The good Major will no doubt be covering the SMMT Test Day in finest “speed dating with cars” style, so you don’t really need to hear my own thoughts on the day’s vehicles.
Instead, I’ll deal with a more metaphysical issue. It concerns a car that doesn’t exist, at least not in the modern world, but really should.
Sadly, it’s also a car that no manufacturer will likely ever build, because its direct market makes up only a small proportion of the motoring landscape, and its actual market is already better served by existing vehicles.
It is the budget, rear-wheel drive saloon.
The SMMT day got me thinking about such a thing as I drove two cars in particular that reminded me of just how fun a good rear-drive car can be. I’m not one of those hooligan types who aims to travel sideways everywhere, but I don’t mind the odd dab of oppo on occasion and I do appreciate the intricacies of having the front wheels steer and the rear wheels drive.
Those two cars both wore the Toyota badge, though both occupied different eras.
The first was Toyota UK’s immaculate 1980s Corolla GT, known as the AE86 by car geeks and Hachi-Roku (‘Eighty-six’) by the Japanese (or people who wish they were Japanese). With only 38,000 miles or so to its name it’s among the best-preserved of its breed, with silver and dark silver coachwork and a sumptuous blue crushed velour interior.
It also has an engine from the ’80s MR2 and a live rear axle, making it hilarious fun to drive. This is a subjective trait it shares with my second example, the brand new Toyota GT86. The engine, market class, pricing bracket, equipment levels and decade are different, but the ethos is much the same – simple, rear-drive fun.
Here’s where the problem starts: Neither are really accessible cars any more.
Let’s say a young man wants to buy a new car. He wants it to be fun, but also inexpensive to run. Ah-ha! you say, then the Toyota GT86 is perfect – lots of fun, and mpg potential in the 40s.
Sadly not, for our young man has a budget less than half that of the GT86’s £25K list price.
Ah-ha! you say again, for the market is full of MX-5s and BMWs and old AE86s at way less than ten grand… The trouble is, that’s a limited market to choose from.
Our man also wants a suitable back seat for his friends, ruling out the MX-5. And a BMW still has BMW maintenance costs, unless you plump for a 316i in which case it doesn’t really have the power or lack of weight to let our man tackle the odd roundabout at a jaunty angle now and then. And he wants a warranty and zero miles on the odometer, which rules out a previously-drifted AE86.
What I envision is something simpler.
No car is currently simpler than the Dacia Sandero, so we shall use this as our muse. The Sandero is, as some might point out, “wrong-wheel drive”. I don’t agree with this sentiment usually, but here it rings true. The rest of the car is about right though – it doesn’t weigh much, the interior is no more complicated than it needs to be, it’s spacious, and it is a truly cheap new car.
Making such a vehicle rear-wheel drive would make it less cheap, but a car of the Sandero’s austerity has plenty of room for manouevre – if six grand for a Sandero seems suitable enough, would maybe nine or ten grand for a similarly-basic but resolutely rear-drive car seem excessive?
We’d have to pick a different engine of course. A 1.6-litre naturally-aspirated unit should do it. With tyres as skinny as the Sandero’s, anywhere between 100 and 120 horses should be enough to defeat the bond between rubber and road. If our man wants more power, he can simply utilise traditional means of extracting it – better breathing, hotter cams, more aggresive timing.
Note at this point that I’m not suggesting Dacia should be the driving force behind this project; merely that the brand’s simple ethos is exactly what I feel such a car would need.
In reality, a company like Toyota or Dacia’s second-cousin Nissan would be better suited to it – Toyota, as I’m sure a few drivetrain pieces could be purged from the GT86 to improve economies of scale, and Nissan because it’s looking for an excuse to revive the Datsun name and our car would be a modern interpretation of its much-venerated 510 saloon from the 1970s.
A saloon body is important, I think. Not vital, but saloons do look better going sideways, to my eyes. Have you ever seen a BMW 1 Series hatchback power-oversteering? It looks a bit wrong, the polar opposite of an understeering M3.
And a coupe is out of the question, as it harms practicality and encourages manufacturers to bump up the performance and the price at which point the excercise’s ethos is spoiled. Plus, a Sandero-sized saloon would go down well in other markets too, like China and India – markets where the shatchback rules. There, they don’t care whether something is front or rear-wheel drive, as long as they can fix it with a hammer and push-start it with a sacred animal if it goes wrong.
Styling would be a difficult exercise. Again I refer to the Datsun 510’s simple shape (and that of other kamm-back saloons of the ’60s and ’70s) as an ideal, but modern regulations probably nix that plan. So again, something uncomplicated – a Sandero saloon, perhaps. Or even something not dissimilar to the Skoda Rapid, but with less tall and narrow proportions.
But you probably get the impression. To summarise:
Our car would be priced at the Dacia end of the scale. £10,000 on-the-road would be wonderful, £15,000 wouldn’t be heartbreaking. It would have at least four usable seats, but creature comforts would necessarily be kept to a minimum to ensure the price remained low. It would use a tried-and-tested engine of modest capacity, and that engine would drive the rear wheels (through a manual gearbox, naturally).
As a result of all the ingredients above, it would be fun to drive. As fun to drive as that GT86 or Corolla even, but cheaper and newer respectively.
And for the reasons I mentioned at the top, it will never exist. But it should.