Vintage R&T Review: 1971 Economy Sedans Comparison – The Vega and the Pinto Face the Corona, the 510 and the Beetle; Mediocre and Crude Vs. Comfortable, Entertaining and Antique

It’s 1971 and the economy class is heating up. After lots of plot twists, Detroit’s Big 2 have launched new models to stave off the imports’ ascendance. Meanwhile, the Japanese are bringing their most competitive offerings to date. And the long-running Beetle is selling better than ever, defying skeptics.

We know how these storylines finish, but how were these products received back in the day?

Obviously, R&T’s main interest was to test how well Detroit’s new import fighters would fare. By ’71, the imports comprised 13% of the US market and their rise could no longer be ignored. GM had done a big effort to turn out the Vega; all-new models, in a new size category, were a rarity for US carmakers. The Pinto was no less of an effort by Ford, though using many components from their European branches.

Regarding the imports, R&T picked rather wisely which brands to test. Many others are mentioned, but most eventually left the US and some disappeared altogether. About the picks, the Super Beetle and the Toyota Corona Deluxe were chosen for being the segment’s best sellers, and the Datsun 510 for being the most technically interesting and an enthusiast’s favorite.

The segment’s perennial leader was the VW, and the recently launched Super Beetle was chosen for the test. With a number of updates that were a big deal for VW, the model intended to keep the aging platform alive against the competition. Meanwhile, new for ’71, the Corona was quickly becoming the one to watch for. In Deluxe form, reviewers called it the limousine of the group, being quite roomy and comparatively luxurious. Last, the Datsun 510 was no new model, but it was a good seller and possessed IRS suspension and a lively 96-bhp 1595 cc engine.

The testing would be rather comprehensive for all five participants. 170 miles of varying road conditions; freeways, winding canyons, stop-and-go traffic, and a series of performance tests. In total, 14 categories of performance, comfort, and function would be evaluated.

With numbers totaled, the Corona Deluxe was deemed the ‘best of the group.’  It topped seven categories all related to comfort and convenience: ride, body structural integrity, ventilation, driver seating, rear seating, trim and finish, and luggage compartment. Also, the Corona was the quickest of the lot, with its engine performing smoothly and quietly.

Handling was considered the Corona’s weakest aspect. R&T considered the low scores the result of factory-recommended low tire pressure; part of Toyota’s efforts to give the Corona a ‘plush’ character. Enthusiasts may have frowned at such decisions, but Toyota knew their customers’ needs. Braking was another weak point for the Corona. Regardless, the Corona Deluxe was found to be an outstanding value that was quiet, comfortable, and strong.

Japan’s perennial number 2, Nissan in the form of Datsun, reached the second-best scoring in the group. The areas where the Datsun 510 rated best were ingress-egress and steering. The engine was considered best too, with the virile-sounding unit giving a strong performance. Testers thought the 510’s instruments and drivetrain were delightful and that it encouraged drivers to extract the most from the vehicle’s potential. The Datsun’s brakes were rated the best as well.

Meanwhile, the 510’s boxy cabin scored an easy 2nd on interior and comfort matters, but lacked the luxurious feeling of the Toyota. The Datsun 510 was summed up as being roomy, capable, and entertaining.

Time for the domestics to make an appearance. In third place, the Chevy Vega, which R&T considered a ‘very capable car,’ in a tone that sounded like faint praise. Testers thought it was the best-looking of the group, though interior trim-finish, and body structure were deemed the worst.

Handling and braking got the Vega’s best scores; in the skidpad, it reached the 2nd best cornering speed and the 2nd best stopping distance. Handling was considered as near neutral as a sedan could be, and its ventilated brakes behaved very well under normal driving.

While the Vega’s performance numbers were good, testers found the car required too much effort to achieve them. Its 3-speed gearbox was easily rated as the worst, and engine noise was excessive. The interior was ‘not pretty,’ and its seats were ‘not well designed.’ The Vega was summed up as able, roadable, and relatively crude.

For a new model, the Pinto reached an unimpressive 4th place. The packaging had much to do with it, with the Pinto being the shortest and lowest of the five, rear seat and trunk space suffered. The driving position and front seats scored rather poorly as well. In regards to performance, the car had neutral handling but was rather bouncy and possessed mediocre brakes. On the positive side, the Pinto had a delightful gearbox and decent steering. R&T’s Pinto evaluation: mediocre but cute.

I don’t think I need to go into detail as to why the Beetle, even in Super form, scored lowest in the group. There’s simply no way a car designed in the 1930s could really compete against vehicles conceived from scratch for the 1970s. The main question would be, why was it still selling so well? As the review explains, the model relied on a reputation VW had been long-building, based on two things that meant a lot to buyers: (1) a well-built, durable, and reliable car, and (2) a dealer organization carefully planned to really take care of the product.

Hindsight being 20-20, 1971 is a curious year when seen from a distance. The Big Three entered the decade with the ‘import fight’ in their minds, and in the case of GM and Ford, even joined in the fray. Meanwhile, their intermediates and full-sizers were larger and thirstier than ever. While the import wave was rising, the Big Three did much PR and ‘planning’ around how they would face the menace. However, under the surface, their actions and new products just showed a great reluctance to change. Curiously, this test contains exactly the products where one could trace the vices and virtues of most of the players. The only plot twists would be VW’s fate, and Ford to some degree, but aside from that, all subsequent events seem almost predictable.