What a difference 20 years make; how have industry stalwarts fared in the last two decades at the hands of our testing team?

Twenty years in the car industry is like 234 human years; around three lifespans pass in this time and revolutions come and go. 

So how have the models which have survived - or been replaced - across the ravages of two decades, fared since 1997? We dug out a 1997 copy of Autocar to find out. Take a look below to see how they compare.

Twenty years on: Autocar verdicts

Superminis

Best then: Volkswagen Polo

Best now: Ford Fiesta

Ford Fiesta:

1997 Mk4 Ford Fiesta - “Super-smooth engines, great handling, classy interior, pity about the nose.”

2017 Mk7 Ford Fiesta - “No longer a class-beater in every regard, but so far ahead of the curve on ride and handling that it’s unassailable.”

Mini:

1997 Rover Mini - “Voted the greatest car of all time. Several times. ‘Nuff said.”

2017 Mini 3-door hatch - “Three-pot engines and cleverly redesigned interior make the Mini a superb choice. Pricey to buy but worth the money.”

Renault Clio:

1997 Mk1 Renault Clio - “Basic versions losing ground to new Fiesta and Polo. RSi is good fun.” 

2017 Mk5 Renault Clio  - "An attractive, stylish and fairly practical proposition that does the French tradition credit. Fluent handling; cabin cheap in places.”

Vauxhall Corsa

1997 Vauxhall Corsa B - “Cute looking but disappointing to drive. Usurped by newer rivals.”

2017 Vauxhall Corsa E  - “Very refined, stylish and practical, but its engines aren’t so good.”

Volkswagen Polo:

1997 Mk3 Volkswagen Polo - “The most mature small car in the world, as well as the best.”

2017 Mk8 Volkswagen Polo - “Still the sensible choice in a lot of ways: usable, refined, easy-going, desirable and very solidly built.”

Family hatchbacks

Best then: Peugeot 306

Best now: Volkswagen Golf

Audi A3:

1997 8L Audi A3  - “Compact beater is the classiest small car around, if slightly soulless to drive.”

2017 8V Audi A3 - “Outstanding cabin quality, peppy engines and low costs of ownership make it eerily good for more disinterested drivers.”

Ford Escort/Focus:

1997 Mk6 Ford Escort - “Facelift made things much better, especially the ride, but still no 306 beater.”

2017 Mk3 Ford Focus - “Still appeals for its ride and handling, though not as much as perhaps it should. Spacious, stylish and well-priced.”

Peugeot 306:

1997 Peugeot 306 - “Excellent. Remains the class leader despite age, price, engines."

2017 Peugeot 308 - “No name change, but the classy all-round appeal of the latest 308 is all-new. A bit tight on space but a serious contender nonetheless.”

Vauxhall Astra

1997 Mk3 Vauxhall Astra - “Astra is now well past its prime although engines are refined and economical.”

2017 Mk7 Vauxhall Astra - “Good handling and nice engines but its working-class roots still show through.”

Volkswagen Golf:

1997 Mk3 Volkswagen Golf - “Feeling a bit old these days. Replaced next year.”

2017 Mk7 Volkswagen Golf - “A little expensive it may be, but there’s enough quality here to justify the expense. Classiness democratised.”

Compact saloons

Best then: BMW 3 Series

Best now: Jaguar XE

Alfa Romeo 155/Giulia:

1997 Alfa Romeo 155 - “1995 improvements made a good car out of a poor one. Two-litre is the pick.”

2017 Alfa Romeo Giulia - “Alfa is taking the fight to the Germans with its good-looking saloon. Lacks the finesse of its rivals and only available as an automatic. However the V6 Quadrifoglio is a compelling car.”

BMW 3 Series

1997 E36 BMW 3 Series  - “Still the definitive small sports saloon, despite image. 328 is close to perfection.”

2017 F34 BMW 3 Series  - “Beats the rival Jaguar XE on cabin space and engine range; doesn’t quite measure up on handling finesse. Still a talent, mind you.”

Ford Mondeo:

1997 Mk2 Ford Mondeo - “Revamped model is now a true 406 rival. Faultless ergonomics.”

2017 Mk5 Ford Mondeo - “Does what great Fords always have: massively over-delivers on practicality, value and handling. Cabin low-rent in places, but otherwise excellent.”

Mercedes-Benz C-Class:

1997 W202 Mercedes-Benz C-Class - “Better to own than a 3 Series but not as nice to drive.”

2017 W205 Mercedes-Benz C-Class - Merc ramps up the richness with outstanding interior plushness and curvaceous good looks. Engines and dynamics not quite as refined, though.”

Peugeot 406

1997 Peugeot 406 - “Unrivalled ride and handling offset weak engines to put 406 top of the class.”

2017 Peugeot 508 - “Competent and likeable package, although it lacks any real spark.”

Mid-size execs

Best then: BMW 5 Series

Best now: BMW 5 Series

Audi A6:

1997 4A Audi A6 - “A6 struggles in the face of Merc and BMW rivals, despite space and value. Replaced soon.”

2017 4G Audi A6 - “Perfect choice for anyone looking for a smart office cubicle on wheels. Supremely constructed but a bit soulless to drive.”

BMW 5 Series:

1997 E39 BMW 5 Series - “Possibly the greatest car in the real world. 528 achieves rare brilliance.”

2017 G30 BMW 5 Series - “The new 5 Series carries on where the old one left off. The perfect compromise between the dynamic XF and comfy E-Class.”

Maserati Quattroporte:

1997 Maserati Quattroporte IV - “Character M5 rival has a big heart but is, in reality, well wide of the mark.”

2017 Maserati Quattroporte VI - “Now a full-sized executive limo, with some (but not much) added Maserati-brand flair. Off the pace in several key areas.”

Mercedes-Benz E-Class:

1997 W210 Mercedes-Benz E-Class - “Deeply impressive rather than inspired. E280 runs 528i close.”

2017 W213 Mercedes-Benz E-Class - “A wee bit pricey, and less sporting than key rivals. Four-pot diesels a bit sluggish. Estate version supremely practical.”

Volvo S90:

1997 Mk1 Volvo S90 - “Polished and classy saloon but rather dull to drive.”

2017 Mk2 Volvo S90 - “The new mid-size executive car ready to take on the Germans. A competent cruiser.”

Luxury

Best then: Mercedes-Benz S-Class

Best now: Mercedes-Benz S-Class

Audi A8:

1997 4D Audi A8 - “Aluminium wonder has the presence and ability to mix it with the very best.”

2017 4H Audi A8 - “Doesn’t convince across the board, but there’s no denying that the brand’s strengths make for a convincing limousine.”

BMW 7 Series:

1997 E38 BMW 7 Series - “Not quite an S-Class beater, but closer now than ever.”

2017 G11 BMW 7 Series - “Rules on in-car entertainment and diesel sophistication; otherwise too bland to stand out. The M760Li is a monster.”

Jaguar XJ6/XJ:

1997 X300 Jaguar XJ6 - “Lacks space compared with rivals but compensates with inimitable style.”

2017 X351 Jaguar XJ - “No one else mixes dynamism and refinement like Jaguar. It makes the XJ a rare blend - although not as spacious or cosseting as some.”

Lexus LS:

1997 XF10 Lexus LS - “The car that woke up the European luxury makers. Smooth, swift, quiet, brilliant.”

2017 XF40 Lexus LS - “Immutably built Lexus flagship is quiet and gadget-packed but not genuinely talented or special. Hybrid model worth relatively little on CO2 tax.”

Mercedes-Benz S-Class:

1997 W140 Mercedes-Benz S-Class - “The finest, most competent luxury saloon in the world? In a word, yes.”

2017 W222 Mercedes-Benz S-Class - “So long in the legs that continents flash by mid-stride. Has a business-like opulence. Still the best luxury car in the real world. Calm, advanced, rewarding.”

Sports cars 

Best then: Lotus Elise

Best now: Porsche 718 Boxster

BMW Z3/Z4: 

1997 E36 BMW Z3 - "Long-awaited 2 seat roadster has the style and looks but lacks the edge in dynamic ability."

2017 E89 BMW Z4 - "Spacious interior with punchy engines, let down by compromised steering, ride and handling."

Fiat Barchetta/124 Spider:

1997 Fiat Barchetta - "Outdoes Mazda's MX-5, Great styling, sharp handling but LHD only."

2017 Fiat 124 Spider - "The 124 name is revived, although not perfect is fun to drive."

Lotus Elise:

1997 Series 1 Lotus Elise - "Redefines the sports car. Peerless ride, handling and the finest steering on earth."

2017 Series 3 Lotus Elise - "If you want a delicate, vivid and unfettered drive, none does it better; if you want a daily driver, shop elsewhere, More powerful S worth the extra."

Mazda MX-5

1997 NA Mazda MX-5 - "Started the roadster revival, now outdriven by MG, Elise, Barchetta."

2017 ND Mazda MX-5 - "Brilliantly packaged, priced and even more vibrant and perfectly poised to drive thn the original. The RF is a stunning looking car."

Mercedes-Benz SLK/SLC

1997 R170 Mercedes-Benz SLK - "Cleverest roof makes baby SL much sought after. Engineering perfection."

2017 R172 Mercedes-Benz SLC - "Another small convertible edition with all the Mercedes charm."

Porsche Boxster/718 Boxster

1997 986 Porsche Boxster - "Son of the 911, and a dazzling sports car; first new model in 20yrs."

2017 Porsche 718 Boxster - "Our idea of drop-top perfection is also an outstanding sporting two-seater. Exceptional to drive, whether cruising or hurrying."

Supercars

Best then: Ferrari F355

Best now: Ferrari 488 GTB

Ferrari F355/488 GTB:

1997 Ferrari F355 - “Remains in a league of its own above 911s, NSXs and Esprits. The best Ferrari on sale.”

2017 Ferrari 488 GTB - “Calm ride mixed with explosive performance"

Honda NSX:

1997 First-generation Honda NSX - "NSX has slipped from genius to mere excellence of late. Avoid Targa - for poseurs only."

2017 Second-generation Honda NSX - “A technical tour de force but cheap inside and not as involving as a McLaren 570S.”

Lamborghini Diablo/Aventador:

1997 Lamborghini Diablo - Forget the heavy VT, raw SV is the hotrod the Diablo always should have been."

2017 Lamborghini Aventador S - "Big, hairy V12 Lambo has astonishing visuals and performance. Handling could be sweeter; oddly, roadster beats coupé in that respect."

Porsche 911:

1997 993 Porsche 911 - "The only practical supercar. Makes more sense now than it did 30 years ago."

2017 991 Porsche 911 - "Delivered on the eve of a sixth decade, the 991 is as brilliant and distinctive as any before it. Still more than worthy of its iconic status."

Our Verdict

Ford Focus

Britain's biggest-selling family hatchback gets a mid-life refresh, but can the Ford Focus hold off the likes of the Volkswagen Golf and the Seat Leon?

Join the debate

Comments
7

23 May 2017
Objectively new cars are better in every way than older cars. But therein lies the problem. Most modern cars are so competent that you have to be going ridiculous speeds to get anywhere near the limit, which is the fun part. On that basis it makes them less fun on normal public roads.

23 May 2017
Oaffie, the ND MX-5 delivers quite well on usable performance that you can safely wring out on public roads by dint of being light and not too powerful.

23 May 2017
Surprised that you were so unenthusiastic about the original MX5, which was an enormous hit and much more popular than the likes of the Barchetta and MGf.

If you'd waited a year then the family car stepped up a massive amount with the excellent Golf IV, Astra IV and Focus 1. Focus 1 vs Focus 3 would be an interesting test

23 May 2017
20 years ago, cars were much less heavy, were smaller outside, but just as big inside, often had steering feel, and engines with real throttle responce. We usually had more cylinders, but less gears. But you would prefer to crash todays cars.

Looking back 20 years its sad to see how far Peugeot have fallen, probably the biggest losers in that time. So much for progress

23 May 2017
absolutely nailed it!
except for the interior space thing, i remember old cars being small, especially headroom-wise, i'm only 6'1 and often wanted a lower seat. visibility! modern cars simply don't have any.
these days you read a review of a citroen and find complaint about ride quality. also - slightly off topic perhaps - i really miss base spec cars with exposed metal interiors, no power steering, no toys, hardly any power but doesn't weigh anything. those things were fun!

23 May 2017
My car was actually launched 25 years ago, but I managed to find one of the last ones built. When I drive new cars I'm usually struck by the better NVH performance, and the inferior visibilty and ergonomics of new models.

24 May 2017
There are many cars, I even remember from my ownership, that a 2017 comparison would be impossible as they have been axed.

Ford Orion - yes the Focus, but no saloon for UK
Citroen Xantia - C5 axed, to be replaced by an SUV
Alfa GTV - 4C is probably close but a more expensive hardcore sports car than the FWD coupe
Honda Accord coupe - the coupe only lasted a few years, even the saloon has been axed
Saab 93 - The new Insignia might be the closest living relative

Add your comment

Log in or register to post comments

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week

  • Lexus LC500
    Car review
    20 October 2017
    Futuristic Lexus LC coupé mixes the latest technology with an old-school atmospheric V8
  • Maserati Levante S GranSport
    First Drive
    20 October 2017
    Get ready to trade in your diesels: Maserati’s luxury SUV finally gets the engine it’s always needed
  • Jaguar XF Sportbrake TDV6
    First Drive
    19 October 2017
    The handsome Jaguar XF Sportbrake exhibits all the hallmarks that makes the saloon great, and with the silky smooth diesel V6 makes it a compelling choice
  • Volkswagen T-Roc TDI
    First Drive
    19 October 2017
    Volkswagen's new compact crossover has the looks, the engineering and the build quality to be a resounding success, but not with this diesel engine
  • BMW M550i
    First Drive
    19 October 2017
    The all-paw M550i is a fast, effortless mile-muncher, but there's a reason why it won't be sold in the UK