Buyers often [ind a particular section of the market dominated by two models. By definition very similar in size and character, these models are often close in price as well. Sometimes they are almost identical in appearance and mechanical layout, sometimes they embody very different solutions to the same problems. Consider the Mini and the Imp, for example, the MG Midget and the Triumph Spitfire, the Renault 16 and the Austin Maxi, the Triumph 2000 versus the Rover 2200. In this new occasional series we shall be investigating and comparing such close rivals.
Nature, it seems, does not feel that there are many alternative solutions to the same problem; hence the biological convergence tendency by which animals sharing the same habitat become similar in construction and appearance no matter how dissimilar their evolutionary history: a mammalian air-breathing dolphin looks much the same as a gilled, cold-blooded shark.
Judging by our first pair of contestants, the Alfasud and the 1220 Citroen GS Club, this rule must also apply to human creations, since the two cars resemble one another in so many ways, even though one is the design of a feudally secretive company in northern France while the other is the product of a completely new factory belonging to a state-owned concern and deliberately sited near Naples to relieve unemployment problems. From this southern location the Alfasud gets its less than euphonious name, chosen to emphasise the autonomy of the little car and its factory with respect to the parent Alfa Romeo company up north.
The GS appeared in September, 1970, the Alfasud in November, 1971, far too soon afterwards for its design to owe anything to the Citroen. But despite the independence of conception and disparity of background, the similarities are remarkable. Both cars have front-wheel drive and a longitudinally orientated flat-four engine with a belt-driven overhead camshaft to each bank of cylinders; both cars have their gearboxes mounted behind their engines and supporting inboard front disc brakes; both cars have advanced suspension systems and both cars sell in this country for just over £1400.
Most remarkable of all is the similarity in appearance and packaging, both cars having two-box bodies with sloping yet cut-off tails. In each case high aerodynamic efficiency is said to be an advantage of this stylistic approach, and the claims are supported by our maximum speed measurements. Similar in weight too, the cars are also much the same in performance (excellent) and fuel economy (indifferent).
Citroen enthusiasts were not surprised to find the GS equipped with a new and refined version of the French company’s well-known hydropneumatic springing system. This incorporates an automatic self-levelling arrangement which prevents the suspension travel from being used up when carrying heavy loads, thus allowing the gas springs to be very soft and an exceptionally comfortable ride to be achieved. For the GS the system was given stiffer damping and more progressive bump stops to eliminate the crash-through on hump-back bridges and the like from which the bigger DS cars suffer, while anti-roll bars at each end help to improve the handling. With the hydropneumatic suspension goes Citroen’s equally famous fully powered braking system with its 'automatic compensation'for weight distribution, but operated by 'a conventional’ pendant pedal rather than a 'little button on the floor.
If Citroen can provide all this complexity and sophistication at a relatively low price, it’s a pity, we feel, that Alfa Romeo did not similarly endow the Alfasud with one of the most important features of their own bigger cars - a five-speed gearbox. But the four-speed gearbox they do provide is an outstandingly good one, and the Italian car does possess in full measure another valued characteristic of the bigger Alfas: exceptionally good handling and roadholding.
It also gains considerable distinction from its styling by Giorgetto Giugiaro, chief designer and boss of Ital Design. Most observers consider its lines cleaner and better proportioned than those of the GS, and find its detailing better, especially at the rear. It is, moreover, a particularly compact and efficient bodyshell, since the front-seat legroom is quite outstanding for a small car only 12ft 10in long, yet there is -adequate legroom behind, even with the front seats in their rearmost positions. But loading of the fair-sized boot is impeded by a lip at its rear. Here Alfa should have followed Citroen’s approach, for the rear bumper of the GS lifts up with the bootlid to reveal a luggage compartment with a completely flat floor. This boot is larger than that of the Alfasud, but then the GS is more than 8in longer. Rear-seat legroom is not quite as good, though, and there is less front-seat legroom.
Of course the 'two cars also differ in a number of more major ways. The Citroen, for example, has an aircooled engine made wholly of light alloy, double wishbone front suspension and trailing arms at the rear, whereas the Alfasud has a watercooled unit with an iron block, MacPherson strut front suspension and a dead axle at the rear.
What do all these differences amount to? The principal result of our comparative driving was to confirm our original assessments: *both models are remarkably fine cars, and while each one excels at 'certain things neither has a significant overall lead over the other. Both for example, have good acceleration through the gears and are able to cruise in an extremely relaxed way at high speeds, but both have indifferent fuel economy and acceleration in top. The gearbox of the Alfasud is quite outstanding in the ease and precision of its action, whereas the Citroen’s box is rather notchy and obstructive (and very noisy) ‚Although the one on our test car was better than most of its kind.
But because conventional springing and damping systems have improved so much during the past few years, and because the Alfasud’s is a good example of such evolution and provides a very good ride, we were little surprised to find the Citroen system maintaining its supremacy by giving even greater comfort. All that plumbing and pumpery really does pay off in the form of the Citroen glide which smooths out bumps and materially reduces fatigue on long journeys. Similarly, although the GS has very responsive handling and will out-corner most cars on the road, the Alfasud is still more responsive, understeers noticeably less and has such tremendous adhesion as to set completely new standards for relatively inexpensive road cars. In these two factors the basic choice lies: it’s cornering versus comfort. But whichever one you chose will involve little sacrifice of the other.
The power units of the Citroen GS and Alfasud represent the latest generation of modern engines and also set new standards in various ways. They have, for instance, healthy and very similar maximum power outputs: 63 bhp at 6000 rpm for the 1186 cc Alfa, and 60 bhp at 5750 rpm for the 1222 cc GS. The Alfa’s engine gets it to 60 mph from a standstill in only 14.1 sec - a time that would not have disgraced a sports car a few years although the Citroen is not far behind with a time of 15.0 sec. By one of those coincidences which run through this comparison the maximum speed of both cars is 92.2 mph which compares well with the 84.1 mph of the 60 bhp British Leyland 1300 and the 93.0 mph of the 72 bhp Ford Escort l300E, thus confirming both companies’ claims for aerodynamic efficiency. Nor is this maximum just an academic figure, since both cars are distinguished by their ability to cruise at very high speeds with astonishing ease and lack of fuss, even though at 90 mph the Alfasud engine is 'running at just over 5500 rpm and the Citroen’s at nearly 5900 rpm. Both units sound as if 'they could keep up this pace all day, and are outstandingly smooth, the Citroen’s a tiny bit more so than the Alfa’s, but whereas there *is a tinge of mechanical harshness from the valvegear in the note of the Alfasud engine, the GS unit is more noisy at high revs in a boomy way.
Despite the relatively high outputs, low-speed torque is not bad for engines of this capacity, though top-gear acceleration is poor when other 'cars of similar price are considered. Theoretically, the Alfa is the slower car, with a 30-50 'mph acceleration time of 13.5 sec, but subjectively it doesn’t feel much slower than the GS which covers the same speed increment in only 11.4 sec. But neither car is very happy at much below 30 mph, the GS suffering from transmission vibrations while our test Alfasud was plagued with carburation hesitations.