Speaking as a high-roller, as one of life’s winners, the youngest of my TWO cars is a mere seventeen years old. The problem with living on the cutting edge like this is that you can get a bit blasé about the plight of the average motorist.
In order to bring myself down to Earth a bit I decided to arrange for a side-by side road test to answer the question on the lips of your average Billy Blacktop, namely “Which is best, the 1987 Ford Fiesta 1.1 Popular Plus or the 1990 Vauxhall Nova Merit?“.
I’ve put myself through this, dear reader, so that you don’t have to.
Design and Styling
The Opel Corsa was all new for ’82 with its pathetically re-branded Vauxhall Nova sister appearing in ’83. Launched initially in the three-door form you see before you, it was a clean-cut shape with very little in common with anything else The General had built up to that point. Lard White isn’t the best colour to showcase its design, but there are actually some nice features like the fender flares front and rear and the black trim over the “B” pillar which, if you squint really hard gives the impression of a pillarless roofline. I mean really, really hard.
This ’90 model was built just ever-so-briefly before a facelift bought improvements inside and out which gave the little car a fighting chance of remaining competitive. There is only a modicum of variation between the looks of this car and one first registered seven years earlier. Of course, in no-expense-spent “Merit” trim there are very few fripperies included; those centre hubcaps were been one of the the improvements gradually phased in over the years. Earlier models went without.
Americans will recognise the Fiesta as a nipped and tucked version of the car that saw sale Stateside in the late ’70s. First hitting the market in ’76 in MKI form, this ’87 MKII car comes from the final production burst of this shape of Fiesta, an all new car appearing for the ’90 model year.
Compared to the Nova that additional design age is clear to see. There are fewer of the straight lines which were in vogue in the ’80s and somehow the design looks a lot less integrated. It doesn’t take a huge mental leap to imagine the Fiesta being benchmarked by General Motors when the Corsa was being designed. Still, the details of the Fiesta, including those wrap-around front indicators, were skilfully updated over time and it doesn’t disgrace itself in the company of the later car.
Drivetrain and Configuration
On paper both these magnificent conveyances hold similar cards. Both are front engined and front-wheel-drive, both with transverse mounted engines of roughly similar capacity. Open the bonnets (the Fiesta surprises you by opening from the front) and you’ll find engines which weren’t exactly huge technical departures for either marque, both being pushrod operated inline fours.
There’s not a huge amount to split them in terms of raw, brutal power, either; the Fiesta can muster 54hp from its 1117cc, the Vauxhall 55hp from 1196cc. The Fiesta driver has a choice of four gear ratios to slot home, Mr Nova enjoys the benefit of one extra cog to choose from.
Yes, they both have it fitted as standard equipment. It’s independent at the front, with MacPherson struts as you’d expect. There are differences around the back; Fiesta has a five-point link system with coil springs, beam axle and Panhard rod, while the Nova has things jiggled around a bit to form a “compound crank” with GM’s compact “miniblock” progressive-rate springs.
Neither car were on the absolute apogee of design and technology at launch, though the Nova was closer to it than the Fiesta.
Accommodation and Travelling
The Nova is fractionally bigger than the Fiesta but the cumulative total of an inch here and an inch there conspire to make the it feel a much more accommodating car. Both are three-door hatchbacks (the Nova also being available with five doors or as a two or four door saloon) and both require that the front seatback be tilted forward to allow you to contort yourself into position in the rear seat.
Once installed you’ll find that you don’t quit fit in either car, but the Nova is the one which will delay your deep-vein thrombosis for longer. You’ll have more headroom, too, and more light reaching you from the bigger side windows. These are sealed shut, by the way, on both cars. In this market sector the courtesy of fresh air was simply not extended to rear seat passengers. Nor are cupholder, illumination, anything really. Sit back there and shut up, OK?
In motion it’s the passengers of the Nova who will be most grateful for your giving them a lift home. Occupants are unexpectedly well shielded from mechanical noise and vibration, the engine keeps itself to itself and never says anything very interesting anyway. It sounds fairly modern, with no particular sonic characteristics to endear it or embarrass it.
Fiesta passengers will say, “oh, thanks” when they sit in the surprisingly well shaped and colourfully patterned seats, and then gradually change their minds as the journey progresses, especially if you head out onto the open road, at which point that charming little “Valencia” engine does everything it can to point out just how demanding you’re being of it. There are plenty of ways that noise is invited into the cabin; the transmission and exhaust have live hotlines to the occupants, and wind noise is of the Boeing Stearman Wingwalker magnitude.
Cockpit and Driver Appeal
Up front the ambience is pretty much just as lacking in either car. The dashboard of the GM car is a bluff rectilinear vacuum-formed edifice of grey-brownness. There’s little pleasure to be derived from looking at it, though at a stretch I could say that it reminds me of certain pieces of brutalist architecture that I admire.
It’s the dashboard of “just a car”, there’s no doubt. It wasn’t designed to tug at any emotional heart-strings, it’s merely a surface into which are sunk the various utensils required for daily operation. Very neat, very tidy, very horrible. OK, the honest truth is that I’ve always had an irrational hatred for this dashboard. I hate it. I think it’s disgusting.
No, I really do. I bet the bloke who designed it was a right miserable bastard, cross that GM only gave him the Corsa to look after and not something more exotic, so he created a dashboard designed to offer the least possible visual inspiration. Title: Project MISERY#1. Bleh.
Interestingly, (interestingly for me, anyway) the Fiesta came with a choice of two different dashboards depending on how much you were spending. There was a full-width console with rotary HVAC controls and a high mounted radio if you were flash enough to afford an “L” or higher, whereas the basic “Popular” and “Popular Plus” models received the more compact affair you see before you.
And guess what? I really like it. The instrument cluster is packed with idiot lights and clear gauges. There’s a digital clock, incredibly deeply recessed to disguise its Casio watch dimensions, but also consequently impervious to obfuscation by sunlight. The ventilation is controlled by tumblers, which feel tactile and have groovy drum-style indicators. The rear screen washer and foglamp are operated via spunky-looking piano-key switches, which actually feel really nice to operate.
This doesn’t feel like unbiased journalism and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t read like it either. Still, I’m reporting that behind the wheel of the Fiesta feels a more interesting, nicer place to be than in the Nova. So there.
Don’t be silly.
Well, both cars are unstintingly obedient. I didn’t make any unreasonable demands on either of them, it wouldn’t have been very sportsmanlike to whinge too vociferously of any shortcomings due to the 145/70 tyre dimensions of the Fiesta, to be perfectly honest.
What I will say is that the Nova felt more modern, possibly a consequence of it being more modern. The ride feels more accomplished, flexible and comfortable yet somehow slightly sporting. The steering, though, is numb. There is weight to it, but it’s a constant, dreary kind of weight. In fact, all the controls are the same. The gearbox is slick without being enjoyable, the brakes are efficient without being inspiring. That all adds up to a product which was exactly right for the market it was aimed at.
Meanwhile the Fiesta feels all over the place. The ride is bouncy over any surface, creating surface imperfections seemingly where none exist, just for fun. The gearbox is alternately recalcitrant and slick, utterly at random. The steering is heavy when it wants to be, pretty light around the straight ahead and when reversing, heavy at around 60% lock. It just does what the hell it wants to do. All these attributes are bad and would make for a poor showing in Consumer Reviews tests. But as I type this I dearly want to have another go in it.
It’s pretty clear that the Nova is a much better car, all round, than its old rival from Ford. It’s a more modern design, and both looks and feels it. It has the more accommodating interior, is easier to drive and more refined in every measurable way. The Nova feels like a car designed to bring its parent company through the eighties with great confidence, and aside from some wholly justified reservations about its interior design, it feels fresh and competent even when viewed from a 21st century standpoint.
By comparison the Fiesta feels like it was desperately clinging on to life towards the end of its model cycle. The replacement MK3 machine didn’t come a moment too soon because the mid-70s conception of the Fiesta was all too obvious by 1989. The fact that the car’s best ever sales year was 1987 when it sold 150,000 units in the UK alone, comfortably more than the Nova, was an indictment of just how undiscerning the average British customer truly was.
It’s only too obvious how much more complete a car the Nova / Corsa family were than the Fiesta, not least in the greater variety of bodystyles the GM car was offered in. With the Fiesta it was three-door hatch or nothing. With Nova you could also have a five door version or a sedan variant with either two or four doors.
Another interesting comparison might have been between the “Sporty” variants of these cars, by which I mean the Fiesta XR2 (with a carburettored 1.6) and the Nova GTE /Corsa GSI (with its injected 1.6). But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if my verdict on that wasn’t pretty similar to my thoughts today.
If I was to start collecting vintage computer software, I would probably choose to collect computer games, not word processors or spreadsheets. I actually do collect Car Brochures, rather than for instance, old telephone directories. My choices are presumably something to do with the perceived “fun” value I see offered by the above choices.
I can imagine somebody today buying a very basic ’80s Fiesta for a bit of retro fun. In fact, there are people out there doing just that, becoming nostalgic for the cars that they learnt to drive in, or maybe that their parents owned when they were kids. I remember a load of my mates had Vauxhall Novas in varying states of decay as their first cars, and they could be excused for wanting one again. But that would be the ONLY justification.
The Nova just isn’t as FUN as the Fiesta, possibly because of how much better, more competent, seemingly more obviously linked to the cars we have right now. The Fiesta feels totally different to what you drive every day. It behaves in a chaotic way we had forgotten about. The fact that it takes so much more driving, requires so much more effort than the Nova is fun in itself, and the cacophony and rumpus it kicks up when doing so just adds to the mix.
If for some reason you want to buy a very basic twenty-five year old baby hatchback as your sole car, a Vauxhall Nova 1.2 Merit will probably do you very well. Best of luck to you.
On the other hand, if you can afford to splash out several hundred quid on a little car just for the sheer fun of driving something wonderfully terrible, you can’t go wrong with a skinny-tired 1.1 Fiesta.
As is so often the case, the best car isn’t the best car at all.
(All images copyright Chris Haining / Hooniverse 2015. With massive, sincere thanks to Newspress for use of the test vehicles)