Pep torque

It’s late Sunday evening. The City of London is quiet. Turning into Petticoat Lane, the route is suddenly obstructed by a roadsweeping truck, advancing the wrong way down a one-way street as it seeks to clear away the papery evidence of the local market. Quite why this urban dinosaur should be progressing thus isn’t clear. What is clear is that its driver sees no reason either a) to head back in the lawful direction of travel or b) to shuffle out of the way.

There are two options. One is to reverse a few hundred yards into a three-lane one-way system. The other, which calls for a greater degree of spontaneous improvisation, involves driving up a kerb, along the pavement, squeezing through a gap between a lamp post and a shop front and rejoining the road beyond the truck. In many cars, this would not be possible. In the Vauxhall Corsa GSi 16v it is. Just.

It wasn’t the only time during our tenure of Vauxhall’s new performance baby that The Italian Job sprang to mind, for the 16v Corsa is the nearest thing you’ll get to a modern-day Mini Cooper (without, of course, buying a Mini Cooper).

When we tried the 1.4-litre Corsa SRi (MOTOR SPORT, May 1993), which served as an interim range leader while the finishing touches were applied to the GSi, we weren’t overly impressed, principally because it was raucous and a touch crude. We made the point that it was, in fact, a bit like a Cooper, albeit without the grin factor.

The arrival of the GSi coincides with the removal of the roughest edges that marred the SRi we drove.

This really is a supermini for the 1990s. It looks good, rides well, handles sharply (though the powered steering, while direct, remains a little numb) and its brand new 1.6 engine, the first of Vauxhall’s smaller units to feature both double overhead cams and four valves per cylinder, is both smooth and flexible, in the best traditions of GM 16-valvers. It yields 108 bhp at 6000 rpm, but its best feature is accessible torque. Reaching its 110.6 lb ft peak at 3800 rpm, it picks up well in third and fourth gears, even around town, and the close ratio ‘box allows for perky acceleration when you want it, though the change itself is a little notchy. GM claims that it will sprint from rest to 60 mph in nine seconds, going on to an eventual top speed of 121 mph. It stops effectively, too, though the ABS can be a little too indiscreet.

The latter forms part of a slender standard equipment list, highlights of which are a central locking system with deadlocks and engine immobiliser and the split-level radio/ cassette system, theft of which would be a) time-consuming and b) pointless. On the minus side, if a petty criminal didn’t realise the latter, and was of a mind to remove the Corsa’s ICE equipment, he or she would completely marmalise the dashboard.

Items such as electric windows, which you would expect to find on cars of this ilk, are optional, which might seem like an unwelcome surprise on a car costing £11,250. To my mind, it’s better to save weight than human effort on a sports saloon, but there are bound to be those who would appreciate such touches, particularly when the better equipped and arguably prettier, but less powerful and, unquestionably, noisier, Peugeot 106 XSi is around £700 cheaper.

Elsewhere, the cabin is typical Vauxhall: functional, if a little cluttered. The worst aspect, by far, is the footwell; even staff members with modest hooves found it uncomfortably cramped.

Vauxhall claims that almost 40 mpg should be attainable at motorway cruising speeds, and we returned over 30 using considerably more taxing routes.

Generally, the Corsa GSi is a good advertisement for small car technology: civilised in any environment, and peppy with it.