Comparing old with new might seem like an unfair comparison because, with few exceptions, new models are bigger, safer, more refined and more economical, often quicker, too. All of which might leave an earlier iteration without a hope.
However, the flipside is that previous models are smaller and rawer, which are negatives if you’re talking about a Corolla, but can be desirable qualities in the rarefied realm of high-performance icons.
‘Icon’ may be overused in the motoring world, but that word undisputably applies to the originals you see here – the 1968 Mini Cooper S, 1989 Peugeot 205 GTi and 1994 Subaru WRX, respectively the first fast little car you could buy, one of the first proper hot-hatches, and the first rally-bred affordable all-wheel-drive hero.
Each badge is worth its weight in gold, and continue on several generations later in 2014 models gathered here, the Mini Cooper S and Subaru WRX being brand new models, and the Peugeot 208 GTi released just last year. So how much has changed? And can the newer models beat the originals? We’ve gathered old and new here to find out.
Mini Cooper S
The Morris Mini Cooper S could claim to be the first-ever hot-hatch, though it’s really a hot-hutch given the rear glass doesn’t open. The Mini shape is itself iconic, but the Cooper S even went on to win Bathurst outright in 1966 – two years before the example here rolled off the Australian production line.
Its racing pedigree lured in Frank Hines, who has lovingly restored this Morris Cooper S over a 15 year ownership period. A certified Mini tragic since his older sister owned one decades ago, Frank also has two other Minis – a 1966 Cooper S and 1971 Clubman 1275 SS – at home ready to be restored. On historic-vehicle registration plates and part of the Sprite Car Club of Australia, Frank’s Mini looks like a single Brit brick beside the townhouse-sized third generation New Mini.
Get past the monumental size difference and there are detail similarities. Both old and new have multi-coloured bodies, for example, the 1968 model burgundy with a cream roof, the 2014 press car dark greyish-green with black roof and racing stripes. There are some wonderful design touches on the old car, too, such as the wire-mesh headlight grilles and chrome bumper strip that gels elegantly over the flared wheelarches and down alongside the car.
Both cars share that classic wheel-at-each-corner stance, but if you bought a Cooper S four decades ago (for $2375) you got chubby 10-inch tyres compared with the wheel arch-filling 18-inch variety you score (for $36,950) today. Both cars also have upright A-pillars, though the new Mini’s screen sits much further from the driver’s face and the pillars themselves are more like tree trunks than branches like the old car’s.
Driving gloves sit on the horizontal ledge that sweeps across Frank’s car’s dashboard, which is a model of minimalism, as you’d expect. There’s thin, vinyl seatbelts, a stubby, Cooper-embossed gearknob and wooden steering wheel on a bus-like angle. (Original Mini designer Alec Issignosis justified by saying you need to be mildly uncomfortable to remain alert when driving…)
The speedometer sits in the middle of the dashboard, where perhaps ironically this is the first New Mini that shifts the speedo from there to in front of the driver. Sat-nav sits circular in the middle of the dashboard now, and the infotainment system borrows iDrive controls from Mini-owner BMW. There are body hugging sports seats, where by comparison the old Mini’s non-retractable seat belts barely grab your body…
Sitting in each car, there’s something about the old Mini that grabs you.
In the new one, you’re ensconced by soft-touch plastics and beefy seats and door trims, thickness and stuff distancing the driver from the mechanical bits underneath it. In the old one, you feel part of the car, with buzzes coming up through the steering wheel, seats and gearshifter, the driver with a superb view of the outside world, almost perched just above the engine and front wheels. You can even see where the steering column and pedals sink into the furry black carpet.
If the original looks cute, then that suggestion is wiped as the Morris approaches with its 1275cc four-cylinder throbbing and the four-speed straight-cut manual transmission emitting a blender-like whine as everything slows to a stop. Back in the day, the engine made 56kW of power (at 5700rpm) and 107Nm of torque (at 3000rpm) but because the Cooper S weighed just 675kg, it made for an 83kW/tonne power-to-weight ratio – or almost as much as today’s Suzuki Swift Sport, for example.
The new Cooper S is almost double the weight (1175kg) with almost double the engine capacity (2.0-litre), and the addition of a turbocharger to help it produce almost three times the power and torque (141kW and 280Nm respectively). It also about halves the acceleration time to 100km/h, now claimed to be 6.7 seconds.
For driving as an immersion of the process of movement, though, there’s nothing like the original Mini. There’s no need for rose-tinted glasses, either, as from the moment you turn the wooden wheel and experience the immediate turn-in, this 1968 model has already wiped away three quarters of today’s cars for steering tactility. The ‘Hydrolastic’ suspension bobs up and down even on smooth roads, seemingly in sync with the engine at it staggers up through the tachometer – which even has a moveable redline needle, by the way.
The Morris rolls onto its outside tyre in corners and sticks like glue, continuing to bob around as you apply throttle and let the engine sing; it feels unburstable. There’s a hefty weight to the (unassisted) brakes when you ask them to slow for the following corner. Frank’s son and my housemate Luke Hines reports that over the flowing, damp corners through our Blue Mountains, New South Wales, test loop, the Morris is moving around quite a bit. This is an extremely fun, demanding and addictive little nugget to steer, and you have to steer it well…
The new Mini has found quality and refinement compared with the last one, yet it hasn’t lost any of the fun, either.Despite the questionable fitment of Hankook tyres to the new model, there’s still a stand-on-its-nose balance in corners and the sort of agility that links it straight back to the original. It’s not a fault of the new car, but because of the rise of other hot-hatches today, it does feel a bit generic. Power assisted steering, well weighted brakes, stability control ready to save the day, it’s all a bit easy to drive hard in the new Cooper S and that allows you to relax and drift back from the action. Crucially, though, you don’t have to cruise, and when you’re up it, the new Mini rewards.
After a long day of driving and photo-shooting, the Minis drive in tandem back to Sydney. Luke in the new Mini has the heater on, iPhone connected to Bluetooth, sunroof cracked open, xenons blazing and the throttle often used to overtake trucks easily.
Meanwhile his dad drapes a blanket over his lap to keep warm as there’s no heater, the dim glow of the halogen headlights revealing the path ahead, a tiny brick keeping well back from lines of overtaking cruise-controlled cars. One of them is better, but the other arguably a little more special…
Words: Daniel DeGasperi
Peugeot 205 GTi and 208 GTi
For me, born just a year before my 1989 Peugeot 205 GTi came off the production line in France, cars came of age only a decade earlier. In an Australian context, it was in 1978 when the Holden VB Commodore took the baton from the Kingswood. More broadly it was with the introduction of seatbelts, heaters, seats that actually held you in, followed by niceties we still enjoy today such as power steering and windows (a VB SL/E had them).
In the 20 years between Frank’s Morris Cooper S and my 205 GTi, all of that arrived, plus mechanical fuel injection. Yet refinement and polish hadn’t quite made it in the tiny car class as yet. That’s what drew me into 205 GTi ownership. From a young age, I loved the simplicity of the hot-hatch formula. Simply shoehorn in a large engine into a little body, and add specialist chassis tuning and some sporty touches.
The 205 GTi was, with the Volkswagen Golf GTI, one of the first to nail that formula. The 205 turned 30 just last month, having launched in Europe in 1984 and moved on to become the biggest selling small car in the continent. It arrived locally late in 1987, in Si and GTi forms.
My love for the 205 GTi starts on the outside. To the untrained eye it looks just like an old silver hatchback, but as with Frank’s Morris Cooper S, there are some lovely details for those in the know. The little strip of red lipstick around the grey, impact-absorbing bumpers matches the red tow hook, for example, the red theme continued inside with red carpet and super-soft yet comfy seats.
Across the rear three quarter panel there are two grey inserts, with ‘GTI’ and ‘1.9’ on each, and on the driver’s side the fuel filler flap forms part of the lower insert. The plastic wheelarches are there for a reason: look at the 205 GTi front-on and the front wheels stick out even past the arch-extensions like the ears on a Tony Abbott caricature, yet the rear wheels tuck under the wheelarches. It gives a clue to the 205’s ‘interesting’ handing characteristics, which I’ll get to in a moment…
The 208 GTi jumps three generations on the 205, beyond the swoopy but unreliable 206 GTi and plainly dreadful 207 GTI. Peugeot knows the latter was not true to the GTi legend – too heavy, too laggy, awful driving position and ride – and has since come out boldly preaching that the new 208 GTi is a return to form for the brand.
It is a great little car, the 208 GTi, and at $29,990 costs just $490 more than the (heavily taxed) 205 GTi did 25 years prior, despite the inclusion of airbags, sat-nav and power everything. The first thing I did at the 208’s local launch last year, though, was align my eye with the front end and check if the front wheels stick out of the guards more than the rears – but they don’t.
The exterior of the 208, while fashionable and swoopy alongside the geometric, simple 205, still looks good, and the GTi badge and insert on the rear three quarter panel tips its hat to its ancestor.
Where the 205 GTi weighed 875kW and utilised a big 1.9-litre four-cylinder with 75kW and 142Nm, the 208 GTi tips the scales at 1160kg and gets a smaller 1.6-litre, with a turbocharger boosting outputs to 147kW and 280Nm. The 208 GTi is quicker – 0-100km/h in a claimed 6.9 seconds, about two ticks of the timepiece faster than its ancestor – but because the turbocharger needs to start spooling off idle, it can’t reach the magic levels of instant throttle response and torque off idle of the 205 GTi.
In the older Pug, you can short shift the long-throw, but super-tight five-speed manual into its tallest gear at just 60km/h, then cruise across the Sydney Harbour Bridge – as I did on the morning of this test – with an instant forward surge available at 1000rpm. The newer Frenchie also misses a throaty induction note, though it is more flexible right at the top end of the tachometer.
The steering in the 205 is as tactile as the interior plastics are not. At low speeds the unassisted steering is awfully heavy – right hand drive cars could get power steering or air-conditioning but not both, and the then-Peugeot importer chose air, not that mine works… – but it turns into perfection at speed. There’s an immediacy and connection lacking in the lighter, still-quick, but muted 208.
Where old and new Peugeots come together is with their ride quality. French hot-hatches were once renowned for their long-travel suspension that meant good pace could be kept on bad roads. The 208 is the best-riding light hot-hatch on the market, yet it always keeps good control of its body, just as the 205 does.
Many drivers who follow me down a twisty road behind the 205 GTi remark how weird it looks when cornering, as if the rear is always moving around slightly. That wide front end grips and grips, so after braking in a straight line you can then turn in and press the tyres in the tarmac, getting the Pug to stand on its nose. In this way, it remains every bit as good as a modern hot-hatch. Brake into the corner or lift off the throttle mid-corner, however, and you’d better be awake, as the narrow rear track means the car will snap into oversteer at will. It is extremely highly strung and challenging to drive, and I love it for this.
The 208 GTi is nothing like the 205 GTi in that way. Its handling is excellent, but in a modern, grippy and stable way even if you poke it in its face. Where they come together is that the 208, like the 205, loves to be taken by the scruff of its neck and be driven hard.
But I can’t help but feel the GTi is still more sweet than startling, more 208 GT than GTi. Maybe, these days, with hot-hatches being so damn good, we need a 208 GTi-R to be closer to the 205 legend. Please, Peugeot, make that car, and my 205 GTi will have a partner on the other side of the garage.
Words: Daniel DeGasperi
New-versus-old is a favourite of mine – I’ve done it a few times, including a comparison of the then-new Renaultsport Clio 197 with a Clio Sport 172, and the outgoing RX-8 with a first-gen RX-7. Both times, I owned the old car, and the same is true here.
The first WRX was sold from 1994 until 1999 in Australia is represented here by my five-speed manual MY97 sedan. Few early WRXs made it unmodified, and my car is no different, having been treated to the ubiquitous 3-inch exhaust, which brings a few more than the factory issue of 155kW from the 2.0-litre EJ20 turbo flat-four, and liberates the signature Subie note.
But let’s rewind to the mid-’90s for a moment, and the beginning of my Rex obsession. Well, obsession is probably too strong a word. I was in high school and the buzz around this new, $39,990 turbo all-wheel drive compact sedan was impossible to ignore. However, I was (and still am) a Mazda rotary tragic, and my $4000 car budget was earmarked for an early RX-7.
The WRX might have been a performance bargain to a young exec at the time, but to an 18-year-old me, it was 10 times too expensive and, no matter which way Subaru arranged them, it had four too many pistons... The turbo Impreza’s World Rally dominance and cult popularity with everyone from sound-off heroes to serious drivers marked it as a car to visit one day, but it was more of a subconscious thing than a must-have.
I embarked on WRX ownership in 2012. In good nick, and at about a fifth the new price, the old MY97 looked like better bang-for-buck than ever. Importantly, the WRX was no longer the car of the moment, so I wouldn’t be tarred with the same brush as the archetypal sick-as WRX guy. The light weight, agility and raw speed of the old Rex impressed me by comparison with the heavier, softer second- and third-gen Rexes I’d tested as new cars.
Soon, I grew to love the offbeat note, the turbo rush and the quirks of the model – take the rattly frameless door glass, for example – and of an older car in general. Now, I relish a good thrash, or even a run to the shops.
It was with that context, then, and through the frame of reference of the third-gen – which, to me, is the least convincing WRX – that I viewed the arrival of the fourth-gen earlier this year. Thankfully, Fuji Heavy Industries hadn’t turned the Rex into the sexier, pricier coupe-like four-door seemingly previewed by last year’s New York motor show WRX Concept.
In fact, the more I look at it, the more I realise how little Subaru has changed the model at all. Even the price is virtually the same. In fact, the $38,990 new WRX is $1000 cheaper than the 1994 original.
Witness the body – a Rexed-up version of the GP/GJ Impreza, though it sheds the Impreza badge and only shares its doors and roof with cooking models – and the drivetrain spec – the admittedly all-new FA20 turbocharged 2.0-litre flat-four that sends its 197kW to all four tyres via a manual ’box (or a CVT) that at long last has six ratios.
At sane speeds in suburbia, the WRX is a fraction laggy – blame the economy-driven engine downsize from 2.5- to 2.0-litres and the 1424kg kerb weight, which is 200kg heavier than my WRX.
The chunky, sculpted steering wheel, body hugging seats and tautly absorbent suspension tell you this is no mere Impreza, but the quietness and refinement in the cabin and the lack of initial steering feel keep the driver at arm’s length, at least by comparison with the talkative old car. It takes speed and more committed cornering to uncover a WRX that steers, handles and rides with the talent you’d expect.
Importantly, feedback from the chassis and steering, even the brake pedal mark this as a far more involving iteration than the previous-gen, with its rubbery responses, lack of body control and wooden steering. The new car turns into tight corners with far greater enthusiasm than the outgoing model, leaning on a trustworthy, adhesive nose before firing out the other side on an effervescent slug of midrange.
Both cars have an unmistakable all-wheel-drive flavour, but where the new one just grips and goes, with help from an ESC-derived torque vectoring system, the old one entertains by hanging the tail out on the way in, and lighting up an unloaded inside front tyre on the way out. Even sitting in my old WRX reveals the great leaps made by the new one.
The original is cramped – the relative sprawling space of the new WRX more like a medium car of the ’90s – and feels relatively flimsy by comparison with the five-star new car’s solidity. Meanwhile, the airbag count of, erm … none, is seven less than you get now. However, for all its flaws, my WRX is precisely the dose of old-car perspective I need. It’s from a distant enough era that it has character, but it isn’t so old that it’s difficult to live with as a day-to-day tool.
The original WRX is punchier, less polished, more agile and, in lightly modified form, about as quick in a straight line as the new model, and I reckon it’s only a matter of time before it’s considered a classic. As undoubtedly impressive as the new WRX is, I’m not certain that it’s headed the same way.
Words: James Whitbourn
Photography by Thomas Wielecki. Special thanks to the Sprite Car Club of Australia for permitting the Morris Cooper S to be used for this feature.