Road Test - The New Opel Kadett 1.3SGL

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General Motors’ Little Winner

The new Opel Kadett, with front-wheel-drive contrived, of course, form a transverse engine, is a very significant newcomer in the light-car field. It represents the new “World Car” from the great General Motors’ organisation, so is known as the T-car (perhaps with the old Ford Model-T’s universality in mind?). it has the same place in the GM scheme of things as the Fiesta has for the Ford Empire, ranking as an entirely new small-car model in the GM catalogues, which, although manufactured entirely in Germany, will be listed also as the Vauxhall Astra from Luton and sold by Vauxhall dealers.

Before the war the Kadett was a crude but very lively package, made, some said, from cardboard and pressed milk, but able to cruise faster than most 1,100 c.c. cars of its time, while returning good fuel economy and boasting Dubonnet-type independent front suspension. Since the war GM has continued this Opel model’s name, for a succession of its small Opels, some rather dreary if not better forgotten, but all improving with the passage of time. The FWD Opel Kadett is not to be confused, however, with any of its predecessors. It is entirely different, and I can assure that it is very good indeed.

The car which Ken Moyes arranged for me to try, at quite short notice, was the 1.3SGL four-door saloon. I took it over on a fearful day of gale-force, squally winds and driving rain but felt immediately at home in it driving it as hard as I could on the home-bound journey, against those impeding headwinds, I got 37.0 m.p.g. of four-star petrol –the lower-powered versions of this new Kadett will run on two-star, but it might be that, having less horse-power, they would need to be driven harder to keep the “S”–engined version in sight, so might not be so sparing of fuel. I don’t know. What I do know is that this New Kadett, which is a big car for its class, and very comfortable at that, even in its more sporting form, is a fine fuel-conservationist. . . .

Later on I used the smart and convenient little (well, as I have just observed, not so little) Opel for local runs, although this included dashing down to Cardiff in another howling rain-storm, and the m.p.g. then came out at 35.3. So here is a handsome, exceptionally spacious, comfortable, economy-class car that will return an average of better than 36 m.p.g. on long runs under hard-going conditions. It never gave less than 32.7 m.p.g. even in town, an overall 35.0 m.p.g. as the New Kadett made by Opel is also a very pleasant car to drive, I think I can be permitted to call it a “winner”. The cable-actuated clutch is light, with a sort of over-centre feel, the gear change for the 4-speed gearbox, if a bit notchy when hurried, can be quite smooth to use it after it has warmed its oil, and I never have a thought o the disc/drum servo brakes, so well do they function. The firmly-upholstered seats are very comfortable and instrumentation easy to consult, with neat interior and fitments trim in the German style. The suspension is by coil-spring MacPherson struts in front, with the dead back-axle carried on trailing-arms with coil springs, anti-roll bar, and a torsional transverse member, gives a generally good ride although there are times when the rear suspension feels too hard. As for engine noise, an important assessment in a small-engined car, the Kadett is not quiet at cruising speeds but what noise the engine makes isn’t unpleasant, for it is not so much a roar as an odd background-rumbling sound. It is so long since I drove a Volkswagen Polo or Golf, those commendably unobtrusive small cars, that I would not car to express too definite an opinion but I would think them less cacophonous than the Kadett. At low speeds the Opel drive-train whines or clatters, in spite of the gearbox being in-line with the crankshaft. But the overall noise level is not such as to condemn the car to any serious extent. Reverse-gear engages easily and is guarded by a slide-up sleeve on the gear-lever stem; the lever is spring-loaded towards third and top.

The rack-and-pinion steering calls for nearly four turns, lock-to-lock. It is very light, except when parking, accurate, and possesses good castor-return. Then, coming to the controls, they are again in general most acceptable. I like the grouping of the various levers and switches in a slightly rearward-inclined panel, giving something of the effect of being in a light aeroplane, but with far less complexity. This panel contains the two horizontal heater/ventilator levers, the adjustable centre vents, with a small quartz clock to the right of these, and three switches for rear fog-lamp, hazard-warning, and the rear window wipe/wash. It also carries the Philips radio/stereo set, a cigarette-lighter for those who do not mind jeopardising their health by smoking, as ash-tray, and a rotary control for the quiet two-speed heater fan which, pulled out, brings in the rear window demister.

In front of the driver, inset in a padded nacelle behind one panel of glass, is the 140 m.p.h. speedometer with inner k.p.h. band as well as the m.p.h. readings, although these omit 30 and 70 m.p.h. readings expected in a car sold in Britain, with total and trip odometers, only the latter having a decimal reading, unlike the double tenths’ –readings provided on many Japanese cars (but why?). There is no tachometer, nor is this often missed, in a utility car. Flanking this neat speedometer, with its black dial and clear white figures, are the steady-reading fuel gauge and heat-gauge on the left, the line of four warning lights, one above the other, on the right, for battery, oil/hand-brake on, full-beam, and indicators. There are additional air-vents at the extremities of the facia. Rather surprisingly, the discreet horn note is sounded by depressing the centre of the steering wheel. This small wheel has an openwork cross-spoke, so that if you wish to drive with hands “at mine and three o’clock” (but I hope you don’t) there are convenient grips to use. Two substantial stalk-controls look after lights-dipping and indicators on the left, wipers and screen-wash on the right. Their stalks are set rather too high and that controlling the intermittent, fast/slow wiper action is imprecise in its movements; not a very serious complaint, however. The side and headlamps have to be put on by using a little rotary switch on the right of the panel, which also controls the roof lamp. The door “keeps” hold effectively, but the o/s rear door had to be slammed shut.

Not only is this New Kadett bigger than some off its competitors, but it does not feel like a particularly small car. It has a wheelbase of 8’ 3” and is just over 134” long. The outline is stylishly crisp, with a front air-dam, from which ugly tow-hooks protrude. On the four-door two-box body the boot is very reasonably commodious, its lid going right to the base of the tail and its lid opening quickly on its own, after being unlocked. (Hatchbacks in three and five-door form and three and five-door Estates are available). One key front-seat head-restraints make reversing tedious. The heater is effective but far too sensitive to the controls and there is interior stowage in a decently-sized, but not lockable, lidded cubby, and in a long deep well before the gear lever, supplemented by useful rigid front-door pockets, these having drain holes, presumably to obviate dust accumulating therein. There is only a driver’s door external mirror and the interior mirror has anti-dazzle setting but is a bit too flexibly-mounted for this to work if brutally operated.

This Opel Kadett, then, is a car roomy in front and back seats (which are cloth upholstered), of generous window area, and with wide doors. It has performance to match these big-car aspects, and the 75 x 73s mm. 1,297 c.c. single-overhead-camshaft engine is unique in having hydraulic tappets in the small-car field. In “S”-form the c.r. is 9.2 to 1, so 4-star fuel is necessary; toe Solex-carburetted 8.2 to 1 c.r. 60 b.h.p. Kadett engine will burn 91-octane petrol. The engine has five main bearings and an aluminium cross-flow head, on a cast-iron block. The camshaft is belt-driven and the carburettor is a downdraught General Motors France Vara et II with automatic choke, on this more powerful power unit. The auto choke was not very effective, cold starting calling for considerable churning with the starter motor and some dying-out for the first half-mile or so, and when it was hot there could be an embarrassing delay before the engine would fire. The “S”-engined Kadett gives a useful 75 (DIN) b.h.p. at a modest 5,800 r.p.m. but 7,000 r.p.m. or thereabouts does no harm, it seems. The torque is 74½ ft./lb. (DIN) at 4,500 r.p.m. At 70 m.p.h. It is notably smooth-running and willing engine, and if screamed round will give you maxima of 30, 60 and 75 m.p.h. in the lower gears. The Kadett uses 13” tyres; these were Goodyear G800 155 x 13 Radials on the turquoise-finished test car. Cornering is neutral on these tyres and the front-drive effect virtually undetectable, except for some understeer, corrected by lifting-off, and high-speed cornering produces no problems, roll being well controlled.

Indeed, the Opel’s handling qualities are outstanding. The Opel Senator and Monza and the Vauxhall Royale have been endowed with such splendid road manners that it is a treat to drive them, and some of this is mirrored in the way in which the New Kadett behaves, although better damping would make it even better. At night the Bosch rectangular headlamps light the way ahead effectively, with a wide spread of light. The fuel tank holds over nine gallons and the big filler cap on the o/s has prominent finger-grips and a rather difficult rotary lock. As for that performance which lifts the Opel out of the sluggish rut, top speed is around the genuine 100 m.p.h. and from rest to 60 m.p.h. occupies 12 seconds. A sports version of the “S”-engined Kadett is available, on 14” wheels. as tested, in this very acceptable 1.3 SGL four-door form, the Opel costs £4,141, which compares with the equivalent, but three-door Ford Fiesta 1.3S at £3,842 or at $4,166 in top-model Ghia guise. While I was greatly enjoying testing this Opel news came in that it had won the coveted Golden Steering Wheel* Award; I looked very carefully at the one on the test car but it was not of this material, one of the few disappointments, apart from the criticisms listed above, that I experienced with this latest GM small car. A plastic lever o the “wrong” side of a r.h.d. Kadett opens the rear-hinged bonnet, the lid having to be propped up. Dip-stick and Opel 10-20-100 battery are completely accessible. The distributor is driven from the end of the o.h. camshaft and like the sparking plugs which are on the front of the head, is protected by a water-proof cover. The camshaft-drive belt is properly enclosed. The engine seemed to have been “making oil” by the dip-stick reading after 650 miles, none having been added. The car naturally displays the Opel “lightning-flash” (or “squashed-Z”) badge of its German manufacture plant.

[*This is an Award sponsored by the West German Bild am Sonntag, with a nine-nation, 23-member judging panel. The Opel Kadett won Class III, cars up to 15,000 Deutschmark, well ahead of the Mitsubishi Colt and VW Jetta, for economy, safety, and for bonafide progress in overall conception, in all respects – Ed.]