JOHANNESBURG - The year was 1995, and South Africa was a fledgeling democracy basking in the glory of the country’s first ever Rugby World Cup win, which played a part in uniting a divided nation.
There was a lot to look forward to in the motor industry too, with the market slowly opening up following the lifting of sanctions and the creation of a new Motor Industry Development Programme that would eventually encourage local manufacturers to pursue export programmes that would allow them to produce fewer models, but at higher volumes.
However it would take until the turn of the millennium before SA’s car exports would start accelerating in a meaningful way, and imported models were still fairly rare in 1995, although momentum was picking up on that front with the recent return of brands such as Alfa Romeo, Peugeot and Volvo, and the introduction of Hyundai.
So what did South Africans pay for a new car in 1995?
Keep in mind that this is not an extensive analysis of inflation or affordability, but rather a fun look at what cars were available to buyers 25 years ago as well as how much they cost and what they cost in relation to each other. Fact is, cars were significantly cheaper back then, but people also earned a lot less.
We dug into the archives of IOL’s sister print title Drive360’s weekly motoring supplement, which was called Star Motoring at the time, and according to the October 19, 1995 edition, the cheapest car 25 years ago was the Volkswagen Citi Golf Chico, which retailed at R33 950. The most expensive car listed was a Porsche 911 Turbo at R799 000.
You can view up-close scans of the Star Motoring price pages at the bottom of the article.
Entry level price war
With a young democracy ever keen to get mobile, 1995 saw the eruption of a price war at the bottom end of the market, with Mazda and Ford having slashed the entry prices of their 323 and Laser twins through the introduction stripped out of ‘Tracer’ and ‘Midge’ derivatives priced at R34 357. As mentioned, VWSA had also entered this war with its even cheaper R33 950 Chico. The Rosslyn-assembled Fiat Uno range would soon respond with cut-price ‘Mia’ and ‘Cento’ models.
The following year would see Toyota enter the price war with its Conquest-based Tazz, but in 1995 the cheapest Conquest sold for R51 039 and we feel genuine sympathy for those who bought one at that price, not knowing that the Tazz was coming.
For the sake of comparison, South Africa’s cheapest cars in 2020 are the Suzuki S-Presso 1.0 GL (at R145 900), BAIC D30 1.3 Comfort (R149 900), Mahindra KUV 100 1.2 Nxt (R151 999), Suzuki Celerio 1.0 GA (R153 900) and Renault Kwid 1.0 Expression (R162 900).
Compact executive segment hots up
However, there was a lot more to the car market 25 years ago than just entry-level cars, and with an upwardly mobile population, came a boom in the compact premium segment that until recently had been completely dominated by BMW’s 3 Series.
While the E36 BMW 3-Series was considered the ultimate ‘starter kit’ for young career ladder climbers, there was a sudden increase in competition with Audi launching its first-generation A4 in late 1995 and Mercedes having introduced its first C-Class a year earlier.
All three were built in South Africa, with the Audi A4 costing between R103 869 for the 1.8 base model and R169 613 for the 2.8E auto. A new 3 Series would set you back R108 800 in 316i form while a 328i auto was yours for R177 300, with the M3 topping the range at R258 200. A new Mercedes C-Class cost between R116 500 (C180 Classic) and R198 300 (C280 Elegance).
For the sake of comparison, an Audi A4 today starts at R644 000, while a BMW 318i is listed at R667 724 and a Mercedes C180 is R723 600 - although in all fairness the newer cars offer far more in the way of luxury and technology.
Cars for the business tycoon
There was also plenty on offer in 1995 for those seeking a larger executive sedan, such as a BMW 5 Series (R208 100 - R298 900), 7 Series (R385 300 - R510 000), Audi A6/S6 (R174 515 - R275 000), Audi A8 (R390 000), Mercedes E-Class (R165 600 - R270 800), S-Class (R375 000 - R485 000) and Volvo 850 (R169 970 - R219 970).
These were the default choices for business executives before SUVs like the BMW X5, Mercedes GLE and Britain’s Range Rover line-up became all the rage at the premium end of the market. Back in 1995 only the larger Range Rover existed, and it was priced from R349 000.
Lower down on the price ladder, mid-range compact sedans were also a popular choice among company car drivers and those seeking family-sized wheels.
Back then your go-to choices would have been a Toyota Corolla 160i GLE (at R73 815) or an Opel Astra 160i E (R77 241), Mazda 160 E (R76 277), Honda Ballade 150 Luxline (R78 000), Nissan Sentra 160 GX (R75 110) or Volkswagen Jetta CLX (R76 991). Hard to imagine, but the Nissan and VW didn’t even feature air conditioning as standard.
If you were in the market for something with a little more fizz, the Jetta VR6 was an enticing performance option at R128 212, and for a few grand less buyers could get the Golf version. The GTI of that time, however, is certainly not worthy of mention. What is, is the extremely rare locally-developed Opel Kadett and Astra 200 TS turbocharged models, which started at R127 100.
The Toyota Corolla segment today is a shadow of its former self, in sales terms at least, although the cars have become much bigger and more substantial. However, it’s easy to see why they’re not popular anymore, with a Corolla starting at R380 200, a Honda Civic at R410 000 and a Mazda3 at R366 100. The locally-built Corolla Quest, however, bucks this trend with its R265 000 starting price.
What about the bakkies?
Although SUVs were still a very rare breed 25 years back, double cab bakkies were starting to gain in popularity, and a popular option was the Isuzu KB 280 DT LE (from R119 775), which pioneered the high-spec turbodiesel double cab trend in South Africa, although by 1995 Nissan also offered a 2.7 turbodiesel (from R130 356). Toyota had not gone the turbo route yet, but its petrol-powered double cab range had been popular in South Africa since the 1980s. In 1995 a Hilux 2.4 D/Cab raider was listed at R135 937.
However, as is the case today, the single cab ‘workhorse’ spec bakkies were also popular fleet vehicles, and in 1995 you could buy a Toyota Hilux 1.8 S short-wheelbase for R62 493, or a Mitsubishi Colt 1600 for R56 000, a Mazda B1900 for R58 371 or an Isuzu KB200 for R63 089.
Today you’ll pay R291 100 for a Toyota Hilux 1.8 S single cab, while the most expensive double cab 4x4 model, the Legend RS auto, comes in at R851 100.
Now take a closer look at the new car price list in October 1995: