(first posted 5/19/2016) More than most U.S. buff books, Road & Track magazine displayed a particularly strong penchant for European cars. Therefore, it was no surprise that the magazine would assemble a comparison test of European sport sedans for the August 1991 issue. The problem was, two of the brands tested would actually exit the American market just as the article appeared, and the others would suffer mightily at the hands of the Japanese. But never mind, just don your tweed jacket and cap and revel in the wonders of Olde Europe.
The range of cars selected represented a surprisingly broad cross-section of European offerings, with a whopping $16,525 ($28,892 adjusted!) price gap between the least expensive Passat and the most expensive Audi 90 Quattro. Overall, though, the cars roughly fell into the emerging “near luxury” category—nice, but not as expensive as the full-on luxury products while pricier (though not necessarily better) than volume offerings.
The all-new 1992 E36 3 Series from BMW would have been a very appropriate addition to this test, but it had only just been revealed and was not yet available for sale in the U.S. I have no doubt that it would have been the editors’ favorite had it been included.
With sleek exterior styling courtesy of Pininfarina and a lusty 3.0 V6, the Alfa Romeo 164 had the trappings of an alluring Italian, at least until you opened the door. Inside, the over-styled, plastic-filled interior offered subpar ergonomics and an odd driving position. Quality was typically Italian as well, and not in a good way, with poor paint, rattles and electrical glitches. Priced at $29,810 ($52,120 adjusted), the 164L was no bargain, especially from a brand with a spotty reputation. For shoppers who weren’t dedicated Alfisti, there were other compelling and more affordable FWD sport sedan choices, like the stylish Nissan Maxima, positioned as a 4-door sports car and also sporting a zesty 3.0 V6. Getting into the highly-praised Maxima SE with leather and ABS would have cost $8,410 ($14,704 adjusted) less than the temperamental Italian temptress. Ultimately, in 1991 only 3,478 U.S. buyers would be seduced by any Alfa, including the Spider Veloce and the 164.
Were it not for parent company Volkswagen’s German pride and deep pockets, it is highly doubtful the Audi brand would have even survived in the U.S. market. The brand’s reputation was in tatters thanks to the unintended acceleration smear. Sales were in a free-fall—for 1991, only 12,262 Audis were sold in the U.S. Another huge issue was the fact that product offerings like the 90 Quattro were uncompetitive for the price. Though well crafted with an attractive interior and the benefits of the AWD Quattro system—all typical Audi hallmarks, the 90 had some major deficits like a tight cabin and an embarrassingly small trunk. The as-tested price was quite high: $32,190 ($56,281 adjusted)—basically the same money in 1991 would have bought the all-new Acura Legend LS, a more powerful and comfortable car from a brand with significantly more credibility at the time. No surprise then that a mere 655 Audi 90 Quattros found American homes in 1991.
Behold mighty Mercedes just as they faced a massive assault from Japan. The entry-level 4-cylinder Benz offered the classic benefits of engineering excellence and high quality construction, but for quite the price. The $31,355 ($54,821 adjusted) as-tested price was the second highest among the test cars, and this was for a base 190 with MB Tex vinyl upholstery and just a few options like metallic paint and power seats. Add normal luxury category fare like a 6-cylinder engine, velour seats and automatic to the baby Benz and the price ballooned to $37,490, which was just $510 ($892 adjusted) shy of the flagship V8-powered Lexus LS400!
Poor Peugeot. Road & Track gallantly tested their top offering, the 405 Mi 16, and offered Peugeot plenty of pointers on how they could make the quirky French car more appealing to American buyers. But alas, it was too late: in August 1991 Peugeot announced it was leaving the U.S. market, after an abysmal 2,233 sales in 1991. There simply weren’t enough Eurocentric Road & Track readers forking over $22,060 ($38,570 adjusted) for a failing French car when there were so many other compelling choices available. Tant pis, c’est la guerre!
Market and economic pressures forced some European brands to collaborate on product development in the 1980s, and one result was the Saab 9000. Based heavily on the Fiat Chroma and Lancia Thema, and thus also sharing its platform with the Alfa 164, the 9000 was probably cursed from birth among the Saab faithful for not being a genuine Saab. However, little did these Saab loyalists fathom how bad things would soon get under GM’s stewardship. Real Saab or not, the 9000 was a competent, understated car, though at $26,995 ($47,198 adjusted) it arguably should have been far better than that.
The Sterling 827SL was also the result of collaboration between automakers, though the provider of the platform and powertrain was something of a Trojan Horse in this Euro sedan crowd: that’s right, Honda of Japan offered up the underpinnings from the first generation Legend as the baseline for Rover’s new luxury sedan offering, sold under the newly-minted Sterling brand name stateside starting in 1987. Rover did the styling inside and out—led by the talented Roy Axe, who had previously been with Chrysler and was noted for delivering crisp, clean lines. Sadly, however, the ghosts of British cars past wound up haunting the Sterling, and the good looks couldn’t overcome subpar quality on an unknown brand from the U.K. For $28,560 ($49,934 adjusted) as tested, buyers expected a great car with a sterling (pun intended) brand reputation. The 827 feel fall far short of that, and sales through the 145 U.S. Sterling dealers quickly declined to an anemic pace. Thus, in August 1991, Sterling announced it was leaving the American market. No worry for Road & Track readers however, as there were piles of unsold English orphans being offered with huge discounts—reportedly $6,000 ($10,490 adjusted) per car, just to unload the remaining inventory.
Including the Passat in this comparison test was something of a stretch. After all, the Passat was just a compact sedan from a volume German brand, in no way trying to be a near luxury contender. Which is good, because it wasn’t: the engine was overpowered by the Passat’s weight, the shifter was clunky, and the whole car had a utilitarian, family hauler vibe. R&T tried to call out the Passat’s “sporty” handling attributes, but that was hard to swallow given how poorly the powertrain performed. Needless to say, buyers weren’t impressed, as only 16,139 Passats were sold in the U.S. for 1991. For anyone not fixated on “superior German engineering,” a tempting family car alternative was the Honda Accord LX. Praised for its impeccable build quality, slick 5-speed shifter, economical and responsive engine, roomy and attractive interior—all for $15,275 ($26,707 adjusted), the Accord undercut the VW by $390 ($682 adjusted) in spite of the Honda offering far more in the way of standard features like power windows and locks. No surprise that Honda happily retailed 393,477 Accords that same year.
The big Volvos were always the epitome of square: boxy looks, old-school RWD/live-rear-axle platform and a staid, trusted brand name. Only hardcore Volvophiles would have noticed the 1991 refresh that transformed the square 760 Series into the new, still-square 940 Series. Oddly, that year the flagship 940 only came with a turbo four, which offered up decent performance but was hardly smooth and luxurious as befitting a big box. Nonetheless, the Volvo 940 was good enough to find itself in 9,346 homes. But there was another sedate cruiser vying for those conservative dollars, from a nameplate equally well known for quality and durability. That car was the Toyota Cressida, the boring flagship sedan of the Toyota brand. With innocuous styling, smooth DOHC I6 performance and comfy interior, the Cressida could also boast about its ranking as the most trouble-free car in America, according to J.D. Power. Plus, the fully loaded Cressida sold for $25,723 ($44,974 adjusted), some $3,710 ($6,487 adjusted) less than the 940. Toyota’s ultimate sleeper also bested the Volvo in sales by a smidge, as 9,415 Cressidas were sold in 1991.
For the Road & Track editors, it all came down to character. Sure, other cars were more accomplished or offered better value, but they were so ordinary. Had this been 1981 instead of 1991, that logic might have been more compelling. But the reality of the Japanese onslaught of the late 1980s and early 1990s was that the U.S. market was teeming with desirable, highly competent and aggressively-priced offerings to appeal to buyers of near-luxury or high-end family cars. The impact on Europe’s car makers was severe: as noted, both Peugeot and Sterling left the U.S. market in August 1991. Alfa was gone in 1994—and only now is haltingly back into the American market. Saab never regained its strength and ultimately crashed and burned with the GM bankruptcy. Volvo simply treaded water through the decade before being sold to Ford and then to Geely in China.
The Germans fared somewhat better during the rest of the 1990s and early 2000s. Mercedes-Benz was firmly in the Lexus crosshairs, and the company responded by modifying its “cost is no object” engineering approach. While prices on Mercedes models became more attainable and sales surged, great damage was done to the brand’s reputation for quality and engineering excellence.
BMW lucked out, as the two Japanese luxury challengers offering more driver-oriented cars wound up changing direction. Acura had started strong with “Precision Crafted Performance,” but by the mid-1990s had inexplicably morphed into “Sleep Inducing Blandness” and ditched their legendary names. Infiniti also backed away from its “Japanese BMW” approach, and by mid-decade was offering glitzy Maxima clones as the core of its line-up. Hardly a threat to the Ultimate Driving Machine! BMW also did very well with the E36 3 Series, added V8 power to the 5 and 7 Series, introduced impressive new generations of its mainstay cars and altered its pricing and equipment strategy to more effectively compete with all rivals.
Miraculously, Audi held on in the U.S. market through the early 1990s (thanks VW!) in spite of utterly dismal sales. The product pipeline was good, however, with the very competitive A4 arriving for the mid-decade and sleekly restyled A6 and the aluminum-bodied A8 soon after. Thus started Audi’s steady march back to desirability in the U.S. market.
VW also continued to invest in product through the 1990s and stuck firmly to their German roots. Improvements were made to the Golf, Jetta and Passat that made them much more marketable in the U.S. America was also the focus of the New Beetle, which was VW’s clever play on mining its heritage to create a highly unique offering. The cloyingly-cute retro Bug sold 83,434 units in its first year in America, almost equaling the total sales volume achieved by the entire VW brand in 1991.
So yes, in the end the Road & Track article was right. Character does matter. Just make sure it’s a good one!