Retro Road Test: Vauxhall Nova

Some people might look at this and see a ropey old Vauxhall that’s somehow dodged the scrap man. But what you’re actually looking at is actually an endangered species. It’s the humble Vauxhall Nova – at one point in the mid 90s, it would have been one of nearly 450,000 on the roads. Now it’s one of fewer than 1,800 left.

This 1990 Vauxhall Nova Merit is in stunning condition, too. Belonging to Vauxhall’s heritage fleet, it’s covered less than 20,000 miles. Showing all the signs of the archetypal elderly owner, it’s not an exaggeration to describe this example as ‘like new’.

What are its rivals?

Pretty much like the Vauxhall Corsa’s rivals today, there was no shortage of supermini alternatives to the Nova back in the day. Ford’s Fiesta was the big rival, while the British-built Metro was getting outdated by the time this 1990 Nova was sold. Manufacturers all across Europe were competing in this market, with cars like the Fiat Uno, Renault 5, Peugeot 205 and Volkswagen Polo.

Retro Road Test: Vauxhall Nova

What engine does it use?

This Nova tested here uses the most popular 1.2-litre petrol engine, producing a heady 55hp and capable of 94.5mph (because that extra 0.5mph is very important). Other engines included an entry-level 1.0-litre petrol and a sporty 1.6-litre used in the GTE – as well as an economical 1.5-litre Isuzu diesel.

What’s it like to drive?

Intimidating. Not in a mid-engined high-powered sports car kinda way – but in a ‘that Audi Q7 could drive over me and barely notice’ kinda way. At 3,632mm long, it’s around 389mm shorter than the equivalent Corsa today – and 187mm narrower. Despite that, the interior feels spacious – not unlike the Austin Metro that’s previously been subject to our Retro Road Test.

Retro Road Test: Vauxhall Nova

It feels more modern than the Metro, though. The five-speed gearbox (optional with the 1.2-litre engine) is easy to operate, and the unassisted steering is surprisingly light once the car’s rolling. At around 800kg, the Nova is light compared to today’s standards, meaning it feels very sprightly for its 55hp. Around town, its tight turning circle combined with excellent visibility makes the Nova a pleasure to drive. On rural roads, it’s not as fun as rivals of its time (the Metro, Fiesta and 205 were all sweet handlers), but it still feels a much more analogue experience than modern cars.

Reliability and running costs

Reliability and running costs

Buy a looked-after Nova and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be pretty reliable. As with any 26-year-old car, it’d be wise to invest in breakdown cover and keep on top of maintenance, but it’s a fairly simple machine. Insurance should be cheap, too – classic policies will cover it, and it won’t be a gas guzzler.

Could I drive it every day?

Look at it this way – 20 years ago, everyone drove cars like this every day. Sure, a Nova will need a little more maintenance than a new Corsa, but there’s no reason why you shouldn’t enjoy a retro runabout for the price of one or two finance repayments on a modern alternative.

How much should I pay?

Set out with a budget as small as £500 and you’ll be able to find a Nova. But it might not be the nicest one. It’s a typical case of buy as much as you can afford – spending a couple of grand on a Nova might sound like a mad idea to some, but it’ll reward you with an enjoyable retro car that shouldn’t throw up any big bills.

Retro Road Test: Vauxhall Nova

What should I look out for?

Tidy, unmolested examples such as the one we’ve tried are desirable. Avoid badly modified Novas, and be weary of any that haven’t covered many miles over recent years. If they’ve been sat around, things could go wrong as the cars is shocked back into use. Also, be very cautious of rust – like most superminis of this era, you can practically hear the Nova fizzing if it’s not kept clear of grime.

Should I buy one?

Not everyone will understand the appeal of a 1.2-litre Nova. But as an affordable, cheap-to-run retro car, there’s a lot going for it. There’s a pure, simplistic pleasure to pootling around in a simple supermini such as the Nova. Just look after it more than you might have done as a 1990s 17-year-old.

Retro Road Test: Vauxhall Nova

Pub fact

Colin McRae might be better associated with the legendary Subaru Impreza, but he actually made his WRC debut in a humble Vauxhall Nova.