Late ’80s mid-market saloons

Despite the ‘80s being known as the decade of the hatchback car, it was evident that mid-sized saloon cars still had huge appeal. Perceived security, with more balanced styling and prestige, may have played a part in their continuing success. We use the turn of the decade, as a vantage point to review a selection of cars.

Ford finally gave in to pressure and released the Sierra Sapphire saloon in 1987, after the initial shock of the hatchback only Sierra. Sales were helped by the recently introduced twin-cam 2.0-litre engines.

It’s the closest rival was the Cavalier by GM’s UK arm, Vauxhall. The latest models had been reinvigorated by new fuel injection engines, combined with already decent handling made it a very strong package.

Coming in third on the ‘homegrown’ makes is the renamed Rover Montego. Also benefitting from a serious of improvements and some trim reshuffling, the turbodiesel option was an inspired addition to the range.

Another car that had connections in the UK, thanks to its assembly at the former Rootes factory was the Peugeot 405. It set the benchmark when launched in 1988 and gave GM and Ford sleepless nights.

Yet another UK built car with high local content is the Nissan Bluebird. Nothing got close to it for reliability and equipment, but it was showing its age – rectified by the excellent Primera in 1990.

The Honda Accord was a typically confident entrant in the market, while the styling underwhelmed somewhat, the high-tech engines and plush interiors was a typical quality of the brand.

Demand in the UK for the ancient RWD Volvo 360 gave the car an unexpected boost, despite the age of the design. However, they were strong and appealed to a certain well-heeled demographic.

Renault had always had a loyal saloon car following in the UK, who tended to present their saloons differently to the hatchbacks. Face-lifted towards the end of the decade, they have considered good all-rounders.

If verve was something you sought, then perhaps Lancia with their Dedra was the one to have. Rather than compete against the mass-market cars, it had the luxury compact Germans insight. 

Subaru with their Legacy models was aiming high. The multivalve flat-four ‘boxer’ engine and promising rally career gave it a unique twist on top of its 4WD ability.

Hyundai presented a surprise in 1989, with their second generation Sonata, to guide their rapidly expanding export drive. Aimed at US markets, it fulfilled all the major requirement, especially regarding equipment and value.

Capitalising on their Toyota’s reputation for refinement, the Carina was the most popular version yet. The smooth engines and sleek looks also offered BMW build quality at Vauxhall prices.

Which brings us BMW’s iconic E30 series. Brilliantly marketed, with tasteful design and ergonomics, the car soon became the brands best selling car to date. Aspirational, good to drive and oozing with quality, it still has that air of desirability to this day.

Mercedes were not far off with their baby-Merc 190, it upheld slightly different qualities with a similar outcome. Priced at the top end of the sector, the attraction came via the build quality rather than value but the low depreciation made up for it.

Volkswagen had been offering sensibility and quality in droves since they ditched the Beetle. The Passat maintained the same reputation for quality in the latest generation. The VW also stood out as a more practical and roomy alternative to the other German cars in this sector.

The Audi 80 and bigger engined 90, were sold on their technical and safety innovation. Their entry-level model was also helped by new price reductions towards the end of the decade, which with its keen equipment made it the best value German mid-sized car by some margin.

Mazda has been gaining significant ground since their first FWD 626, and the latest version was a talented range, with a slightly understated image but there was no faulting space and grace.

The Mitsubishi Lancer straddled across two sectors but utilised many of the qualities from the bigger Galant. A versatile range with some excellent top-end engines, the cars were priced too high in the UK, which meant it struggled in a few competitive market.

Fiat was on UK sales high thanks to their smaller models and was hoping that the new Tipo based Tempra would follow suit. Composed handling and ride made them nice to drive and the quality was a marked improvement over the previous Regata.