Vintage R&T Comparison: The Nine Smallest 1975 Economy Cars

(first posted 12/21/2016)   R&T decided to identify and compare the nine smallest economy sold in the US in 1975, none of which were domestics. The line up includes the smallest offerings of all of the major import brands of the time, with the exception of VW, which had two cars included. It was the The all-new Rabbit (Golf) overlapped with the last two years of the Beetle, which made for a vivid comparison of the huge changes that had taken place over the 40 years since the Beetle was designed. One oddity is that the ancient Beetle now had fuel injection while the Rabbit still had a carburetor. Not that it made much difference in their respective rankings at the top and bottom of the field.


That $3000 price adjusts to about $13,500 in today’s dollars. There’s not a whole lot that one can buy new for that in 2016; actually nothing. The cheapest MSRP is $14,325 for a Nissan Versa. A list of the ten cheapest cars in 2016 is here.

Needless to say, the Rabbit was the winner, and for many good reasons. It was roomy, light (1905 lbs), zippy, handled great, and very economical. VW showed the world how to build a winning small car, and it would soon be copied by everyone else. But for the time being, VW was simply ahead of the market of the time.

But in order to meet the $2999 base price, which VW felt was psychologically important, the base Rabbit was a poverty-spec mobile. But even spending an extra $300-500  to bring it up to the trim level of the Japanese cars still would have made it a good buy, according to R&T, due to its intrinsic superiority. Of course, nobody knew at the time that these first year Rabbits would have a lot of teething problems, and it would take a couple of years before they were really dialed in, relatively speaking.

The Honda Civic CVCC came in second, again reflecting its advanced design that was somewhat analogous to the Rabbit, albeit smaller. It was the fuel economy winner, with an average of 33 mpg.

Only 150″ long, the Civic was very roomy in the front, but there were some inevitable compromises in the back seat. Still, it was a marvel of space efficiency compared to the traditional RWD small cars of the times. It was also the second most-fun to drive winner in the test.

The Fiat 128, the true pioneer of modern FWD small cars of this grouping came in a solid third. It was a driver’s car, with a responsive engine, very good handling and other dynamic traits, but its ergonomic quirks dinged it some.

The Datsun B210 and the Corolla were essentially tied for 4th place. It’s hard to say exactly why the B210 beat the Corolla when reading the text,  especially since the Corolla was quicker, quieter and smoother riding.  The B210 was a bit sportier, and R&T always placed that in high regard.

The Mazda 808 was in the mid-pack, with pretty average qualities for a traditional RWD small car: nothing outstanding, nothing bad.

The R12 was the roomiest of the cars, being essentially a class bigger. But its engine was overworked, and steering and handling were below average. The famous French ride wasn’t even on full display in the R12.

The Subaru DL didn’t shine in any particular category, and its interior materials were deemed cheaper than the other Japanese cars. The little boxer four did run very smoothly, and performed above its displacement. Space efficiency was no better than the RWD cars.

And bringing up the rear was the VW Beetle, outclassed mostly because of its narrow, cramped body, limited trunk space, noisy engine and wind-sensitivity. Like the Rabbit, this version of the Beetle was also terribly stripped, equivalent to the ‘Standard’ Beetle, a model that had never been sold in the US. The expensive fuel injection was a necessity to make the old boxer meet the emission regulations.

There was a lot of variety in these nine cars, and this was a hot segment on the heels of the energy crisis and resulting recession. The real winners of this group were of course the Civic and Corolla, as the came to dominate this class, and still do.