Club 50 (Car Australia, Feb 1994)

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

Magazine article reproduced from Car Australia, Feb 1994.
Magazine article reproduced from Car Australia, Feb 1994.

Mid-life crisis getting you down? Even if the thought's not applicable, here's three quick coupes for about 50 grand each which will make anyone's day. Jonathan Hawley drove them.

It's said that life begins at fifty, although in this case it's not years we're talking about, but dollars. And thousands thereof. These cars, from Mazda, BMW and Honda are the coupes from the market sector where the money is starting to get serious. Well above the Celicas, Integras and NX Nissans which inhabit the more affordable reaches of the car companies' price lists, but below some of the more expensive Europeans, they are aimed at the buyer looking for style, and plenty of it. Following along on the fifties theme, any one of them is a potential cure for a mid-life crisis; their low-slung two-door bodies are as much about image as anything, and their owners are willing to pay for it.

That's not to say this trio represents a triumph of form over function. We've chosen the VTEC version of the Prelude, which brings a more powerful engine and a better turn of speed to Honda's mid-size sporty. On paper at least, its 2.2-litre four should be a match for the Mazda MX-6's larger capacity V6, but the main similarity between the two cars is their pricing and size. The two are within millimeters of each other in overall length, and their packaging is mimicked from their two-door bodies which look like liftbacks, to their front-drive powertrain layouts with four-wheel steering.

The BMW 318is Coupe looks almost conventional alongside the two Japanese cars: the styling is well proportioned rather than flashy, the drivetrain an in-line four powering the rear wheels. And that four cylinder engine is of only 1.8 litres in capacity, leaving it behind the eight ball in the power stakes although of course Munich's 2.5-litre six is also available in the same body-style, though at a much inflated cost.

Price and Equipment

In fact, the 318is slots into the BMW 3-Series range just above the least expensive variant, the four-door 318i and the $6000 or so price difference (for manual versions) is largely accounted for by the sexier panels and more powerful 16-valve engine. So the five-speed 318is could be yours for $51,450 and that price includes alloy wheels, ABS, air conditioning, power glass and mirrors and a leather-bound steering wheel. What it doesn't include, in our test car's case, is the electric tilt/slide sunroof ($2930), the anti-theft alarm package ($1560) and the leather-clad sports seats ($1920) which will blow the price out to $57,860 if that lot's fitted.

The VTi-R is the leading light of a Prelude range which has been revamped for 1994. Its 2.2-litre twin-cam engine is fitted with Honda's VTEC valve timing system, and although it's the first time we've seen it in the Prelude in Australia, the model has been available in Japan and Europe for some six months now. Other changes to the Prelude include minor interior upgrades, and as before there's three trim and engine levels, although the range-topping SRS has been replaced by the VTi-R. Prices hadn't been completely finalised at the time of writing, although most equipment levels had been and Honda was able to supply some ballpark dollar values starting with the Prelude S (2.2 litre, SOHC, 16-valves, 96kW) at $36,350, the Si (2.3 litres, OOHC, 16-valves, 118kW) at $41,300, and the VTi-R (2.2 litres, DOHC VTEC, 16-valves, 142kW) for no less than $50,000.

As a replacement for the SRS, the VTi-R comes with just about everything, including alloy wheels, Honda's version of ABS, a rear spoiler, sunroof, cruise control, power windows and mirrors, leather-bound steering wheel and gear knob, an SRS air bag for the driver and plenty of other bits and pieces. Air conditioning is standard (it's normally a dealer fitted accessory) and about the only option will be a CD changer which is not mounted in the boot as the centre console in the rear seat (where the disc box used to be) has been eliminated.

The Mazda MX-6 has been with us for more than two years now, and little has changed in that time. Which means that the slinky, two-door coupe based on the 626 sedan's floorpan and mechanicals (but with a wider track, amongst other things) is well equipped, although the price is creeping upwards and is likely to go further as Mazda passes on the costs of the rising value of the Yen. Still, for $49,375 (as a manual) it still hasn't quite broken the 50 grand barrier, and comes well equipped with alloy wheels, ABS, cruise control, air conditioning, power windows mirror and aerial and a single-disc CD player Unlike the BMW, no airbag is offered.

So for starters, the Prelude is looking good value-for-money, offering more power and a airbag, whereas the BMW needs to delve into its options list to match the Japanese cars feature-for-feature, and so suffers at the cash register.

Engines and Performance

It's pretty obvious that the Prelude's VTEC motor is the big news here, as both the BMW's four-cylinder and the Mazda's V6 should be familiar after the years they have been available. Quite simply, the Honda's engine is all about power and lots of it. That 142kW is a stunning output for a normally aspirated four, and comes about when the 5500rpm is passed and a secondary pair of cam lobes is pressed into service to work the intake valves. They provide high lift and so better breathing; the low-rpm settings improve torque and mid-range response. So while maximum power output is produced at a high 6800rpm (the engine is redlined at 7500rpm), it isn't particularly peaky, and there's plenty of grunt lower in the rev range.

Once that 5500rpm figure is passed on a wide-open throttle there's an extra shove in the back and a more urgent level to the strident engine note. Unlike a turbocharged engine which gives a little and then a lot, the Prelude's mill is giving plenty and then gives more. Those who've seen the movie 'Spinal Tap' and the guitar amplifier which goes up to 11 instead of 10 will know what this is about; there's just that bit of extra grunt available when it's needed.

On the dragstrip the power is put to good use: wheelspin is more than manageable in the dry and there's only the mildest tug of torque steer as the Prelude rockets to 100km/h in just 7.6 seconds. The standing 400 metres is dispatched with equal alacrity, with only 15.6 seconds needed. It's not just the heady combination of a meaty torque curve (which peaks at 212Nm at 5250rpm) to get the car smartly off the line, followed by a never-ending rush of kilowatts that makes it quick - the gearchange is as quick as you like and the ratios seem perfectly chosen.

The 2.5 litre V6 of the MX-6 doesn't match the Prelude's four-cylinder engine on paper despite its greater capacity. With two camshafts per-bank driving four valves per-cylinder, it's a free breathing unit to match the small capacity V6's natural inclination to rev smoothly and freely. Power and torque outputs are impressive enough, with 121kW available at 5600rpm and - interestingly enough - a Prelude-beating 213Nm at a slightly lower 4800rpm. The result is classic six-cylinder motoring: plenty of torque when it's needed, but a willingness to butt hard against the 7000rpm redline when pushed. Like the Honda, the gearing has ratios close against each other and a fairly low final drive which keeps the engine spinning at a happy 3000rpm at 100km/h.

Although it feels plenty quick enough, the MX-6 nevertheless has difficulty matching the Prelude's power-house top end and covers the 0-100km/h time-slot in 8.4 seconds and the standing 400 metres in 16 dead. Despite a slightly bigger tyre footprint on the road (from its 55 profile tyres, against the Prelude's 60s) the MX-6 struggles slightly for grip, but only really when compared with the Prelude's excellence. The gear shift is more rubbery, less precise, and consequently swapping cogs is a slightly slower exercise.

So the Japanese cars' need for speed leaves the BMW looking slightly flat-footed in comparison: the 16-valve l.8-litre four is the best of its type, but outclassed in respect of outright power. As mentioned before, the 325i with its 141kW is a better choice to mix it with the big boys, but with a $76,000 starting price is ultimately a moot choice in this company.

Still, the little four is a delightful engine to use, with all the BMW trademarks of smoothness and revability. The fact that it practically matches the Mazda V6 for a seamless lack of harshness is the best possible praise we can think of. Still, l03kW at 6000rpm and 175Nm at 4500rpm aren't enough to propel it as quickly as the Japanese duo, especially given that it's only 85kg lighter than the Prelude and l0kg heavier than the MX-6.

So 100km/h is reached in 9.8 seconds, and the standing 400 metres passed in 16.6, all with a relaxed almost humming note which contrasts sharply with the Honda's gutteral growl and the Mazda's virtual absence of sound. The BMW's multi-link rear end is almost too grippy for the less than powerful engine for it is difficult to break traction between rear tyres and tarmac, so there's a tendency for the engine to bog down on the standing start. The gearing seems rather too tall as well; despite a direct drive fifth ratio, the final drive of 3.45:1 is suited more to high-speed autobahns then suburban driving.

Still, the smaller capacity and tall gearing helped at the fuel pumps, where the 318is returned a very creditable overall figure of 9.8 litres/100km. The Prelude was not disgraced either, for any car which can deliver such excellent performance then return 10.5 litres/100km is seriously efficient. The MX-6 came third in the fuel economy stakes, but again, its 11.3 litres/100km is hardly likely to bring a smile to the face of any Arab.

On the Road

If the definition of a coupe is a sedan pretending to be a sports car, then these three cars fill that role with varying degrees of success, and in different ways. The Prelude and MX-6 seem to fit the sports car mode if looks mean anything; they're low slung, bristling with wings and spoilers and there's plenty of rubber under the wheel arches. Fact is, there's been some hefty engineering happening under the surface of these cars to overcome some of their inherent features that affect their handling. Their front-wheel drive layouts tend to concentrate weight over the front wheels - engine, gearbox and driveshafts all over the same axle-line - and those front wheels have plenty to do, being responsible for grip and steering at the same time. So both cars have versions of their manufacturers' own four-wheel-steering systems to aid turn-in (as well as parallel parking), and there's wide tyres on light alloy wheels to maximise the amount of grip available.

The BMW is almost perfectly balanced, with engine and transmission at the front, differential and driveshafts at the back and some clever suspension geometry to control almost any situation. Its multi-link rear-end incorporates a form of passive rear-wheel steering, and the reality is that the whole thing works quite brilliantly. There's plenty of grip at either end, and certainly enough for the 1.8-litre's power delivery. That high adhesion levels have been obtained without ruining the ride quality is commendable, for the 318is has excellent absorption of road shock while exhibiting little pitch, dive or body roll. But it's the way the chassis communicates with the driver that makes it a truly great handling car, for the steering is also perfectly weighted, not too sensitive and provides plenty of feedback. It's a chassis which could easily handle more power - which of course it does; right up to the M3 - but in 318is is hugely safe, entertaining and ultimately rewarding.

Things aren't quite as well balanced in Hondaland, for while it's plain that this is a rapid point-to-point conveyance, the Prelude doesn't have quite the same fun-factor inherent in its handling like the BMW. Main culprit is the steering, which is quick enough but quite dead and lacking in feel, but its very sharpness provides an over sensitivity which can become bothersome at big speeds on bumpy roads. All the same, levels of grip are massive although the ultimate stance is an understeering one, and the four-wheel steering ensures it fairly leaps into corners. As ever, though, Honda's trademark double wishbone suspension is short on travel, making the ride somewhat nervous and lumpy at times.

Not so the MX-6 which has a solid but not uncomfortable ride - although it stops short of the BMW's almost plush levels. We suspect the V6 to be something of a weight problem over the front wheels because there is a tendency to understeer, but only under severe provocation and never to any great degree. That said, it's a very capable handler, with a solid stance on the road and rather heavy steering which add up to a dependable demeanor which detracts not a jot from the MX-6's capability to be pointed, turned or flung with a great degree of confidence. Like the Prelude, its 4WS system can at times give the false impression of oversteer as the bum-end of the car moves about and while that's disconcerting it doesn't end in trouble.

The verdict? All hugely capable cars, but the BMW is the nicest and most entertaining. It has a balance and poise which the front-drive Japanese coupes lack and can maintain higher speeds then them as well because of its ability. The Mazda and Prelude are perhaps easier to drive up to eight-tenths; but it's the BMW you want to take to ten-tenths.

Packaging and Accommodation

Styling is the primary factor in the way these three cars have been packaged; they've been made to look good first, and then room has been found for engine, passengers, luggage and the rest. In other words, there's a degree of selfishness in that the owner (who likes the look of the car) and the driver (same person) get to have most of the fun because carrying passengers is a secondary consideration, and hasn't been given as much thought.

Or is that entirely true? One of these cars, you see, is a true four seater; that is, three passengers and a decent load of luggage can be carried respectively in comfort and ease. That car is the BMW, for its more sedan-like proportions mean the rear seat has head and leg room where the Mazda and Prelude have been compromised more by their low rooflines and sloping glass areas. And don't forget, the German car is rear wheel driven while the other two use the supposedly more space-efficient front-wheel drive layout that has all the mechanicals packaged at the front of the car. The BMW coupe is able to achieve greater space efficiency simply because of its short overhangs beyond the front and rear axle lines.

Although its overall length is the shortest of the three, it has the longest wheelbase, leaving an elongated cabin space. The boot is also sensibly shaped, being acceptably long and wide, but more importantly the lid opens to bumper level, leaving a big opening, and the rear seats can be folded down to further increase luggage space.

The Prelude, on the other hand, takes space efficiency to new lows. Even once an average sized driver and front seat passenger have found comfortable seating positions, leg room in the rear has been reduced to exactly zero. Move the front seat forward to give the back seat some room and the front passenger's knees are against the low-slung glove box. The rear-seat occupant's woes are further hampered by having his or her head hard-up against the sloping rear glass. This is despite Honda having removed the centre console in the rear for the 1994 spec car; really, the back seat could have been used for extra luggage space, because the boot is small and awkwardly shaped.

The Mazda falls somewhere between the two with just-acceptable rear-seat head and leg room, but it's not the place where a passenger would want to spend much time. The boot is reasonably spacious (helped by a fold-down rear seat, but the small boot opening negates placement of anything too large.

Still, the driver is well looked after in the MX-6 with good, clear white-on-black instruments and no surprises as far as the layout of gauges and switchgear is concerned. It's all reminiscent of the 626 sedan and not particularly special or upmarket; an impression enhanced by the plain plastic steering wheel and gearshift lever. The seats, which are trimmed in woven cloth, are comfortable and probably the softest of this bunch, and there's no problems finding a comfortable driving position.

The Prelude's wacky dashboard has been well documented - apparently the inspiration for the glowing panel of LED gauges came from the Hong Kong skyline at night, and probably the ingestion of hallucinogens - and while it's impressive enough to first timers it doesn't work as well as conventional instruments. Number One: there's no point spreading the fuel and temperature dials and the clock out in front of the passenger; Number Two: the thick red needles on the speedo and tachometer aren't as accurate as the conventional weapons.

That aside, the cosy nature of the Prelude's cockpit envelopes the driver, wrapping him in racing style seats, the high centre console and the leather steering wheel. Everything is black, ribbed velour, carpet or plastic which looks nice enough but attracts dust quickly. It's a great cabin for two people, but no more.

Despite the 318is coupe's closeness in styling to its sedan brother, they in fact have no panels in common, making the coupe lower, wider and a quite exceptionally good looking car in the most subtle of fashions. To the driver, those long doors and low ride-height make it less then easy to get in and out of, but the compromises almost end there. Even the windows slide down a crack when the door is opened so there's no pressurisation when they're slammed. Entry to the back seat is helped by front seats which swing forward, and as mentioned there's plenty of room available.

The instruments are conventional white-on-black; the driver's seat is adjustable for height, rake and reach and all the switchgear is sensibly placed. Our test car's leather trim was excellent in feel and quality, lending a softer, more civilised atmosphere than the Japanese cars' plastics and fabrics.

Conclusion

There's a clear delineation of duties for each of these cars. If you want to go extremely fast in a straight line, prefer massive grip over handling finesse and don't have any friends or family, then the Prelude's the car for you. The engine is a sensation, the chassis adept but the interior packaging is woeful. We'd take it any day because it's a terrific driver's car, even if it does have other problems.

The Mazda is less hard-edged and although comfortably quick, doesn't give the same thrills that the Honda does. The engine's silky smoothness and linear power delivery and quietness mark this more as a cruiser, and it fills that role very well while retaining some sports car credentials.

The BMW's main charms are its handling ability, which is top-notch, its sensual steering, sensible packaging and classic good looks. The lack of straight-line performance can be annoying but once underway on a twisty piece of road it will cover the same distance as the other two just as fast and with far less effort from the driver. It's the best all rounder, and probably the best car to live with long-term out of the three.

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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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