Checkin' Coupes (Wheels, Oct 1993)

John Avis by | August 19, 2012 | Magazine Articles E36

Magazine article reproduced from Wheels, Oct 1993.
Magazine article reproduced from Wheels, Oct 1993.

When you spend better than $40,000 on a feel-good conveyance, pose value and performance don't necessarily go together. MIKE McCARTHY savours the design and relishes the dynamics of two doors that drive as well as they look.

Ah, coupes. Not the most I sensible of cars but among the most coveted, coupes say something to, and about, their owners. For men, a sedan represents wife and family where a coupe has a hint of the mistress about it. One fills a need, the other a want. For women, a sedan is mobility, the coupe a fling. One a pumpkin, the other a gilded coach.

For either gender, the coupe implies a sense of style, an air of independence. Coupes are for people who put pose value, performance potential and 'image' above some functional features.

Which doesn't mean coupes are necessarily more show than go. Not at all. Some may rely rather more on persuasively elegant or sexy body styling than seriously well engineered performance and chassis dynamics, but many are just as rewarding for how they drive as how they look. Among those clearly in the drivers' category are the BMW 318is, Holden Calibra, Honda Prelude and Mazda MX-6. Two from Germany, two from Japan.

They're feel-good cars that do something for your ego, your status and especially your driving enjoyment. Grand Tourers isn't an undeserved description for cars such as these, which can make light of even dreary daily duties and then at any opportunity whisk you through the country as briskly as you wish.

Though individuality of appearance is an essential coupe feature, most in fact borrow their basic floorpan and some mechanical elements from a parent sedan. Of the four models here, however, only the BMW's origins are obvious. It has its father's nose and, unlike the other three cars, unmistakably resembles a two door raked-roof version of the paternal four door. Even so it's a good looker, handsome rather than flashy.

You'd never guess the Calibra comes from the Opel Vectra and the MX-6 from the Mazda 626, let alone that the Prelude has ties with the Honda Accord. Slinky body styles and sporty interior designs don't give the game away.

The BMW is fundamentally different since it drives the rear wheels, the others the fronts. Each model here has anti-lock four-wheel discs and two - the MX-6 and Prelude Si SRS - also include sophisticated four-wheel steering systems.

Three have in-line four cylinder engines against the Mazda's V6. Double overhead cams and four valves per cylinder are unanimous, likewise electronic fuel injection which (in the BMW, Mazda and Honda) feed through dual-length intake manifolds that help broaden the useful rev range.

The MX-6's engine is its one and only. The Calibra, however, comes with a comparatively modest sohc eight-valve engine when ordered with auto trans. The Si SRS model Prelude is top of a triple layer cake which at base level has a slightly smaller, sohc 16 valve engine.

BMW's coupe is also available as the six cylinder 325 for much more money, and as the supersix M3 edition for about 2.5 times the test car's price.

PRICES, EQUIPMENT

No doubt about this group's price leader. The Calibra lists at $41,939 with an equipment level that includes most of the major frills except cruise control. It shares dead-locking door latches and a thumb wheel headlight beam adjuster with the BM'W'; but alone in this group has a trip computer, an inbuilt alarm/security system and glovebox chiller. It's also- the only one with inbuilt roof rack mounts. The Calibra auto also lists at $41,939 - in effect you get the self shifter free as compensation for sacrificing 25 kW and 26 Nm with the lesser engine.

Next up on the price scale is the $44,505 five speed Prelude Si SRS. Its equipment list is comprehensive without being especially lavish in this company, where its exclusivities are a driver's airbag, remote control for the sound system, and lockable releases for the boot lid, fuel cover and ski port.

Then comes the manual MX-6 which has jumped to $47,100, while matching the Prelude for most major items and adding split folding backrest, driver's cushion tilt, fog lights and the group's only CD player.

Federal budget tax revisions dropped the manual 318is's price by $3350 to $49,950, but the test car's optional sunroof and metallic paint lifted its ante to $54,290. Beyond the usual equipment array the 318is includes air-con with temperature adjustment side to side, fuel consumption meter and luggage tie-down. It also shares B pillar belt anchor adjustability with the Calibra, a feature the Japanese models lack. But which two have left-hand drive column stalks? Mein Gott!

PERFORMANCE

Dry as it might, and it does so unstintingly, BMW's splendid 'little' 1.8 litre engine hasn't the muscle to get on even terms with its larger, more powerful rivals. It's not helped by weighing in at a fairly solid (and solid feeling) 1240 kg which conspires to handicap it with 12.0 kg/kW.

The 2.0 litre Calibra peaks with a bit less power than the 2.3 litre Prelude, but also has significantly less weight and so emerges with virtually the same 10.8 kg/kW impost as the Honda. The 2.5 litre Mazda fares best in this regard because it makes more power than the Honda and carries less weight to enjoy a 10.3 kg/kW rating.

That pecking order is reflected in (most of) the acceleration times. From standing start, the BMW is tirelessly brisk when pedalled with verve, but tails off as the rush continues. On average it just scrapes under 10 seconds for 0-100 km/h, but doesn't quite get out of the 17s for the 400 m sprint. The Calibra does low nines to 100 kays and mid 16s for the 400 m.

The Prelude takes advantage of slightly lower gearing to give the MX-6 a hard chase through the gears - a whisker quicker to 100 clicks, it's a sliver behind the Mazda over the 400 m despite its higher terminal speed.

From rolling start the MX-6 asserts itself in the low to mid-speed range in third and fourth gears where the slickly smooth and tractable engine shades its immediate rival. Honda's seemingly more aggressive response only comes to the fore in the middling to high speed brackets.

When the two Japanese are on the charge the Calibra can't quite hold station and slips farther adrift through the increments in the successive gears. The 318is isn't slow either, but can only watch as the others speed or climb away into the distance. The 318is's third gear is just too short to see 130 kays before reaching the red, and in fifth it hadn't quite enough spurt to complete the test runs in the road length available.

Despite its performance clearly finishing fourth on paper, the 318is always feels willing and encouragingly spirited on the road. The engine offers the group's highest power to litre ratio (57.3 kW/L from Calibra's 55.3, Prelude's 52.2 and MX-6's 48.4), is smoothly energetic and likes a good hard rev into the tacho's six-thou segment. But ultimately its accelerations are qualified by the uncharitable power and weight. Nothing a bit more capacity wouldn't cure.

More than the others the 318is must be rowed along with the throttle pedal and gear lever when acceleration or speed is of the essence. That's no chore though, because the BM's box has well suited ratios and one of the sweetest shifts ever to invite a flick of your wrist.

With some Camira genes in its past, and much success powering European sports and racing cars in its present, the Calibra's engine puts grunty performance before polished refinement. Blessed with seemingly minimal flywheel effect, it revs freely and high, and during gear changes it shuts off in an instant. It's not the quietest thing however, and when working hard develops a guttural growl, then a metallic rattle. Hardly sweet, but sounds like it means business. The gearshift is nothing special, distinguished only in its very narrow (but soon familiar) gate between the 3-4 plane and fifth.

The Calibra is as fast as the Prelude in top speed and appears faster than everything everywhere else for the speedo is wildly optimistic, even by German standards.

The Prelude's engine is a ripper - smooth, tractable, responsive, undeniably exciting with barely disguised aggression underfoot. It invites you to drive it hard and fast, to wring the revs out of it and keep it working where the sound swells into an addictively menacing chorus. And if the Prelude's thrusting acceleration is a visceral buzz on the straights, its real thrill is in the sheer grip-and-go out of corners when you lay the power down and rocket on to the next straight. Good stuff. The Honda's five-speed aids and abets your fun. The ratios may be just a touch shorter than they could be, but are closely spaced to help keep the engine spinning where it does most good. The quicker you punch the lever from slot to slot the better it feels, until at the very limit it's even slicker than the BMW's.

The Mazda's V6 is the group's quiet achiever. No four cylinder snarl here, just a seamlessly smooth and expansive rush of revs with a mechanical hum that zings up the scale as the pedal goes down. Good gearbox too, with a light and sure shift, but it tends to be taken for granted because attention invariably focusses on the gee-whizzer engine.

The creamy delivery and busy but easy engine note can deceive you into thinking that the MX-6 hasn't the hair trigger reflex of the Prelude. But the acceleration times tell a different story; MX-6 holds the low and middle grounds decisively. Only at high speeds does the Prelude's acceleration prevail. Top speed honours go to the MX-6, whose flowing shape slips through the air just a fraction faster than the Prelude and Calibra.

FUEL CONSUMPTION

No doubt about the fuel consumption winner here, either. The Calibra romps in. With fuel fills carefully checked during 1100 km in convoy, the Holden was just a whiff off the best of the Best result with 7.59 L/l00 km to the BMW's 7.48 figure. The Calibra made no mistake in scoring the best of the Worst category with 8.34 L/l00 km, and consistency led to its excellent 7.78 L/l00 km average.

The MX-6 proved thirstier than the others on all occasions and averaged 9.73 L/l00 km. That result doesn't look particularly good for the Mazda when the BMW and Prelude came home averaging 8.37 and 8.90 L/100 km respectively. But on a distance-to-dollars basis the MX-6 is competitive because the BMW and Prelude both take premium unleaded which typically costs 10 cents (or more) a litre above regular.

The BMW and Calibra fuel covers are locked with the rest of the cars' central systems. At least the 318is fills easily whereas the Calibra is very slow to top up. The Prelude is also slow, the MX-6 quick and easy.

ON THE ROAD

Ladies and gentlemen, choose your weapon and come driving. Whichever of these cars is nominated, appreciative drivers are assured of a fine time at the wheel.

In the Calibra, the enjoyment is equalled only by the (pleasant) surprise if, like us, you have experienced this model some time ago. Hey, this is not the same car. Not in its chassis dynamics it's not.

When we first looked at the Calibra, fresh off the boat in October '91 and tested in March '92, it simply didn't live up to its looks and publicity. Ride was poor, handling patchy, steering inconsistent. Torque steer was rampant and the suspension was noisy. We were unimpressed; so were many shoppers.

Eighteen months on, we are here to tell you the Calibra is a different car with vastly improved road behaviour. The only differences admitted to are a new fluid filled engine mount and detail running changes. Don't be modest, guys - the car's transformed. Its 'new' dynamics don't exactly raise the class standards but are now keenly competitive. It handles pretty well and turns in to corners without noticeable delay, though it requires a little more wheel than the others. In hard cornering the Calibra has habitually understeery attitudes, tending to run slightly wider lines than its rivals, but it doesn't push the nose enough to scrub the tyres. There's a bit more body roll than in the others.

Calibra's steering, slightly the slowest of the four due to fractionally more turns between locks and a larger circle, is also firmest. The weighting loads up during hard cornering, but brought no complaints from our crew: Likewise, the suspension feels much better controlled than we remember. There's now no torque steer to speak of when punching the power, and the car feels much better balanced front to rear without its former nervousness through patchy or bumpy corners.

Its ride is pretty good too. Though firm enough to feel sporty, and sometimes given to sharp heaves over biggish bumps, the suspension generally gives a comfortable compromise between ride and handling. The only untoward residual is a trace of pitchiness which is hardly obvious by day but manifests at night - causing the indifferent headlights to dance up and down. The resultant flutter is less of a distraction to the Calibra driver than to the driver ahead.

The 318is has a great chassis and superb dynamics which reward the keen driver with their sheer poise and precision. It feels so capable, so predictable and so controllable that it makes twisty bits and bends worth seeking and savouring. The only bitch is that the chassis is so good that it may make you wish for More Power, because you've certainly got the grip and handling to exploit it. For all the 1.8's enthusiasm and effort, sometimes it lacks the bottle to make the car really boogie out of corners like it deserves.

It could be magic - as is, it's merely terrific.

The BM's steering is what steering should be, a consistently well weighted and direct connnection between the driver and road. Crisp and communicative, it gives feedback without kick-back. The car's turn in to corners often seems almost instinctive, as though you just think it through rather than consciously steering it. The handling is mostly near neutral, edging into mild understeer when pushed or even into equally mild oversteer if the gears and throttle are lavished out of slow to medium speed corners. Add a ride that blends supple absorbency with well controlled travel and you have a chassis of singularly high renown.

The Prelude is a mixed bag. On smoothly surfaced roads with any variety of corners and cambers the Prelude is seriously good fun. It flies. Its stance is clearly biased towards the 'sports' side of grand touring because it feels purposefully wide and low (which it is), it corners flat as a tack, and its roadholding is neck strainingly adhesive. There's a hint of scaled-up CRX coupe in the kart-like way the Prelude dives through corners with just a twist of your wrists, and also in the way it lightly fidgets in response to the road's texture.

Honda's four-wheel steering does its thing almost completely unnoticed. The only immediate signs are an exceptional clarity of turn in to corners, with the car heading almost exactly where and when pointed, and the fairly tight turning circle. Otherwise the steering is very quick from lock to lock while also lighter and rather lacking in feel compared with the others.

There's also noticeable steering rack rattle on rough roads which are the bane of the Prelude's ride. For some tastes the Honda's suspension is just a bit too firm and discomforting over bumps or corrugations, giving occupants a hard time. Then the ride's turbulence sometimes jostles the car a little off line or moves it around on the road, but even then the Prelude is still wickedly fast through the curves.

The MX-6 mightn't quite match the firmly suspended Prelude's ten-tenths cornering capability on smooth surfaces, but is the better all-rounder. Some of our crew reckon the Mazda's 4WS effects are a little more detectable than the Honda's, but others swear they can't pick it. Either way, the MX-6's steering not only is as quick as the Honda's while describing a slightly tighter circle, but also has a touch more weight and feeling.

Even in its handling the MX-6 has a degree of extra smoothness over the Calibra and Prelude. Roadholding and cornering responses are just as sure-footed but more fluid with the changes. It has confident directional stability along rutted or bumpy surfaces and tracks true virtually regardless of the road's provocations.

Pushed hard into turns, the MX-6 has a mildly understeery nature and follows the driver's directions without disputing the chosen line or begrudging mid-corner adjustments. There's a little more body roll than the Prelude, but there's also more suspension travel and discernibly better ride control over bumps.

For most people and most driving, this ride-handling trade-off sits more comfortably than the Honda's.

The comfort quotient also includes the noise factor. There again the MX-6 rates very well in most respects because little is heard from the mechanical elements or the wind. The effect is tarnished, however, by considerable tyre noise, more often than not an intrusive whine or pervading rumble according to the road surface, which conflicts with the otherwise hushed cruising capability.

Our three fours are a bit gruffer than the V6 at idle and again under hard accelerations, with the outspoken Calibra engine most vocal of all.

There's little to choose between the brakes. All are amply powerful, have well modulated pedals, and showed no noticeable increase in pedal travel or pressure after successive hard slow-downs. We had no opportunity to compare the anti-lock systems' effectiveness on gravel, but they certainly perform to expectations on bitumen.

ACCOMMODATION

First, the inescapable fact that rear passengers aren't a priority in these cars. The Calibra has the nearest thing to a proper rear seat; the Prelude doesn't even get close. Our regular four-up test drive was performed as usual (albeit with some cramping) in the Calibra, BMW and MX-6. But our backseat bods baulked at the Prelude. No way, Jose.

Even the Calibra's headroom is marginal for adults, but it at least has reasonable knee room and toe space. Not a bad bench, but it needs more under-thigh support. Next best for head and knees, the BMW lacks foot room and its very firm bench is a bit flat for Comfort in the long run. To its credit, only BMW sees fit to include rear handholds, opening windows and superior centrally anchored belts.

The MX-6's rear seat is inviting but its surrounds afford less limb space and more sunburn than the other two. The Prelude's deeply sculpted pair could be Venus fly traps for hapless gnomes and compliant children.

Rear accessibility via the nearside door varies; the Mazda's backrest tips and the seat slides; the BM's backrest tips and the seat lifts forward; in the others the backrests simply tilt.

In these cars, the cabins' nether regions are only incidental, anyway. It's what's up front that counts, especially for the driver. In that respect the MX-6 tops the field - its bucket is deep sided for lateral security, with tilt cushion for under-thigh support and padding that is neither too soft nor too firm. The MX -6 also boasts a particularly good driving position which is well proportioned, fronts a comparatively low cowl and, like the other three, enjoys adequate headroom and a handsome wheel.

The Calibra's bucket also makes you welcome with plenty of shape in the sides, medium-firm padding, cushion tilt (by a crank handle at the leading edge) and turn-wheel backrest adjustment. However its driving position is compromised by the fixed steering column, and isn't enhanced by the high cowl either.

BMW's cowl is also quite high in relation to the seating position which benefits from height adjustability of the column and cushion. The seat itself isn't deeply bolstered on the sides, and some crew found the cushion too flat at the front.

Honda's seat, comfortable for easy cruising, sits you close to the floor, lacks cushion adjustments but alone includes variable lumbar support. The unconventional backrest has wrap-around sides which hold snugly in hard cornering; but the sides are too short and the upper section too narrow to give meaningful lateral support to the shoulders.

The Prelude's split level dash is unique, and likely to remain so. The bulky lower section is so intrusive that one can't move the seat far forward before kneeing the padding. Dials and gauges aren't things of beauty, and the sound system has good aural attributes, fiddly switches and a gimmicky remote control. The glovebox is a small joke.

After that, the Calibra deserves the Croc Dundee riposte, "...this is a glovebox". It is cavernously large, has two drink holder recesses in the open lid, and includes an air-conditioned vent to keep things cool. The rest of the facia is bitsy but the controls work well with familiarity. The trip computer earns its keep by displaying the instantaneous consumption, average consumption, range, average speed, stop-watch and ambient temperature. The functions are selected by a button on the centre console, between the seats, near the window switches and handbrake lever, none of which are very conveniently sited.

It's actually easier to use the computer button with the right hand - using your left means getting your elbow back between the seats, which can be awkward. The BMW has a similar problem, though its seats are farther apart. Proximity of a long, high bin over the rear floor tunnel constricts the handbraking Prelude driver's elbow room.

The BMW's boot is easily the biggest and best, with a stated capacity of 405 litres, low loading lip and a flat floor. The MX-6 is next for capacity with 357 litres, but the lip is high and the opening comparatively small. Then the Calibra with 284 litres and the highest lip of all, but a deep boot with lidded lockers either side. Fourthly; the Prelude with 192 litres, sloping floor and only a ski port versus the other cars' folding two-piece backrests.

CONCLUSIONS

A tough one, this. The Prelude is very good value considering its specification and equipment, and its styling is arguably the most coupe-ish of the four. It's the least practical in design, and the most specifically compromised towards 'sports' performance and handling. Great fun on good roads, but tiring and uneasy elsewhere. Try before you buy; but certainly try.

The Calibra is the year's big improver. Previously it was notable only for its looks and equipment, and they weren't enough to compensate for a second rate chassis even at a class leading price. Now it's outstanding value, a comparative bargain no less, because its attractive price, style and goodies are matched by a pretty impressive chassis. Marvellous what a little detail development can do. Now all the Calibra needs is a less sombre interior and a bit more refinement in its running gear and NVH. Even now it's well worth a serious look, and we couldn't have said that before.

We're torn between the 318is and MX-6. It's no news that the BMW has much to commend it. It's a BMW, and for some that's enough because it rightly means the highest standards of design, construction and dynamic qualities. If that's where you draw the line, fine. What must also be taken into account, however, is that in this group the 318is is also the most conservative in appearance, the slowest in performance and considerably the most expensive in price.

So, by a nose, it's the MX-6 with slinky lines, bewitchingly smooth yet punchy engine and a damn good chassis to boot. It isn't a clear winner in many departments - but as a highly refined, overtly enthusiastic and consistently impressive car to use, whatever the mood and wherever the road, the MX-6 edges the others overall as the most alluring sporty coupe this side of 50 grand.

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About me

I am a bit of a 3 series fanatic, having owned a couple of E30s and a few E36s, plus a few parts cars. I like the combination of the compact size, good performance and handling, and that they are more sports sedan than an impractical and extrovert sports car. This blog is a place to share my experience and knowledge.

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