Every What Car? Car of the Year winner: 1981-90

Being named What Car? Car of the Year is the highest honour a car can receive – here is every winner in the 43-year history of the award...

Volkswagen Golf GTI Mk1 front cornering

1981: Volkswagen Golf GTI

A replacement for the ancient Beetle, the first Golf was a thoroughly modern (for the time), front-wheel-drive hatchback that set a precedent for quality which still exists today. It's the hot GTI version that we named as our Car of the Year in 1981, because it offered "a unique blend of sporting prowess and family practicality".

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1982: Mercedes 200T

Mercedes 200T front

Part of Mercedes' successful W123 family of cars, the 200T estate featured a lively 2.0-litre engine with 107bhp. It offered all of the interior luxury and quality with which the brand had become so closely associated, yet it was actually cheaper to buy than executive rivals such as the Ford Granada. "Mercedes quality is on offer at a reasonable price and in an attractive and practical format," we wrote at the time, "with the prestige thrown in for free."

1983: MG Metro

MG Metro

Sold first by British Leyland and later by Rover, the Metro is an icon of British manufacturing – in fact, this was the first time that our Car of the Year accolade had come to home turf. The MG Metro represented value for money, offering keen drivers lively performance and engaging handling, topped off by enough practicality for it to be used every day. It proved popular, too, selling twice as fast as forecasts predicted.

1984: Peugeot 205 GR

Peugeot 205 GR

A practical small hatchback, the Peugeot 205 would later spawn one of the best hot hatches ever, the 205 GTI. But even the run-of-the-mill versions were really good to drive compared with rivals of the era. The 205 could even achieve around 40mpg, helped by the fact it had a five-speed gearbox at a time when its big rivals, such as the second-generation Volkswagen Polo, only had four gears.

1985: Volkswagen Golf GL

Volkswagen Golf GL

The Golf took top honours for a second time in 1985, although this time it was the second-generation model in GL form. We liked that more than 30mpg was achievable in everyday driving, with 40mpg recorded on the motorway. Performance from its 1.6-litre petrol engine was "sparkling", we said, although on the negative side, ventilation was poor.

1986: Saab 9000 Turbo 16

Saab 9000 Turbo 16

Saab's 9000 executive car gained a sporty turbocharged version soon after its launch, and boy was it good. As we noted at the time, "the Saab 9000's rare combination of thrilling turbo performance, forgiving handling and roomy hatchback practicality put it ahead of all the other contestants to make it not just Best Director's Car, but also our overall Car of the Year for 1986".

1987: Renault 21 Savanna GTX

Renault 21 Savanna

"Take the refined, rapid and roomy Renault 21," we wrote in our 1987 Awards issue, "add a stylish estate tail with space for a third row of seats, and the result is the fast family Savanna GTX. It's the best of many worlds".

1988: BMW 7 Series 735i

1988 BMW 7 Series

The Mk2, 735i version of BMW's 7 Series saloon had 205bhp and a top speed of 144mph. However, what really caught our eye was that in addition to offering the kind of rear space and luxury that the rich and powerful looked for in their chauffeur-driven limousines, it was also excellent to drive, with strong performance and engaging handling. As a bonus, the 735i was almost £25,000 cheaper to buy than its larger V12-engined sibling, the 750iL.

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1989: Ford Fiesta 1.1LX

1989 Ford Fiesta

By 1989, the Fiesta was available in both three and five-door forms and came with more economical petrol engines and revised suspension that set new standards in terms of both ride and handling. In short, Ford had ironed out the few bugs of the original model, and in doing so created a masterpiece in the small car class.

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1990: Rover 214 Si

Rover 214 Si

Launched in 1989, the 200 was the car Rover simply had to get right if it was to have a future (or, at least, a bit more of one). A joint venture between the British brand and Honda, it offered an outstanding amount of space inside, and a luxurious interior to match.

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