How did the Polish state-funded Polonez fare against rivals like the Chrysler Sunbeam, Ford Escort and Morris Marina? All is revealed in this 1979 Autocar road test

If you were to ask a petrolhead which defunct car manufacturer they missed most sorely, their list would probably include the likes of Saab, Rover, Triumph, Lancia, and Fabryka Samochodów Osobowych.

Well, maybe not that last one. Communist Poland’s FSO made some well-known family cars back in the 1970s, but it wasn’t quality, drive, or looks they were known for.

FSO started producing the Polski Fiat 125P in 1968, which were Fiat 125s with running gear from the older Fiat 1500s underneath. Ten years later, it got hold of the mechanics for the 125 and put its own body on top, giving us the Polonez 1500.

On 17 March 1979, Autocar gave it the famed Autotest to see how it fared against its illustrious rivals: the Chrysler Sunbeam, Ford Escort, Lada 1600, Morris Marina and Skoda 120L Estelle.

“It is not political propaganda to point out that Russian-influenced states are not good at making cars (so far at any rate),” Autocar began.

“Interestingly and surprisingly, the understandable spark of Polish engineering pride seems to have been allowed to smoulder – Poles have a name for stubbornness – into work on FSO’s own, relatively, up-to-date hatchback body for the 125P, announced last year, and now on sale at of course the bargain price of £2,999.”

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Performance form the 76bhp engine, we lamented, was: “Slower than the 125P, especially in acceleration.

“The new car managed a marginally quicker start but thereafter fell behind. It achieved 30mph in 4.2sec, and 80 in 39.1sec.

“It is a sadly noisy car. On starting up, you cannot help feeling that the starter motor is more inside the passenger compartment than under the bonnet.

“The gearbox leaves something to be desired: it has a change that is not up to modern standards, especially for a conventional box.”

Economy was described by Autocar as: “not much”. “A steady speed figure of only 33.7mpg at 30mph compares poorly with the competition,” we said, “which never does less than something over 40mpg.”

Road behaviour, meanwhile, was “coarse”: “The car does not encourage enterprising cornering with its high build and the relatively high seating: there is a slightly topply feeling to it, and it rolls fairly easily.

Ride is mediocre, but not noticeably worse than most of the car’s equally backward contemporaries. There is road noise, to an average degree, but the engine dominates all other noises.”

While Autocar commended FSO’s efforts, the interior fared no better.

“The first thing one cannot help noticing on getting into the Polonez is its smell,” we suspiciously said, “All cars smell, but this one smells particularly pungently; we couldn’t identify it, but suspect a mixture of rubber and plastic.

“The seats look good, but some testers found them uncomfortable."

Meanwhile, the front view proved more dangerous than annoying: “Front pillars are both thick and raked so that they obstruct more than one would like; in the wet, combined with the areas uncleared by the wiper blade, one must be careful to look for the pedestrian who may be hidden.”

For a family car, it was disappointing in terms of space, too. “Room in the back is a sad disappointment, with inadequate knee room and not enough head room.” 

Sympathetically, Autocar’s tester said: “The disappointments on the Polonez are sad, because its makers have obviously tried hard in many ways, so that there are some good ideas. The very practical and heavy bumpers are one – clumsy maybe to look at but very good protection.”

Compared with rivals, the Polonez crashed and burned in Autocar’s opinion. “Of our selection of suitable cars tested, the British cars (by which we here include the Ford) are a notably better proposition, even though the small-engined Escort on paper barely keeps up with the Pole. The point to stress is that all three do what the Polonez does both to a near-equal or greater extent in performance with vastly greater refinement and efficiency. Sadly, there is really no comparison; they are 20 years ahead.” Even the much-derided Lada was deemed better.

We concluded by describing the FSO as “a very cheap, dynamically inadequate vehicle”. 

Despite beating the risible Skoda, it failed to beat its nearest contemporary, the Lada 1600ES. “You pays the same money,” Autocar mused, “and you takes your choice. If you can excuse the faults they share, then the Lada is slightly the better of the two.” The Russian’s price of £2,999 included a very swanky cassette radio, too. What more could you want?

Click here to read last week's Throwback Thursday article on a Countach-beating Ford Sierra.

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25 August 2016
FSO were not making cars in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics but were making them in the neighbouring country of Poland. This is because they were a Polish company. Poland was not one of the fifteen states that made up the USSR.

25 August 2016
Life must have been pretty grim for the people in the communist states back then but I kind of miss these curio`s. The Polonez`s, Estelle`s and Riva`s made motoring interesting. Its all a bit blandly efficient now.

25 August 2016
I would pay money to access a digitised library of Autocar back issues. A monthly subscription would be a no brainer as I can't get enough of this old stuff. It wouldn't take you guys long to scan 30 or so pages of key tests and opinion and upload them to a website. 1500 scans would be less than a weeks work for someone and that would more than cover an entire year of output. I reckon less than £30k for scanning and less than £5k to develop an area of your website to make it available. Approx one years depreciation cost of a nice Range Rover and maybe you can get sponsorship from some big car brands as well. Easy!

25 August 2016
Brilliant idea! I would also be very happy to subscribe. Regarding the Polonez, it must really have been grim to attract such unfavourable comments: as I recall road testers were rather more polite back then!

25 August 2016
Theyve done something similar over at Car magazine online.

XXXX just went POP.

25 August 2016
"A steady speed figure of only 33.7mpg at 30mph " strewth.
This really was a shonky bit of kit. Not unattractive in it's chunkiness, but so badly made. The steering wheel looks like it escaped from a BL product.

25 August 2016
One of my friends was learning to drive in one of these when they first came out. His instructor was really chuffed with his purchase, and maintained that because it had rarity value it would not lose any value. FSO must have had some really imaginative sales staff!

25 August 2016
“Front pillars are both thick and raked so that they obstruct more than one would like...”

I wonder what those testers would think of front pillars on today's new cars. My dad had one of these and I drove it for a while. Admittedly it may not have been the best car on the road at the time, but I don't remember it being quite that bad. A lot of car for the money.

25 August 2016
Old Nick wrote:

“Front pillars are both thick and raked so that they obstruct more than one would like...”

I wonder what those testers would think of front pillars on today's new cars.

I often wonder that. Not just fron tpillars, but the miserable rear view you get out of most cars these days. In the 1950s and 1960s testers often commented that you could easily see all four corners of the car for reversing and parking, often thanks to stick-thin pillars, sticky-up fins and old-fashioned headlights and radiator grilles.

I reckon a 1950s tester would be staggered at the average 2016 car in many ways, but shocked at the poor visibility.

25 August 2016
The Polonez testes against the Chrysler Sunbeam, Ford Escort, Lada 1600, Morris Marina and Skoda 120L Estelle.
The modern tester power sliding M3s around the track should read this and realise how lucky they are!


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