In a slightly puzzling reversal of roles, the last few years have seen a change of emphasis in the ranges of the larger manufacturers. The hatchback concept matured in the small and medium-car section, while larger cars, especially those with a prestige image, remained broadly set in the “three box” pattern, with the notable exception of the Rover SD1. Now a new generation of luxury hatches — Granada Scorpio, Saab 9000, Renault 25 — is occupying showroom windows alongside a fresh crop of newly-booted small to medium hatchbacks.
The success of the VW Jetta, Ford Orion, and Fiat Regata has indicated a demand for this type of body; perhaps the extra security of a boot is tempting, or more likely the extra luggage capacity. The latest entry is from GM, the Vauxhall Belmont. GM say that such a model was intended for the Astra range all along, but there will be no equivalent Opel model for Europe.
Using the same underpan and suspension as Astra, the Belmont also offers the same engine choice (1.3, 1.6, 1.8i and diesel) in three trim levels, and drag figures are good enough for even the 54 bhp diesel to reach 94 mph. With the 115 bhp injection unit from the Astra GTE, the GLSi will do 124 mph, and all the petrol engines will run on unleaded fuel. GLS and GLSi cars include alloy wheels, 175/70 tyres, electric locking, sunroof, and electric mirrors, and have firmer suspension settings. Rear seats on all models fold down separately, allowing a useful combination of layouts for cargo.
Not surprisingly, the Belmont feels very like an Astra to drive, a safe, mild understeerer with no vices, but all feel rather soft, even the top injection model. The 1.8i does not sound particularly happy at high revs, although it delivers its power through a healthy section of the rev-range.
Inside, the cockpit layout is rather good, with convenient and obvious controls (once you have discovered that the rear window is heated by pulling out the fan knob), decent ventilation and useful stowage compartments.
The six-light styling does not improve the looks of the Astra ‘s bland ovoid shape, being only slightly better than the Astra estate. However, the Belmont offers all the Astra ‘s strong points plus more cargo space, and including the option of a sporty engine, often denied to this class of family car. Prices. 1300L — £6,210, GLSi — £8,095. —GC