Vintage Review: The Canadian Caper – Road & Track Tests Five Cheap Imports

(first posted 8/8/2017)       We all remember the upstart import brands that launch, stumble, and then become roaring successes. Toyota, for example, almost sunk its reputation with the Toyopet Crown, which was ill-suited for American conditions. Hyundai’s early models sold well but quickly earned reputations for poor quality in their export markets. But what of the brands that didn’t triumph against adversity? Road & Track travelled north to Canada to test drive 5 imports not offered in the U.S, pitting them against the Honda Civic.

As this Popular Mechanics article helpfully explains, safety standards in the 1970s and 1980s were almost identical in Canada and the U.S. Where Canada differed was in emissions standards. In 1984, for example, Canada’s emissions standards were equivalent to those employed in the U.S. in 1975.

It was these weaker emissions standards that allowed automakers like Innocenti (from Italy), Skoda (from Czechoslovakia), Lada (from Russia), and Dacia (from Romania) to peddle their wares. These companies could ill afford to re-engineer their cars to meet stricter US emissions standards and typically lacked the vision and capital to plan for elaborate export ventures, the heavy lifting taken care of by enterprising importers like Peter Dennis. After all, there’s always a market for a cheap, new car.

Some were more successful than others. Lada managed to shift 50,000 units in Canada between 1974 and 1984, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 hampering sales for a period of time. Sales eventually petered out—blame the old, 1966-vintage design of the Signet. The rugged Niva 4×4 enjoyed a cult following, however. Canada also received the Samara before AvtoVAZ’s export brand packed up and left Canada in 1998.

Aussies were far less willing to take a chance on Lada than Canadians. Launched in 1984 in Australia, these Soviet automobiles were viewed with skepticism. Was it Cold War hostility that sunk Lada’s Australian fortunes or was it simply because the cars were crap? Only the Niva remains on Aussie roads in any meaningful quantity. We skipped the RWD Signet/Riva (which was also relatively popular in the UK with bargain buyers) and instead got the FWD Samara. Or was it Cevaro? Or Volante? No, it was Sable. Actually, it was all of the above. The constant rebooting of the Lada brand and the cars’ rock-bottom prices couldn’t salvage the brand here, nor could famous Aussie race car driver Peter Brock’s involvement.

Speaking of the UK, Brits could buy a Polish FSO Polonez (later known as Caro) all the way up until 1997. This was a rebodied Polski 125p, which in turn was based on the Fiat 125. The 125 was simply a lengthened variant of the 124, which spawned the aforementioned Lada Signet.

We didn’t get FSOs here but we were offered cars from FSM, another Polish company affiliated with FSO and also producing old Fiats. The Niki, FSM’s only offering in Australia, was a Fiat 126 built under licence and sold for just $AUD7,990. That was $2k less than the next cheapest cars in Australia, the Kei-class Daihatsu Handivan and Subaru Sherpa hatchback vans. Promotional material highlighted the Niki’s low running costs and easy serviceability, not to mention its rock-bottom price. If you bought a Niki, you even got a free teddy bear called Niki! Few, however, took the plunge. Its rear-mounted two-cylinder engine could muster only 24 hp and 30 ft-lbs of torque. Even the two-cylinder Sherpa had 36 hp! Like the Yugo (not sold here), a convertible version was created. Whether it was even fast enough to put the wind in your hair is a good question. The Niki would reach 60 mph in 41 seconds, more than twice as slow as a three-cylinder Suzuki Swift or Daihatsu Charade. If, miracle of miracles, I ever find one still on the road, I’ll snap some photos and we can all have a laugh about a 1972-vintage minicar being sold in Australia in 1990. They didn’t even come with radios! How desperate did they think people were for a new-car warranty?

Speaking of other regrettable entries into the Aussie market, there are the low-tech pickup trucks of Chinese ZX Auto and Indian Tata, the shameless Toyota RAV4 clones and cheapo hatchbacks pushed by Chery (from China), and the handsome MK sedan by Geely (also Chinese) which is sold only in Western Australia.

Back to the magazine. Of the cars in Road & Track’s test, only the Skoda was sold here in Australia. That surprised me as I’ve never seen an old Skoda on the road here, but indeed they were sold up until 1983. The testers rated the Skoda much higher than the Dacia, which was judged the slowest, crudest and noisiest of the group.

The Beetle spawned so many rear-engined imitators but almost all of them were gone by the 1980s. Not so the Skoda, which seemed to be a better Beetle. Sadly for Skoda, 1980s shoppers wanted something different to a newer, fresher Beetle.

The Innocenti charmed the Road & Track crew. Mini mechanicals, Italian styling, and a willing Daihatsu three-cylinder engine made for a winning combination. There were reservations, however, about long-term durability considering the often poor rustproofing of Italian cars of the era.

And, of course, there was the benchmark Civic to compare these upstarts again. Miraculously, the Pony came quite close in overall points.

The only Dacias North Americans are likely to see today are Renault-badged ones crossing the border from Mexico, like the Logan and Duster—Dacia is still a budget brand but a relatively respectable one. Skoda is even more respectable, albeit one of the lower-priced brands within the VW Group. Innocenti is long gone. AvtoVAZ exported Ladas globally for many years but today their export program has almost entirely dried up. Hyundai, of course, has been smashingly successful. With the exception of Lada and Innocenti, these brands have come a long way since this comparison test.

Does anyone here have any experience with these old econoboxes?