Vintage Comparison Test: 1971 Super Coupes – Car and Driver Evaluates A New Class Of Small Sporty Cars

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As the 1970s unfolded, Car and Driver introduced new terminology to define an emerging class of cars targeting driving enthusiasts: Super Coupes.  It was a far cry from the mid-1960s, when C&D was writing about Super Cars, mid-sized powerhouses which defined the American Muscle Car scene.  In contrast, these small, nimble, affordable Super Coupes offered less in the way of brute horsepower than the increasingly irrelevant Muscle Cars, but were still a blast to drive.  Which one did C&D think was the best pick?

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Ownership costs for C&D’s Super Cars had soared starting in the late 1960s.  The Muscle Cars themselves were bigger and more expensive than ever, with poor economy and high maintenance costs.  Compounding the problem, the insurance industry increasingly penalized any performance cars with extremely high rates.  The net effect was that Muscle Cars were increasingly priced out of reach for many consumers, while seeming too inefficient and out-of-touch for the 1970s.  Adding salt to the wound, government regulations were rapidly sapping the performance capabilities of the Super Cars, leaving them far less potent.  Clearly a new answer was called for to the meet the needs of driving enthusiasts on a budget, and C&D set out to define this new class.

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So for 1971, the roster defining “Super” looked quite a bit different than it had five years earlier.  In place of mid-sized muscle machines you now had four efficient, imported cars, each with sporting intentions, and two domestics which had been developed primarily as economy cars.

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The one car that arguably did not belong at all on this list was the Pinto.  It really did not have any sporting pretenses whatsoever, and was outclassed in this comparison.  To be fair, Ford typically positioned the Pinto as a budget-friendly small car, not a sportster.  Chevrolet, by contrast, was more overt with the Vega GT, trying to push its economy offering into a sportier class, so it was fair game for the C&D test.

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The Opel was the star of the show in Car and Driver’s eyes.  It was sized just right, with an attractive style and engaging driving characteristics.  Nothing revolutionary, just a well-thought-out package with first rate engineering and thoughtful ergonomics.  Hmmm, sounds like what a small Chevrolet sports coupe should have been…

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It’s really helpful to see a simple, straightforward chart like this ranking the contenders side-by-side according to a range of attributes.  Even though the data is subjective, the numbers form a helpful frame of reference and the scores were backed up by details in the article.

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Comprehensive specifications and performance results, arrayed in a straightforward manner for each car, are also much appreciated.  Note that the Vega GT was the most expensive car as tested…

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So in the end, Car and Driver went through the pros and cons of each car tested, and how they decided their rankings.  According to C&D’s editors, the well-rounded Opel came out on top, followed by the feisty Mazda, while the Capri took third place.  From there, the Celica landed fourth–great for everyday driving, but somewhat forgettable, while the good-looking but flawed Vega couldn’t overcome its faults and placed fifth.  C&D even fessed-up and said that the 6th ranked Pinto didn’t really belong in the test at all, perhaps to the dismay of Ford Motor Company’s PR minions.

So that was how Car and Driver ranked the new Super Coupe class contenders.  Did their conclusions line up with how you would have likely ranked the cars?  And if you were going to buy one, which would it be?

For me, I have to admit that I have a soft spot for the Capri–I love its European take on the Pony Car theme.   The performance results were certainly competitive and the price was right.  I’d even take it in the groovy oh-so-70s orange of the Capri featured in the test!