More haste, less space

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With the launch of the Tigra, Vauxhall has created a distinctive new niche. How long will it be before others to to sink their teeth into GM’s cake?

Is there anything in production on four wheels that resembles the Tigra? The answer to that question has to be a resounding “no”. The pretty little Vauxhall has created a new mini coupe class all of its own. First shown at Frankfurt in 1993, it was simply another design study as far as the public was concerned. And yet, such was Vauxhall’s confidence in the concept that the two-plus-two was given the go-ahead.

Both 1.4 and 1.6 versions of the Tigra are based loosely on the Corsa’s platform, but stretching it by 19 centimetres and lowering it by eight has eliminated some of the hatchback’s inherent ‘dumpiness’.

Don’t be fooled by the Tigra’s clothing. Vauxhall has done everything conceivable to avoid the ‘sports car’ tag and to keep the insurance men from frothing at the mouth. There isn’t a badge to identify engine size, for instance.

Even so, it is difficult to imagine that the Tigra will be sold on anything other than style. After all, this is probably the most obviously ‘designed’ production car of recent years and the most aesthetically successful, being one of the few that hasn’t been substantially diluted in the transition from concept to production.

None of the Tigra’s sensually sculpted and complex panels are shared with the Corsa, and the sophisticated detailing is much more of a car designer’s delight. However, it is arguable that the Tigra as a whole is less than the sum of its exquisitely executed parts. Though sleek in profile, the necessarily thick B-pillar lessens its grace. Moreover, any car with such a front screen rake and drooping bonnet will look rather slab-like when viewed head-on. Pretty alloy wheels provide the finishing touch for the 1.6; unfortunately for buyers of the lesser model, those on the 1.4 are just pretty ugly.

The overall result is cheeky rather than alluring, and a bold step for a major manufacturer; sadly the rather funkier proposal for a roadster version doesn’t look as though it will make it into production.

A new 1.4 ECOTEC engine has been introduced for the Tigra, but the 106 bhp 16-valve 1.6 unit shoehorned under the stubby bonnet is a modified version of the Corsa’s, and it is by no means the most proficient performer in its class, being outgunned in every department by Honda’s brilliant little V-Tec. Its 109 lb ft of torque at 4000 rpm (almost 90 per cent of which is available from 2000rpm) is more respectable than the ultimate power output.

Vauxhall’s marketing suggests that the Tigra 1.6 won’t be a class leader on the test track, and the performance claims 10-60 mph in 9.5s and 126 mph flat out bear this out. Gearing of the close ratio five-speed ‘box has been altered from the 1.6 Corsa to compensate for the Tigra’s heavier body. However, superior aerodynamics enable the Tigra to outrun its hatchback cousin. The low drag also enables economists to wheedle a claimed 55 miles from every gallon, though our usual lead-footed enthusiasm brought this down to a nontheless respectable 36.

The Tigra’s handling promises much more than its technical parameters. Its packaging allows a lower centre of gravity than the Corsa, but its extra weight means that it actually feels more softly sprung. To retain sporting manners and a decent ride, therefore, the suspension has linear rather than progressive rate rear springs and the anti-roll bars have been altered. To liven the chassis further, the steering has only 2.75 turns lock to lock.

Elsewhere, the Tigra is less remarkable. It almost appears that all the funds went into the exterior design and chassis. Nearly all of the cabin comes from the Corsa, a familiar Vauxhall trick as those who have tried to spot the internal differences between a Calibra and a Cavalier will be aware. All the same, the 1.6 is well equipped, including an electric sun-roof.

The Tigra’s status as a microcoupe is belied by its capacity for luggage absorption. It isn’t that much worse off than its theoretically more practical sibling. Kids or slender adults under five feet three can be seated in the rear in reasonable comfort. Mind you, smokers and chocolate addicts might rue the absence of door pockets. Oh, and be selective with your music, as you’ll only have room for four cassettes in the centre console.

The fabrics covering the supportive, lowslung seats and door trims are trendy and colourful without veering to the offensive, which is more than can be said for the visibility. With its large glass area, especially to the rear, you’d expect no problems at all, but that dreaded B-pillar presents a big obstruction when turning right at junctions. Still on the subject of glass, the rear hatch has a tinted window utilised for the first time in Europe, and is said to reduce cabin heat by some 5°C.

Sporting Vauxhalls have in recent years offered a good driving position, a trend adhered to in this case, with the exception of a rather cramped footwell. The chunky leather steering wheel invites the hands to get to work, though the ‘improved’ gearbox still shows mule-like stubborn-ness when asked to do the same.

As expected, the ride is supple without actually being soft. Ridges and pot-holes still make their presence felt, though refinement levels are good until high motorway cruising speeds are reached, when the engine noise can become irritating.

Turn off the motorway, find the right roads and you’ll soon discover what Vauhall’s men were trying to achieve. You can have more fun in the Tigra than any other product from Luton since the recently departed Carlton GSi 3000 24v. So much so that it is difficult to believe that the chassis is derived from the much-criticised Corsa.

Though turn-in isn’t the best, it is crisp enough for you to simply chuck the Tigra around at will, without massive understeer, without sawing at the wheel and without excessive body roll. Agility is excellent, liveliness pronounced sometimes almost too pronounced, as the chassis feels twitchy at the limit. However, it never becomes enough to deflate confidence unless you are foolish. Communication is rewarding you are in touch with every aspect of the driving process including the Tigra’s brakes which complete the fun package, being progressive with plenty of feel.

So what’s wrong? Good though the Tigra is, you won’t give a well driven class-leading hot hatch such as a Renault Clio 16v too much trouble, The little Vauxhall lacks the last degree of bite in performance of engine and chassis — but then it isn’t pretending to be a sports car anyway. Keep it below the threshold and you can have fun for hours.

Verdict

The Tigra is aesthetically very individual (our testers received looks and glances that bordered on the embarrassing) and the 1.6 tested here is generously equipped. For £12,995 you can have one of the most distinctive modern cars on the road, complete with driver and passenger airbags, engine immobiliser, security dead-locks, electric sunroof, alloy wheels and much more. If you want a tiny fun car, and aren’t concerned about others eating your dust, try a Tigra: if you want something cheaper, don’t leave the Vauxhall showroom — the 1.6’s biggest rival is probably the £2,000 cheaper, and not much slower, Tigra 1.4.