Looking back: the new cars of 1997

Looking back: the new cars of 1997
Looking back: the new cars of 1997

In part two of our trip down motoring’s memory lane we’re exploring the new cars hitting the market 20 years ago – from a 4×4 legend’s first ‘soft-roader’ to a Mercedes that had a problem staying upright.

Land Rover Freelander

For some the move by Land Rover into the so-called soft-roader market was sacrilege. The brand was famous for hardcore rugged 4x4s and the mere suggestion of it offering the option of a two-wheel-drive model outraged some. But it was a canny move. The market was ready for more lifestyle-oriented cars and the Freelander proved popular – thanks to modern styling – and capable – thanks to the brands’ 4×4 expertise. Despite using ageing components from the Rover parts bin and a less-than-stellar reputation for reliability, the first-generation Freelander enjoyed a ten-year production run.

Ford Puma

The Puma is what happens when you take a dull-looking but fine-handling small hatchback and decide to create a sports coupe. Based on the Mk4 Fiesta, the Puma was a compact, affordable and fun coupe that built on Ford’s burgeoning reputation for building fine handling cars. Lowly versions came with an basic 1.4-litre engine but a Yamaha-developed 1.7 offered performance to match the Puma’s sporty looks with 123bhp to propel the one-tonne coupe about.

Alfa Romeo 156

In the early 1990s you couldn’t find a curve on an Alfa Romeo for love nor money. They were all straight lines and edges sharp enough to cut yourself on. Then, in 1997 the 156 came along and changed that with a sculpted, curvy look that’s still influencing the shape of Alfas to this day. The 156 was created to take on the likes of the BMW 3 Series and while it never achieved the German’s level of success it won more than 30 awards from motoring critics, including the European Car of the Year title for 2008.

Mercedes-Benz A-Class

The A-Class was a departure for Mercedes in 1997. The brand was best known for large, luxurious rear-driven saloons so a small, front-wheel-drive hatchback was a radical new direction for the brand. Mercedes’ faith that there would be demand for a luxury small car has been bourne out in the 20 years since with other premium brands following suit but it nearly went horribly wrong before it even got off the ground. In a test of its high-speed swerving – the so-called elk test – a Swedish magazine managed to roll the A-Class. Mercedes initially denied there was a problem before changing its tune, suspending deliveries, recalling 2,600 cars and fitting ESP as standard. The slight wobble didn’t dent the A-Class’s fortunes much. Twenty years on and the compact luxury car is still pulling in the punters for Mercedes.

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