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Vauxhall is advertising better safety standards (side beams and optional air bags) as the main element of 1993 improvements to its bestseller, the Cavalier. There is another bonus, however, with a performance boost that hauls this apparently mundane workhorse close to the 150 mph barrier. Vauxhall claims 0-60 mph acceleration in 6.4s and a top speed of 149 mph. It underlines the extent to which family saloons and sales reps’ barges have progressed in this era of electronic management, turbocharging and four-wheel drive.

Aside from needlessly flagrant badging, these range-leading Cavaliers are far more subtle than the obsolete Sierra RS Cosworth (or similarly powerful Escort RS Cosworth). Unfortunately they do not offer the same handling standards as those Fords, but the engines are smoother. Some 204 bhp is available from the dohc 16-valve engine, which uses a unique KKK turbocharger that saves a small, but useful, amount of weight over the front axle. The specification also includes the 4×4 transmission and six-speed gearbox pioneered in the Calibra. It adds up to a lot of engineering for £19,705; Vauxhall stresses that value-for-money was a key priority with the new models.

The new 170 horsepower V6 was not ready for our appraisal, but this should be fitted to both the Cavalier and the Calibra by the spring.

What is ready at your local GM showroom is another very much better front-drive, high performance Cavalier. This machine, badged as the SRI, is much more discreet than the aforementioned turbo. It amounts to a replacement for the 16v GSi, though it now harnesses 150 bhp, rather than the 115 of the usual two-litre SRi. It has a much quieter version of the benchmark dohc 16-valve unit that has been used with success in virtually everything from Caterham Sevens to single-seaters via World Championship rallying, to say nothing of its championship-winning potential in the British Touring Car Championship.

The main mechanical changes for 1993 are a lot more extensive than the very subtle exterior moves (extended bumpers, a griffin logo for the grille and replacement headlights are amongst the detail alterations) that identify a new-spec Cavalier. The adoption of a torsion beam rear axle is said to have brought about the biggest handling benefits, but the 16v model does have features not found on the lesser, eight-valve SRi, such as positive centre feel steering and retuned front suspension featuring smaller diameter anti-roll bars and stiffer bushing for re-rated shock absorbers.

On the road, however, it still feels like a Cavalier.

Under acceleration, there is an uneasiness which is typical of front-wheel drive. The ride borders on the anti-social for a full five-seater, being ill-mannered over bumps and generally restless. Fortunately for GM, plenty of its rivals offer much worse. Furthermore, Vauxhall’s build quality looks excellent.

The fact that this engine still generates 150 bhp disguises the amount of work that has been done. The familiar in-line four is said to deliver (37 mph, and accelerate from rest to 60 mph in some 7.5s, though lighter use of the right foot will return 27.2 mpg in urban use.

On the move, the most impressive aspect of the SRi is its broad spread of pulling power. Peak torque has been increased to 147.5 lb/ft at 4600 rpm and it always feels as though acceleration — however mismanaged at the gear lever — is readily available.

Less impressive is the fact that even a reinforced cast iron block and revised alloy cylinder head with belt driven overhead camshafts, developed in the knowledge that lower noise levels were a priority, have done little to quieten the lusty four-cylinder unit.

Unlike the turbo, which is only sold as a four-door saloon, the 16v SRi is priced at £14,685 as a four-door and £14,825 as a five-door hatch. The six-speed turbo will have leather and a typically extensive standard equipment list, sharing many of the SRi’s standard fitments such as anti-lock braking and central locking that incorporates deadlocks and a simple, electronic engine immobiliser. The glass sunroof and all four side windows are now electrically powered.

We recently tested the Calibra fully, and the Cavalier turbo 4×4 naturally feels substantially the same. Strong suits are a four cylinder turbo with less lag than any other that we have experienced. This feels well up to the high performance standards claimed. Similarly, the six-speed gearbox (developed by Getrag) is efficient in the main, though far from charismatic; we did occasionally find a blind alley between fifth and sixth. Top gear abilities are exceptionally restful, with just 3500 rpm required for 100 mph cruising. At the end of the trip, the dashboard computer recorded 22.8 mpg.

The main snags remain the limited suspension travel and the restless ride. The 4×4 system is not the most effective in the world, allowing some slippage and wheel skipping under duress.

Still, as with the front-drive models. I felt that the all-round capabilities and high standard of finish make these 1993 Vauxhalls worth consideration as anonymous speed bargains. JW

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