Road impressions: Sporting Vauxhalls

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The good, the bad and the ugly

Three separate slots in the Vauxhall range have each been topped with new high profile performance variants. Most important of these is a 3-litre version of the newest Carlton, the GSi 3000, with a top speed of just under 140 mph, but the by-now very familiar Cavalier and Astra models both benefit from the development of a new range of engines which includes a 1.8 and a 2-litre.

Although essentially the same engine appears in both the Cavalier SRi 130 and the new 2-litre Astra GTE, there is a substantial difference in output: Cavalier sports 130 bhp (hence its new name tag) while poor old Astra GTE 2.0i makes do with 124 bhp, a variation which Vauxhall says is the result of different exhausts.

Torque, on the other hand, is tipped in favour of the GTE—at 127.6 lb ft it is a little below the Cavalier’s 132.8 lb ft, but the bigger car needs to stretch to 4600 rpm to attain that, while the Astra peaks at only 2600 rpm, which radically unproven its driveability. Previously the 1.8-litre unit used in the GTE was harsh, noisy and inflexible, making fast journeys a trial. But driving the 2-litre car recently I was most impressed by the whole package; the chassis is unchanged, but the new-found willingness of the power-unit emphasises the crisp and stable gait of the little car. It is easy to change direction, and the steering feels precise and responsive, while the improvement in flexibility makes the car more relaxing to drive quickly, and faster to boot. 0-60 mph has dropped a little to 8.7 sec, but in-gear acceleration has improved tremendously, with a maximum of 127 mph, while the buzziness has gone completely. At last the GTE is a serious rival to the rest of the GTi field, at £9499.

No new badges and only minor equipment changes accompany the new engine: there are new alloy wheels, what Vauxhall calls ‘Lazer trim’ inside, and foglamps in a deep front spoiler which contributes to the low drag factor of 0.30. But it still ain’t pretty.

The company executive plumping for the £10,195 Cavalier SRi 130 will be able to see visible changes: redesigned front spoiler, side trim and rear lights, body-coloured mirrors, and the same alloy wheels as the Astra GTE. What he will not get, however, is the same class of handling as the GTE. Being a heavier car a 0-60 time of 9.5 sec is not unexpected. But I was taken aback, jumping from the predictable and foursquare Astra, to find how woolly the steering of the bigger car was under acceleration, and how unstable it felt under braking. This, allied to unrelenting understeer and a fair amount of roll, despite revised rear springing and gas dampers, made me quite content to return to base. And that new front grille does the car no favours — it looks cheap and tacky.

But before the Vauxhall supporters club starts to write letters to these offices, let me praise the lovely lines of the new Senator/Carlton. Voted Car of the Year 1986, it is very recognisably a product of Wayne Cherry’s GM design studios, using many of the elements to be found in the Astra — the family nose, the lipless wheel arches and partly concealed rear wheel, the continuous rocker-panel treatment smoothing airflow over the wheels. But while I have never felt the Astra was a visual success, the greater size of the Carlton achieves a real modern elegance.

I was particularly struck by the interior styling: soft sculptural lines and a clear logical layout make this a satisfying car to sit in, with a quality feel which echoes the car’s executive intentions. Driver comfort in the GSi’s sport seats is augmented by the adjustable steering column and by a doubly-adjustable lumbar facility, while both front and rear occupants have height-adjustable belts.

The latest crop of essential extras comes with the Carlton GSi 3000, such as double security locks, windscreen radio aerial, heated washer nozzles, trip computer, and electric headlamp levelling. And with a push-through boot which includes shackles for attaching luggage, this big five-seater saloon will also carry large loads.

Under the curving bonnet is a 3000cc version of the single-cam in line six from the Senator and Monza, producing 177 bhp and incorporating a clever vibration-damping flywheel. The result is an extremely smooth unit which, attached to a five-speed gearbox of light action, propels the big car past 60 mph in some 8.8 sec. A limited slip differential is standard.

GM is the latest manufacturer to offer a degree of passive rear wheel steering as pioneered by Porsche on the 928. This reduces the likelihood of spinning by introducing rear wheel toe-in under certain circumstances, and GM labels this, along with self-stabilising compliance of the front suspension, as ACT, or Advanced Chassis Technology. For the GSi, the suspension has been lowered a full inch at both ends, springs and dampers uprated, and huge 11in ventilated discs installed at the front as befits a saloon capable of 140 mph.

It is a big car, but it has precise and impressive road-holding which makes it a pleasure to hurry even through the smaller roads, with not too much power-assistance to the steering, a good sporting ride compromise, and superb braking from the big discs (plus ABS, another “standard extra”). There is something of the look of a production saloon racer to the GSi, with its low suspension, rear aerofoil, and deep spoilers and sills, though a glance through the tinted windows at the leather-trimmed seats and wheel would soon dispel that comparison. The price is £16 ,999. GC