The series on the history of the Dodge Colt that started with the 1971-73 Colt and the Cohort Sighting of a Toyota Corolla 1600 wagon, and the fond reminisces that they brought out based on decades-old memories, may have made younger readers who did not experience these cars wonder what mainstream opinion thought of them at the time. A window into that point of view comes from a 42 year old magazine that somehow survived several changes in residence and attic purgings, a July 1972 issue of Consumer Reports with reviews of six subcompact wagons, including a Dodge Colt and a Toyota Corolla 1600. The results of these tests are quite revealing and sometimes surprising.
Consumer Reports car reviews from this era were a fairly accurate representation of mainstream attitudes toward cars, at a time when a full size American land yacht was a “standard” size car and anything else seemed small and uncomfortable. The differences between now and then in views on driving dynamics are apparent in the 1972 Chevrolet Impala receiving a “very good” grade for handling and the 1972 Chevelle an “excellent” mark (with Fords and Mopars scoring far lower), while advanced European cars such as the Audi 100LS often were criticized for seeming relatively skittish and unpredictable. Standards have changed even more in quality control expectations, and in this era Consumer Reports reviews described numbers and severity of manufacturing defects that are unimaginable in new cars today.
The upper tier of the subcompact wagon class in the judgment of Consumer Reports consisted of the Renault 12, the Ford Pinto, and the Datsun 510. The Renault 12, the only front wheel drive car reviewed, finished on top, upholding the French tradition of comfort with superior seats and ride and having the best overall competence, with the caveat that Renault’s small dealer network (400 in the entire U.S., half on the East Coast) would make ownership difficult in many parts of the U.S. The Ford Pinto, not yet known for gas tank fires, finished a close second, its main asset being nimble handling. The Datsun 510 was only slightly behind the Pinto, with its four doors and superior engine driveability being significant advantages.
The Toyota Corona Mark II, Dodge Colt and Toyota Corolla 1600 were firmly in the second tier. The Toyota Corona Mark II, the largest wagon tested, rode and handled poorly, leading to a fourth place finish. The Colt and Corolla finished last, with Consumer Reports finding very little good to say about either (be sure to click on the images to enlarge text).
A cramped rear seat, poor ride lightly or fully loaded, high noise levels, and unpredictable handing described as “whimsical” were lowlights for the Mitsubishi-made Colt. The engine and four speed manual transmission received praise, though.
One problem noted by Consumer Reports is a reminder that the good old days of simpler automobiles were not always good. The report noted that rain — a not uncommon situation in real-world use — disabled the Colt’s ignition system and stalled the engine. It also specified fixes for the problem whose simple nature indicates that Mitsubishi engineers did not sweat the details in the engine compartment: using a 62 cent coil-to-distributor high tension lead made for Chrysler Slant Six engines, and taping over the holes in the radiator filler panel to the left of the radiator.
The Corolla received similarly low marks in most areas. Rear seat access and comfort were poor, as were the car’s ride, noise levels, and handling, the latter described as “treacherous.” The report also warned that the manufacturer’s maximum recommended load overloaded the rear tires and created further handling problems, possibly in violation of federal safety standards.
The tested Corolla had a major strength, however, and it provided a clear indication of the source of Toyota’s future success. The sample Corolla had the fewest defects of any car that Consumer Reports had tested in years, only nine, while the other cars tested each had at least 20. The Renault had 34, including several that were catastrophic failures: a connecting rod that tore through the side of the engine block at 750 miles, flywheel bolts that loosened at 1500 miles, and windshield wipers that jammed on snow and caused the wiper motor to overheat and burn. The Colt was in the same ballpark as the Pinto, 510, and Corona Mark II, with defects numbering in the 20s, none of them as serious as the major problems experienced in the Renault.
Even across the gulf of 42 years of standards changing, this six car comparison reveals some surprising truths and some that are unsurprising in hindsight. Renault had a subcompact with class leading comfort and driving dynamics in 1972, although with serious quality control problems and a limited dealer network. Renault now is almost entirely forgotten in the U.S. and remembered mostly unfavorably. Toyota, on the other hand, had an undistinguished design but quality control second to none and a more than adequate U.S. dealer network. Its success is well known to all. Meanwhile, Ford, Datsun and Mitsubishi were all somewhere in the middle, and so were their corporate fates since 1972.
So it seems that there were good reasons to remember a Toyota Corolla 1600 Wagon fondly, regardless of how it compared to mainstream American cars of its time or what car buff magazines thought about its performance. The Dodge Colt, with similar disadvantages and less of the high quality that Toyota helped to make Japanese cars synonymous with, would have been less likely to be viewed as highly. The Renault 12 would have been hit or miss, with the misses likely to be catastrophically bad.