Austin Metro: Retro Road Test

This is a new series for Motoring Research. You may have seen our ‘Two-Minute Road Tests’, putting new cars through the same structured scrutiny and highlighting the good and bad in easy-to-read, bitesize chunks. But we realise not everyone is in the market for a new car. So we’re introducing the Retro Road Test – testing everything from classic cars to simply older vehicles you might consider spending your money on.

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The first car to get the Retro Road Test treatment is a car that was very popular in its time, but has all-but disappeared from the roads today. Some may even dispute its classic status – but it was a turning-point when it was launched in 1980. It’s the Austin Metro.

Austin Metro: what are its rivals?

Austin Metro: what are its rivals?

The Austin Metro was initially intended as a successor to the Mini. But British Leyland panicked at the last minute. The Mini was an iconic design, and early feedback on the Metro’s design sketches wasn’t positive enough to risk giving it the Mini name.

There was a solution, however. Manufacturers were creating a new segment – the supermini, led by the likes of the new Ford Fiesta. Customers loved them – they were great around town and frugal, yet could cope on the expanding motorway network. So all BL had to do was to make the Mini Metro slightly bigger than planned, and introduce it above the Mini and below the Allegro in its line-up.

Austin Metro: what engine does it use?

Austin Metro: what engine does it use?

The model we’re testing here is fitted with the more powerful 1,275cc A-plus engine (a smaller 1.0-litre powertrain was also available). It’s a reliable unit that likes to be worked hard. If you do so, it’ll comfortably keep up with modern traffic. On motorways it can be pushed beyond 70mph, but sticking closer to 60mph will provide a more relaxing journey.

Austin Metro: what’s it like to drive?

Austin Metro: what’s it like to drive?

Handling is fun – the Metro likes to go around corners, but it does feel less planted than the Mini. It’ll roll in a way that modern cars just don’t, but its tiny 12-inch wheels will grip.

The steering position feels awkward at first. The wheel seems almost horizontal – more akin to a bus than a small car. But the seats are comfortable and the feeling of space inside the car is remarkable – helped no doubt by the large windows and thin pillars.

Austin Metro: reliability and running costs

Austin Metro: reliability and running costs

The example we’re testing is an HLE from 1983. The HLE was launched in response to rising fuel prices – it was the ‘eco’ model of its day, arguably ahead of its time. It featured a longer fourth gear ratio than the standard model, helping it return better fuel economy at high speed. They renamed the fourth gear the ‘E’ gear.

Combined with the 1.3-litre engine, Austin Rover made bold claims about the HLE’s fuel consumption. It returned an impressive (even by today’s standards) 57.8mpg ‘at a steady 56mph’. In reality, it’ll comfortably return mid-40s MPG today, while other running costs should be very low. Classic insurance companies will cover the Metro very cheaply, while parts are often shared with other British Leyland products and easy to track down.

Austin Metro: could I drive it every day?

Austin Metro: could I drive it every day?

Considering how much smaller the Austin Metro is than modern day superminis, it’s amazingly practical. The rear seats fold down – unusual for its time – and four adults can fit in the Metro comfortably (OK, we might expect a few complaints during longer journeys).

But, with numbers declining so rapidly, it would be a shame to use a Metro every day. It’d cope with it – but the whine of the gearbox in lower gears would soon lose its charm, and you’d probably get bored of being intimidated by giant Vauxhall Astras on your daily commute. And then there’s the rust – winter wouldn’t be kind to a Metro.

Austin Metro: how much should I pay?

Austin Metro: how much should I pay?

Metros are dirt cheap – especially when you consider how much a Mini of the same era would be. Slightly ropey examples can be picked up from as little as £500, while around a grand should get you a usable project. You’re looking at no more than £2,000 for a minter, while a rare MG Metro Turbo might cost up to £4,000.

Austin Metro: what should I look out for?

Austin Metro: what should I look out for?

Don’t worry too much about the mechanicals – the A-plus engine is fairly bulletproof, although a good service history is always nice for peace of mind. Watch out for sagging suspension, although this can be sorted fairly cheaply. The Metro’s biggest issue is rot – check the floor pans and sills, as well as around the front wings and the front valance.

Austin Metro: should I buy one?

Austin Metro: should I buy one?

If you’re after an entry-level classic car that will turn heads and encourage people to reminisce, a Metro is definitely worthy of consideration. It wasn’t class-leading in its day, and some people simply won’t get why you’d want a Metro today, but can you think of a more significant classic car you can pick up for less than a grand?

More than two million Metros were sold between 1980 and 1997 (including rebadged Rover 100 models) – but only around 500 Austin Metros are believed to remain on UK roads. If you want to save a rare but significant British car, this is your chance.

Austin Metro: pub fact

Austin Metro: pub fact

The four-wheel-drive MG Metro 6R4 rally car shares little with the road car apart from its name. Created as a Group B racer, the 6R4 was powered by the same 3.0-litre V6 engine that went on to appear in the Jaguar XJ220. It produced more than 416hp – and customers could buy homologation versions for more than £40,000.