Motorweek was just two years old in 1983 when it decided to do a four-way test of five-door family hatchbacks. It’s not a format that stuck around — we’re talking about both the show’s comparo and the body style — but it does provide a glimpse into the weird automotive landscape that was the early years of the Reagan administration. Also weird: despite many generations that have passed between these family haulers and their descendants, each one has a personality that still reflects their company of origin.
One likely reason Motorweek stopped doing comparisons like this is the complexity of the points system. If you’re watching PBS on a on a lazy Sunday morning you’re probably not eager to do a ton of math. What is interesting though is that in addition to all the performance and comfort tests that the cars are rated on, engine accessibility for maintenance items is also considered — unthinkable today. Motorweek also tested fit and finish by rolling a jawbreaker along the panel gaps. Could this be where Lexus got its ball bearing test idea? Now, on to the cars.
Nissan Stanza: $9,059; 0-60 in 13.7 seconds; 33 mpg
To us the “Nissan Datsun Stanza” — named right in the middle of the switch from Datsun to Nissan — is the strangest of the bunch. Though Motorweek had lots of good things to say about it, it seems like a valiant but flawed effort. You can see what engineers intended before the beancounters swooped in.
It had technology such as the NAPS twin-spark engine for cleaner emissions, as well as a full suite of dashboard gauges. But it’s saddled with poor paint quality (which probably made it prone to rust as time went on), and cheap feeling seats. Dated aesthetic choices included whiteline tires excessive chrome, but its biggest downfall was the PR flack who sent a 3-speed auto into a 5-speed stick fight.
Mazda 626: $11,295; 0-60 in 13.2 seconds; 29 mpg
The mid-80s Mazda 626 is probably not a car you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about in the last decade or so, but it was a promising entrant in this field. Typical of Hiroshima, the car was the most performance-oriented of the pack. Handling and braking were by far the best, even if straight-line speed wasn’t a priority. It looked modern and sleek compared to the rest as well.
Engineers went above and beyond to improve road feel, in this case making the 626 the first mass-production car to feature automatically adjustable shock valving. Buttons on the dash allowed the driver to select Normal or Sport mode, but its nimbleness compromised the ride comfort. Seats with impressive bolstering and wing buttons on instrument panel made it a driver-oriented machine. Also, oscillating vents.
Toyota Camry: $10,222; 0-60 in 12.0 seconds; 35 mpg
Say what you will about Toyota, but it always does its research. The Camry was the Japanese car most tailored for American tastes. In practice, that meant a roomy interior with flat, broad seats. Of the three Japanese entrants it had the most rear head and shoulder space, and the largest trunk. It was quiet and efficient, and performance almost seemed like an afterthought. It was slow, braked poorly, and had a ton of understeer and body roll. The review compared its handling to that of a 5- to 10-year-old American car. Yikes.
It didn’t matter, though. It made sense on paper and the build quality was apparent. Motorweek called it the first Japanese car to seriously challenge Detroit’s middle-class car market. And of all nameplates in this 40-year-old test, the Toyota Camry is the only one that still exists.
Pontiac Phoenix: $10,176; 0-60 in 11.7 seconds; 26 mpg
Last and also least was the Pontiac Phoenix, the performance badged version of the Chevy Citation. Detroit has always struggled with small cars, and the Phoenix was the only V6 in the group. As such it out-dragged all three entrants from Japan despite its 3-speed automatic, but fuel economy suffered. Its optional sports suspension helped it out-handle the Camry but steering was vaguer than a surly teen when asked about his day.
Its plush velour interior couldn’t hide a poorly designed dash or terrible fit and finish with uneven panel gaps. It’s all moot, however, because the GM X-body is on the books as one of the worst things ever to come out of Detroit.
In conclusion, Motorweek chose the Mazda 626 as the winner for its handling and style. Of course, history has shown that despite its charms the 626 didn’t catch on. Instead consumers put the Camry onto the path of best seller, putting practicality before performance. Looks like some things never change.