4 Modern Classics that are NOT surprisingly good!
Yesterday I took a look at a selection of cars from the not-too-distant past which I reckon have been a little bit overlooked for one reason or another. Now, it's time to turn the tables and look back upon four models that somehow didn't quite live up to expectations.
There are many reasons to anticipate greatness when a new car appears. It could be the manufacturers illustrious heritage, or the supposed coming together of parts that look perfect on paper, or it could just be that it looks great in the press photos. All too often though, we've seen cars with so much promise that have turned out to commit the worst sin in motoring, they've been disappointing. Prepare to shake your heads disapprovingly people.
The Peugeot 206 GTi
Just like yesterday, we're starting off with a small French hot hatchback. The difference here is, that unlike the Citroen that was featured there, the Peugeot 206 GTi shares almost none of the attributes that made that car such a nice surprise.
Don't get me wrong, objectively it wasn't a bad car in many ways. The 206 was a chic little thing when it first appeared and the subtle alloys 'n' spoiler makeover afforded to the GTi version lent it a bit of subtle purpose. The 2.0 litre 136 horsepower engine was alright I suppose and the handling was tidy.
There were a couple of big problems though. Firstly, the 206 GTi hit the market at pretty much the same time as Renault were launching their much faster, much more characterful Clio 172. Pitting these two against each other was like using a fire extinguisher to combat a nuclear warhead, the poor old Pug got incinerated by the Renaultsport strike force.
Then there was the Pininfarina-penned elephant in the room. The old 205 GTi was the car that had pretty much set the template for hot hatchbacks, and even today the years show no signs of condemning its brilliance. The older car was lighter, faster and a hundred times more entertaining. Driving the 205 and 206 back to back was a bit like watching a four year old trying to beat his Dad in an arm wrestling match, it was a foregone conclusion.
In fairness to Peugeot, they didn't give up. A couple of years later they had another crack with the more powerful, more-focused GTi 180. It was a much better hot hatch, but the disappointment of that early car had tarnished the Peugeot GTi badge, and it would be a long time before it recovered.
The Jaguar S-Type
Arrrrrrgh. It's a difficult one for me, this. Knocking a Jaguar feels to me a bit like scolding your faithful old Labrador for eating out of the bin. The thing is though, like the rubbish-raiding canine, in this case, Jag should have known better.
Launched in 1998, the S-Type was Jaguars great white hope destined to take the fight to BMW's 5-Series for the first time. Unfortunately, the incumbent 5er at the time was the E39, very possibly the best car ever to wear the badge. Where the BMW was sleek, modern and progressive, the retro-styled Jag was about as far from the prevailing 'Cool Britannia' movement that was in full swing at the time as it was possible to get. We wanted Oasis and Blur, and Jaguar was trying to palm us off with The Glen Miller Orchestra.
Annoyingly, the S-Type was actually a nice old bus to drive, and if you selected the 4.0 litre V8 model, it was (and still is) properly quick. The problem is though, that hardly anybody was going to discover this thanks to the off-putting exterior. Even if they did manage to bring themselves to climb aboard, the downright shoddy interior which was ripped wholesale from some awful 90's Lincoln (Ford owned Jag at the time) would have had them climbing straight out again.
Like the Peugeot above, the S-Type was continually updated and improved with styling tweaks and a much nicer interior and by the time it was replaced with the far nicer XF in 2007, it wasn't bad at all. But a dodgy reputation is almost impossible for a car to shake off once it has stuck, and with the S-Type the stench of disappointment still lingers.
The Nissan 350Z
Lets get one thing straight. The old Datsun Z-cars were wonderful, joyous creations that proved once-and-for-all that the Japanese car industry was not going to be restricted, as we Europeans had often suggested, to making boring little shopping cars for old ladies. They had lusty straight-six engines and superb rear-driven chassis' and I would like to own one very much indeed.
Even by the early 90's Nissan, as they were now called, were still at it. The 300ZX was a twin-turbo rocket sled and the 200SX may have looked about as exciting as a weekend of wallpapering, but by Christ it was a stonking thing to drive. And all that before we delve into the myriad of incredible machines to come out of Yokohama wearing a Skyline badge.
So what the hell went wrong with the 350Z then? Here was a car that seemingly had all the right ingredients to be utterly brilliant, and yet, it just wasn't. Shall we start with the engine? It was a 3.5 litre V6, which also starred in that bastion of performance driving, the Renault Espace, and wound up to an impressive 276 horsepower. Sounds great, but something else they seemingly shared with the Espace was the exhaust system, because the noise it makes can only be described as a horrendous drone. You ended up driving it more slowly to try and keep the noise down, honestly I'd sooner be waterboarded than drive from London to Scotland in a 350Z.
Handling? Well you could never call it terrible, and you could always flick the back end out, but you can do that in lots of cars. The 350 never felt as if it wanted you to though. It felt heavy, as if the chassis engineers had made a half-hearted attempt to turn the Nissan into a muscle car but had gotten bored and gone off to watch Takeshi's Castle reruns before it was finished.
On their way to the TV room, they must have passed the styling team who were presumably on their way back from getting ideas from the QVC shopping channel, because that's where the 350Z looks and feels as though it came from.
I'm sure there are plenty of people who love their 350Z's, and more power to those guys, it certainly isn't the worst sports car of the 2000's. That honour goes to the Chrysler Crossfire, but at least with the Crossfire you knew it was going to be terrible. Nissan, with all their sporting history and know-how should have done better. I wanted to drive one for years, and when I did, it let me down.
The VW Golf VR6
I've been struggling all morning with deciding which car I'm going to award the last spot on my list here. I thought about the original Audi S3, which in theory seemed like my idea of the perfect car, but when I actually owned one it bored me to tears, and the gearbox exploded. Another candidate was the Honda CR-Z, which was supposed to herald the rebirth of one of my very favourite cars, the CR-X, but instead turned out to be a four tonne motorised yurt.
The thing is though, none of the cars above, nor any of the others in this list have disappointed me on as much of a personal level as the Volkswagen Golf VR6. As a car-obsessed kid growing up in the 90's I used to buy and read various car magazines from cover to cover, and one day it was just there staring at me in 72-point bold - A VW Golf with a 2.8 litre V6 engine. Now, I know in today's world of ballistic A45's and RS3's, a 174 horsepower VW Golf doesn't seem particularly interesting, in fact these days you can buy a diesel-powered Golf that's quicker, but back then it seemed amazing.
Further investigation only caused my enthusiasm to grow as I sat and pored over road tests where the VR6 was said to have the beating of such esteemed rivals as BMW's 328i and the V6 Audi Coupe. This was the car I wanted, no, needed to own, and then one day, many years later, I finally got to drive one.
It was crap. The hefty VR6 shoved in atop the front axle caused rampant and disconcerting understeer, and because it weighed so much more than the four-pot engine they'd had to soften the damping to stop it riding like it had granite wheels. This meant that it wallowed and flailed where a 328 would have felt alert and connected. There was no doubting the effectiveness of the brakes, but the pedal was so devoid of feel that it was as if the discs were made of glass. It sounded nice when you gave it some stick, but that wasn't enough to mask the fact that the VR6 was not, as I had been led to believe, the second coming of Christ. It wasn't as though this was a tired old banger either, it was a low-mile, cherished example in a VW collection. This was a car I had wanted to drive for ten years, and when I finally did, it made me sad.
Luckily, the V6 Golf didn't die with the Mk3. Eventually, through trial and error (and the fitment of Haldex 4WD) we ended up with the Golf R32, which was a much more convincing car all-round. That said, eventually even VW had decided they couldn't quite make it work, and gave us the four-cylinder turbocharged Golf R that we know and love today.