Vintage R&T Comparison: 1981 Ford Escort, Mazda GLC, VW Rabbit And Honda Accord — FWD Compacts For The ’80s

The transverse FWD layout was taking over passenger cars by the 1980s. By then, the format’s advantages for passenger vehicles were hard to deny, particularly in compacts. A market that had grown in the US after the difficult 1970s, with most carmakers joining the segment. In February of 1981, R&T was ready to test some newcomers to the FWD compact world; the 1st. gen. Ford Escort and the 2nd gen. Mazda GLC. They would face two established players; the VW Rabbit and the Honda Accord.

The two veterans were favorites of R&T, with the Rabbit being considered a benchmark for the segment. As known, the Rabbit (i.e. Golf) appeared stateside in late 1974 and marked a major shift in VW’s history. From air-cooled rear-mounted RWD provider, to transverse FWD convert. Nicely received by pundits and buyers, the Rabbit had been a trendsetter (notwithstanding its early reliability issues).  Meanwhile, when the Accord appeared in ’76 it also proved to be another FWD wonder in the US market. Well sorted and nicely appointed, it offered a nice counterpart to other compacts of the period.

But with both models entering their senior years (a new Accord was to debut in ’81, while the Rabbit MK1 would hang on stateside until ’85), the ’81 Escort and GLC had had enough time to present themselves as viable alternatives. They could even overcome expectations.

So, had they done their homework?

As usual, R&T’s comparison would assess performance numbers and subjective areas like roominess and styling. The cars in the comparison were 4-door models (except the Escort), mid-trim level, and closely matched in dimensions, with wheelbases all within 1.4 in. of each other. They all carried 4-cylinder SOHC engines that ranged from 1490cc on the GLC to 1751cc on the Accord, and all had independent suspensions at front and rear, rack and pinion steering, and the usual disc/drum brake combination. Last, the Accord and Mazda came with standard 5-speed gearboxes, while the Rabbit and Escort did with 4-speeds.

So, how did they all fare?


Ford Escort

Despite being an entirely new model the Escort earned the lowest scores and did poorly in performance and personal preferences. “A pity, because the car has some real virtues, among them roominess, quietness and comfort.” Ultimately, what the Escort lacked was refinement in key areas.

In the engine and gearbox departments, the Escort had a “relatively quiet performance and adequate power in the mid-rpm range, but below 3000 rpm there’s little pulling power, and above 4000 things get noisy and raspy with little payoff. The gearbox linkage is notchy and long-throwed to the point that it’s not one you enjoy.” Pedal location and height were other areas of critique.

In ride and handling the car’s power-steering had “too much boost and there’s a bounding motion of the front that contrasts sharply with the… rear suspension. Things get more than a little twitchy when the road is not straight and less than smooth.”

On the positive, the car had a competitive 25.0 mpg. Meanwhile, its interior was the roomiest and its seats comfortable. Fit and finish were considered decent, with some general complaints.

Placing: 4th overall.


Honda Accord

Despite its many years in the market, the Accord was an overachiever. The car earned great marks in just about all areas: “Refinement and delicacy typify the Accord.”

Praise was placed on the Accord’s engine, which was “smooth and responsive… free-revving up to around 5000 rpm and marred only by an occasional cold-start stumble.” The car’s gearbox and linkage were considered the best of the lot, with ratios well matched to the engine’s power curve.

Driving position, controls and instrumentation were the best of the group, with seats that provided excellent support. Furthermore, the car’s body and structure felt solid and provided a quiet ride.

In the handling department, the Accord “leaned somewhat toward the floaty end of the spectrum…” displaying more understeer than the GLC. Yet, “when pushed hard, the Accord displayed agility and very good balance…”

Some negative comments came in regard to the sedan’s packaging, with the rear seat area not being that spacious. There were also minor quibbles about the car’s styling, which was looking a bit dated by ’81 (as mentioned, a new Accord would soon debut).

Still, the car came as the best of the group in many areas. Finally, a recommendation: “If Detroit is interested in quality, this is the car they should study in evaluating their new designs.”

Placing: 2nd overall.


Mazda GLC

R&T was quite impressed with Mazda’s new ’81 GLC, with the car doing a great job all around. “Two often contradictory characteristics –practical roominess and all-around driving fun– sum up the GLC’s strong points.” The car’s main shortcoming was a lack of quietness and a somewhat less refined nature. Weaknesses that were not considered serious and could be almost forgiven once the car’s low entry cost was considered.

In general, R&T felt the GLC’s drivetrain could use some refinement. The car’s powerplant was responsive but sounded strained as revs increased above 4500 rpm, and while increased power was available in that range it didn’t feel as free-revving as the Rabbit’s or Accord’s. Meanwhile, while its gearbox shared some design elements with the Escort, the “GLC’s encourages use a great deal more.”

Under driving, the GLC was “nimble and could be tossed around quite delightfully,” providing ride and handling that was good and entertaining. However, interior noise was noticeable and tire noise intrusive.

Against the competitors, the GLC’s interior felt fairly plain, though instruments and ergonomics were nicely placed. Finally, the car’s practical hatchback body and clean exterior styling earned good scorings.

Placing: 1st overall.


Volkswagen Rabbit

With the Rabbit being a favorite with enthusiast publications, the aging design still faired quite well in testing. Not that it was the same car that had arrived stateside back in ’74, since the ’81 Rabbit was US-assembled and had been updated to suit American tastes.

Indeed, it was a Westmoreland Rabbit, with trim and suspension updates á la Oldsmobile. That aside, the car’s strong suit was its engine and air conditioning. Also, the Rabbit was the only car with fuel injection, a setup that gave the “engine a responsiveness and driveability that are positively exemplary.” And despite its age, the Rabbit was the quickest of the group.

Testers felt handling had suffered in the Rabbit’s American conversion, gaining more understeer and roll. The steering was also only “so-so,” and was “heavy and slow compared to that of the top-rated GLC.” Yet, the Rabbit was considered the most benign handler of the four.

Regarding fit and finish, the Rabbit’s quality wasn’t on par with the Accord, but close to the GLC. Seats were also found to be lacking in grip and support.

Understandably, after years in the market, the Rabbit was no longer the segment’s benchmark. Competitors had caught up with its space-efficient body and the FWD format had become standard. Yet, despite placing third overall, one can sense reviewers still had much love for the model.

Placing: 3rd overall.


Related CC reading:

Curbside Classic: 1981 Mazda GLC/323 Truly The Greatest Little Car Of Its Time?

Curbside Classic: 1976 Honda Accord – Modern Architecture

Curbside Classic: 1975 VW Golf Mk1/Rabbit – The Most Influential Modern Global Car

Curbside Classic: 1981 Ford Escort – You Never Get A Second Chance To Make A Good Impression