Compared cars 24 Photos Zoom

Progress in the automotive world: Did everything used to be better? No!

Never before has driving a car been so cheap, safe, comfortable and enjoyable as it is now. Don't believe us? In three pairings, we compare new cars from the past with their true successors today. In the case of the Golf and Fabia its about money, for the S and E-Class comfort and safety, and for the 911 and Cayman speed.

Never before has driving a car been so cheap:
VW Golf 1.8 GL vs. Skoda Fabia 1.2 TSI Ambiente

The 'before' in which everything is meant to have been better is now almost a quarter of a century back for the Golf III generation. The majority of those who belonged to this era, including your author, learned to drive in a Golf III or Vento. And what a handsome first car this Golf III was. So safe, with ABS and dual airbags – especially when you consider what we were driving around in then: a rust-bucket Renault 5, a beaten up Peugeot 205, an electric-sounding Fiat Uno or a Kadett D with a week's MOT left.

IN the years since the launch of the Golf III, small cars have grown to the size of earlier compact cars. As such, the Skoda Fabia has the same dimensions as the VW, down to a few millimetres, offers exactly the same boot capacity and even offers passengers a little more room. So for those for whom a Golf was enough in 1991, a Fabia should suffice today. And this is true even though demands with regard to comfort, safety and equipment have increased over the years, as the Fabia offers more of these than the Golf ever did - and for much cheaper.

The Skoda Fabia offers many fine details

As the basis for the calculations, we are using the purchasing power index of the German Federal Bank, which takes into account both increases in salary and price. Thus, prices have on average increased by 48 percent since 1991, salary by 53 percent.

As such, the 27,104 Marks that a four-door VW Golf 1.8 GL 1991 cost today would amount to 21,050 Euros. Incidentally, this is the same amount that a Golf VII 1.2 TSI with 109 HP and xenon lights. However, even in the GL trim, the Golf III was a rather sparse hut. Even to bring it approximately to the standard equipment level of the current Fabia Ambiente you would have had to order around half of the optional extras list. This would bring the cost of the Golf to 34,110 DM – by todays buying power, 26,650 Euros.

The Fabia currently costs around 15,820 Euros and comes with many details as standardthat never existed for the Golf: ESP, lateral and head airbags, tyre pressure monitoring, isofix, electronically simulated XDS+ transverse locking and a radio with a USB and SD connection – the didgy-sounding Beta casette radio in the Golf alone cost 725 Marks extra.

Skoda 36 percent more efficient than the VW

Added to this, the Fabia has the TSI under the hood. The turbo-charged direct injector petrol engine produces 89 HP from the 1.2-litre capacity. With a 50 percent larger engine capacity, the four-cylinder naturally aspirated engine in the Golf delivered the same power. And while the EA 827 series long-rod four-cylinder was always considered a particularly powerful, refined and efficient engine, the 1.2-litre engine in the Skoda surpasses it in every regard: it accelerates more vehemently, drives forward with greater energy, runs much more quietly and is – with an almost identical vehicle weight – 36 percent more efficient.

The VW test car drained 10.2 l/100 km from the tank, the Skoda 6.5 l/100 km. The 3.7-litre drop in consumption compensates for the fact that the price of fuel has risen by 120 percent since 1991. In 1991 one litre of Super cost 1.322 DM. This amounts to a fuel cost of 13.48 DM to travel 100 km in the Golf, which with today's purchasing power amounts to 10,46 Euros. In 2014 the average price for a litre of Super was 1.493 Euros – making 100 kms cost 9.70 Euros. And incidentally, it is currently only 7.93 Euro (January 2015), since at 1.22 Euro/litre petrol is once again almost as cheap as in those blissful former days.

Never before has driving a car been so safe and comfortable:
Mercedes 300 SE vs. Mercedes E 220 Bluetec

The Chancellor of Unity, we now know, always sat up front on the reinforced passenger seat (special equipment code 56/1, 45.60 DM), preferably inserting cassettes with classical music into the Becker Mexico radio (Code 51/0, 2,394 DM). Yes, the S-Class in the W126 series built from 1979 until 1991 was a car for the rich and for regents, monarchs and ministers, directors and dictators. Today it still has a proud appearance, even with the shorter wheelbase it spans 5.02 metres, almost looking out of proportion in the photo studio.

For more than a decade the S was been considered the benchmark for comfort and safety. It was the first Mercedes in which an airbag popped out of the steering wheel in the event of an accident – of course at extra cost (2,189 DM, and for the sake of completeness: Code 44/2). In addition to this, as was the case for its predecessor the W116, there was ABS for 3,044 DM plus the new traction control system (2,850 DM). Yes, in 1985, when 10,070 people died in road traffic accidents (2014: 3,339 fatalities) safety was definitely a matter of money.

Luxury all the more. In any case, the true wealth of the W126-buyer was demonstrated in the length of the list of additional equipment. And there were items on this list that we would today assume would be included: in the 300 SE the additional cost for air conditioning, electric windows front and rear, alloy wheels, rear head rests, electtrically adjustable wing mirrors, leather steering wheel, radio, on-board computer, cruise control and electric seat adjustment totalled 13,700 Marks.

Mercedes E 220 Bluetec with numerous assistants

The E 220 Bluetec provides all this and more as standard. Added to this list are LED lights, seven airbags, a collision warning system and, as options, a fleet of assistants: from the adaptive cruise control to lane keeping and changing assistants and the emergency city braking system, which on the whole make it considerably more difficult to play an active role in an accident. And if these do not suffice, the E crashes in a better and more social manner, as its crumple zone is also designed to protect the other party, although first and foremost its own passengers.

In the front, the E nestles around its passengers with ergonomic seats that warm, cool, massage, pump up their sides to increase support in corners and are so complicated that they can only be completely configured via the infotainment system. Passengers on the rear seat bench have more space than in the S-Class. In addition to all this, the 220 Bluetec with its pneumatic suspension glides more smoothly over uneven surfaces than the 300 SE. With a soft set-up and sheer weight, potholes dissipate in the spring core of the squashy seats.

The Mercedes S-Class consumed 15.7 l/100 km

The S-Class conveyed the feeling of being a heavy car, even though it was almost 250 kilos lighter than the E-Class. This weight was in part down to the four-speed automatic transmission, which worked its way casually through the levels. As such, the hum of the inline six-cylinder engine only made it through to the interior a little. The three-litre boulder in the M 103 series stood longitudinally and upright beneath the long bonnet, and focused on smooth running and using up the oil reserves. The only slightly electronic Bosch KE-Jetronic consumed 15.7 litres of Super per 100 kilometres within its six cylinders.

However, this doesn't necessarily motivate the engine to sublime drive performance. Today the E-Class with the 168 HP version of the 651 oil engine is way out in front and in getting there doesn't consume half as much fuel, with a value of 7.5 litres/100 km – due also to the efficiency-increasing automatic transmission,initially with seven speed but now with nine. The 2.1-litre biturbo doesn't come anywhere close to the reliability of earlier designs, which lived to see how empires rose and fell. However, in spite of the grouchy base tone, the E with its four-cylinder diesel is quieter today than a 300 SE ever was – yes, even in the form of a 500 SE with V8. In the E the progress is the tranquillity itself.

Never before has driving a car been so much fun:
Porsche 911 Turbo vs. Porsche Cayman S

In any case, there was no lack of warnings. Even in the price list, Porsche pointed out that ordering the "custom colour" for 760 Dm could result in a greater financial "risk in the event of repair". As if the car requiring repairs were par for the course. Which doesn't seem that improbably for the turbo that launched in October 1974. The Type 3 LDZ KKK exhaust gas turbo charger compressed the combustion air with a positive pressure of 0.8 bar for the three-litre boxer – and for the drive experience in the 911 Turbo.

Due to the comprehensive changes to the drive system, chassis and bodywork Porsche standardised this as the 930. Its turbocharger puffed up the 207-kilo engine to 256 HP, which reached the 215 rear wheels via a four-speed gearbox. If the 930 managed to achieve optimal acceleration, it punched its way to a speed of 100 km/h in 5.2 seconds. With this time, the Ferrari Dino 308 GT4 or Lamborghini Jamara could not play the role of serious competitors in the sprint, but were rather the clear losers.

Limit range?

This role was once again filled by those who lined up against the 930 with bold courage, but too little talent. In contrast to later years, for example when the first Audi TT was released, in 1975 lacking driving ability was still considered the reason for accidents, and not the terrible handling. Since for the turbo, limit range is a misleading term, as it makes the assumption that there is a transition period there, a forewarning - time to react. But: no.

And if the colleagues back in the day did manage to determine that the turbo consumed 19.5 l/100 km on a country road journey with an average speed of 90 km/h, we would rather not know how they managed it. Even back then, a town or city occasionally appeared before the car when driving in the countryside. Gentlemen drivers with leather gloves like to evoke the notion of the good old days, but in spite of all of the heroic tales they were not better, but rather more dangerous.

Porsche Cayman almost 20,000 Euros cheaper

The fact that today anyone could drive a Porsche should not be considered a criticism, but rather a compliment to the technicians who rid their cars of the stubborn rear and mid-engines. And without losing sight of the principle that skilled drivers will still always be quicker than the less gifted. However, these less skilled drivers now have help from ABS, ESP, aero-tricks and torque vectoring. If you strap yourself into the Cayman S, in front of the engine, nestled deep inside the cockpit, with the sound of the six-cylinder engine in your ear, its pressure against your back, you will notice that it is a car not unlike the early 911s.

Smooth ans seamless handling, a car that is so in the present that you are only ever thinking as far ahead as the next corner. And on top of this, it is faster than the original turbo, consumes 43 percent less Super and costs almost 20,000 Euros less with much better equipment - adjusted based on purchasing power. And thus, the Cayman is more fun – there is no doubt about it.

Celebrate today, don't romanticise about the past

Of course there are details that were better in new cars of the past: the seat belt adjustment in the back seat in the Golf, the fact that the S-Class could be manoeuvred with centimetre accuracy without any parking sensors. And the fascination with the Turbo still lies in the fact that it unapologetically allowed inexperienced drivers to fail in their attempts to tame its power. However, sentimentality doesn't change anything: new cars have never been safer,cheaper, more comfortable or better than they are today.

The Porsche is a reset programme

Granted, for the money that my old Porsche has cost since 2007 for the initial purchase, maintenance, repairs and fuel, I could have alternatively driven a newer model. I value my 25-year-old 964 Carrera 2 in Grand Prix white as a regular reset treatment after all of the test cars that I find myself in.

This way I know what it is to drive a car that has no ESP, no airbags, no traction control and certainly not a valve exhaust. I am responsible when the incorrect gear is engaged, the rear wheels lose grip, the front wheels aquaplane or the distance from the car in front gets too small. In return my 911 tells me how communicative steering can be, but also that nothing can really replace a 3.6-litre engine capacity.


Achim Hartmann


10 June 2015
5 4 3 2 1 0 5 0
  • All Sections
  • Car Reviews
  • Comparison Tests
  • Road Tests
  • News
  • Supertests
In cooperation with