised for its lifeless steering, and the same is true of the Vitesse. While acceptably slick, its transmission doesn’t function with the same refined panache of the coupe. Its body is the only one clearly lacking torsional rigidity, with the front window frames lifting clear of their rubbers under heavy cornering loads. Wind noise is more noticeable than in the other three too.

Rover’s tuning of the Honda suspension is interesting. Large bumps cause body motions of greater amplitude than in any of the others, even the Saab. While the initial suppleness of the damping gives good ride over patchy surfaces, big ripples and potholes leave driver and passengers with the impression that suspension control lacks something in precision and, consequently, ride comfort.

The Vitesse’s brakes were the only ones on test to exhibit significant fade when used hard. Smoky too.

ACCOMMODATION

For a coupe, the Legend’s rear room is surprisingly generous. It has least knee room, but headroom is tight only for the truly tall. The back seat’s comfort, however, runs a close second to the Alfa. While rear passengers miss the door armrests provided in the others, they will appreciate the powered quarter panes and the overhead grips.

The Honda’s front seats are equal best, with the deeply bolstered backrest providing good lateral location. But despite the car’s low cowl, it feels a little cramped for front seat occupants. The central tunnel is very wide, especially considering the car is front-wheel drive, and impinges considerably on the size of the footwells. Front headroom is in short supply for the tall, and the Honda is better only than the Rover in this respect.

For all that, the driving position is excellent. Easy to achieve too, with simple logic switches for the electrically adjustable seat and a usable range of positions available for the steering column. Instruments and controls are models of simple clarity, from the white on black dials and gauges to the ventilation, airconditioning and radio controls. The foot operated parking brake is the only serious ergonomic glitch. It’s hard to operate, particularly for the long-legged, with the steering wheel and lower edge of the dash interfering.

Like the cabin, the Legend’s boot is impeccably finished and detailed. The luggage compartment is both flat and wide, although it narrows towards the front where suspension towers intrude. Lack of even a ski port makes it the least versatile of the four in terms of luggage capacity.

Here the two hatchbacks – Carlsson and Vitesse – have a clear advantage, with the Saab best by virtue of its folding rear seat cushion and 60/40 split backrest. The Rover’s cushion doesn’t tip up, so its one-piece backrest doesn’t quite lie flat.

Unlike the Honda, the Alfa provides a large ski port concealed behind the rear central armrest. This usefully high and wide armrest helps make the 164 Quadrifoglio the most desirable in the bunch for rear seat passengers. There’s good room available in all directions, apart from toe room beneath the front seats when they’re set as low as possible, plus useful door and overhead grips. But the rear seat cushion is too flat. The slipperiness of the leather, a feature of all four, means passengers slide forward under brakes. On test, hard stops in the Alfa were always followed by the sound of passengers pushing themselves back into position.

Although the front seats look the part, the backrests are a little short of lateral location. There are no complaints about the driving position, though, and pedal placement, in contrast with other, lesser Alfas, is perfect. Headroom is sufficient even for the tallest.

The ambience of the cabin is classy, although with some extrovert Italianate touches like the red stitching on the black leather of the dash and wheel. Worthy of complaint are the hard to find column tilt adjuster, the baffling warning light display on start up, and the confusingly lookalike centre console buttons for ventilation control and some other minor functions.

Saab’s interior designers are alone in demonstrating some awareness of the slipperiness of leather. Both front and rear seats have two suede inserts stitched into the cushion and backrest. But all the seats are scaled for widebodied people. For the more normally sized, they fail to provide sufficient location.

The Saab has headroom in abundance, with best rear headroom of the bunch and the front a match for the Alfa. Rear knee room is generous, and the doorgrips are also well positioned.

The high-cowl, bluff dash of the Saab endows it with an old-fashioned feel. The bitty nature of the minor switchgear helps reinforce the impression but, surprisingly, the fit of its interior plastics fail to match the quality of the Alfa, let alone the practically perfect Honda. Annoyances? Tall drivers found the rim of the reach adjust-only wheel obscured the sweep of the tachometer, and the climate control air-con system would not allow the flow of fresh air into the cabin.

The range of adjustment available with the Rover’s tilt adjustable wheel simply isn’t enough. Even with the driver’s seat set as low as it can go – a difficult operation with the car’s logic defying switches – and the wheel set as high as possible, the wheel still sits unnaturally low in the lap of tall drivers. Tall testers also found front headroom least commodious. It would have been better without the electric sunroof, since the point of skull contact is its trim surround.

Even so, the front seats match the Saab for comfort and give better location of both back and bottom. But they fall some way short of the Alfa and Honda. The Rover’s rear seat was judged more comfortable than the Saab, although knee room there is in shorter supply. The rear door-grips are too far aft to be truly useful. The Rover’s rear side windows don’t drop as far as in any of the others, standing some 15 cm proud of the sills when fully dropped.

Walnut on the dash might be an indispensable part of the Rover image, but the durability of the wood in Australian conditions leaves something to be desired. The test car had covered 10,000 km and already the clear finish of the timber inserts had in places turned opaque. Not impressive.

Unimpressive, too, is the minor switchgear. The multitude of little buttons around the instrument binnacle are difficult to use and feel least sturdy of all. And, finally, the Rover provides the worst cabin stowage space. The bulky door armrests severely limit the usefulness of the map pockets below them, and the centre console bin is incapable of holding anything more than a few cassettes.

CONCLUSIONS

There’s a clear loser in the comparison – the 827 Vitesse. The Rover born of Honda is, quite literally, off the pace in this company. Its stolid dynamic qualities cannot compensate for the drivetrain’s lack of punch. Even the discounted price being asked for it couldn’t sway our judgment.

The Saab Carlsson, at a list price some $18,000 higher than the Vitesse, is a superior package. Its engine certainly delivers genuinely sporting performance but, in the end, the Saab feels like a car nearing the end of its life. Its design lacks the Alfa’s flair and the Honda’s quality. Despite this, the Carlsson wears the steepest price tag of all.

The Alfa, at a basic $72,900, undercuts the Saab by more than $10K, and it delivers most to the driver, without compromising passengers’ comfort. The Quadrifoglio’s dynamic superiority isn’t surprising. Neither is its enthusiastic and spine tingling performance. The evident quality of its finish and its freedom from ergonomic miscalculations is.

If it’s sheer quality of construction you desire, look no further than the Honda Legend. Not only is it impeccably constructed, it delivers on the road as well. With a drivetrain worthy of a chariot of the gods and extremely competent handling, the Honda is often impressive, seldom disappointing.

But, while the Legend is pure pleasure, the 164 Quadrifoglio is sheer joy. Partly because of its reasonable price, and despite its mandatory manual gearbox – and lingering reservations about Italian build quality – Alfa’s sporting sedan wins this comparison. •