Currently reading: Autocar driving impressions - comparing cars twenty years on
What a difference 20 years make; how have industry stalwarts fared in the last two decades at the hands of our testing team?
Jimi Beckwith
News
7 mins read
2 October 2017

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.”

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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

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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: 

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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:

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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

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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:

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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:

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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."

Join the debate

Comments
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Add a comment…
WallMeerkat 24 May 2017

There are many cars, I even

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

Uncle Mellow 23 May 2017

Progress?

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.
russ13b 23 May 2017

@artill

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!