Road impressions: General Motors' "J" car

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The advantages of placing an engine to drive the front wheels transversely across the engine bay have taken a long time to sink in with the World’s biggest car makers. After all Issigonis and the Mini showed the way 22 years ago now. Yet immaculately dressed corporate executives from Ford, and now General Motors, are still telling us about the space saving possibilities in the tones one normally reserves for new and revolutionary discoveries.

It is particularly interesting to see how the American-owned multi-nationals are tackling the problems of beating Japanese competition by enthusiastically embracing the technical approach, which would have been an athema in the days of annual styling changes.

General Motors, through their Worldwide subsidiaries like Holden in Australia, Opel in Germany, Vauxhall in Britain, and their interest in Izusu of Japan, are fighting the Japanese with cars designed to appeal all round the World. They will differ in detail, but the broad principles are the same, allowing a scope for mass production of major cost items — such as engines and gearboxes — in several large plants for shipment all over the world. Apparently the economies of scale still outweigh the outrageous fuel costs of today . .

From GM we have already had the T-car (Astra/Kadetti with transverse SOHC engine, front-drive and MacPherson strut/torsion beam, trailing arm rear suspension. Now, in pursuit of their avowed intention of doubling GM’s share of the British market by the close of 1984, Vauxhall have been subject to a £20 million investment programme so that they may make the next size up in GM World Cars, coded the J-Car.

The first car rolled off the British assembly lines in August and represents a logical scaling up of Astra/Kadett principles. The J-cars measure 171.9 in (saloon) or 167.87 in (hatchback) long by 64.7 in width on a 101.3 in wheelbase.

The engine and transmission continue on an east-west axis, but now there is the option of 1,300 (75 bhp) or 90 bhp from that SOHC design in “Family 2” 1,600 cc guise.

There are 15 variations on the new car, which will only be available as a Vauxhall Cavalier with no Opel option. Rear drive aficionados and rally enthusiasts will still be provided with the Opel Manta coupe design, now with a 2.4-litre Manta 400 competition derivative.

Available either as saloons (two or four doors) or five-door hatchbacks, the new Cavaliers are priced from £4,164.82 for the 75 bhp/1,300 cc saloon of two doors, in surprisingly well-equipped base trim, to £5,577.59 for the sporting Cavalier SR 1600 of four-door saloon guise (the five-door hatchback is actually slightly cheaper). It is hard to keep up with prices today, particularly if it is your own money. However, it is relevant to note that current Ford Cortina, still likely to be defiantly rear drive even when the new modd comes out from its Toni-coding next year, is presently priced from £4,175 to £8,493.

Owing to the constrictions of space I have tried to present more information in tabular form than we would normally offer. To put some flesh on these bare statistics I was able to talk to members of the Opel development team and record some of their interesting observations on the model in general. First of all there are, as with the transatlantic Ford Escort or Chevette designs, major differences between the GM J-Cars of the USA — available from the Cadillac, Pontiac and Chevrolet divisons since last May. US versions begin at 1,835 cc/85 bhp and the Americans also have coupe and estate models which are not offered in Europe . . yet.

Opel’s chief pre-occupation in J-Car development for Europe was with the suspension. Making the rear suspension durable was a headache and, shortly before announcement to the press in August, the spring and damper settings were still being upratcd from their original softness. Opel were very anxious that this J-Car should be a car that appealed to the grown-up Kadett buyer, as less sporting, more practical, especially as there is now a 1600 Kadett in the pipeline with an Antra version due off the Ellesmere Port production lines in November. Fuel injection and a five-speed gearbox will be offered, but I do not know when, on this sportier Astra/Kadett, which should be a good entrant in the VW Golf GTi, Ford Escort XR3, Alfa Romeo Ti class.

We took two examples of the new range out for a morning in West London and over the Berkshire Downs. Neither car drew any undue attention, despite being completely new and unannounced, which points to the way in which they have been styled not to upset previous Cavalier customers, or the GM Corporate look. The interiors are comfortable, the cloth-covered seats of the base 1300 saloon perhaps even better than the plush GLS 1600 Hatchback assessed later. Inside and out these new Vauxhalls strike as thoughtful entries in the World car sales stakes, along rather bland lines that emphasise conformity from ridged tailamps to Euro-style rectangular headlamps.

Boring to drive then? Emphatically, no. Even without the opportunity of assessing the firmer suspension of the SR models, we found the 165 SR-shod GLS combined roadholding in the Escort XR3 league with a superior supple and enjoyable ride. Couple this to an engine (which can come from Brazil, Germany or Australia)) which loves to rev and four-speed gearboxes that are made to change swiftly and surely amongst their Japanese or German internals. The bodies have drag coefficients of 0.38 (hatchback) or 0.39 (saloon) that cut through air cleanly and quickly enough to leave the occupants unstressed.

GM have provided a first class contribution to the middle class mass production car ranks, but will their combined Opel-Vauxhall sales force be able to communicate what good cars they offer? It is a relevant question, because until Vauxhall learn to communicate with the public as effectively as Ford have managed, they cannot hope to implement their grand sales objectives. Meanwhile “The General” offers a number of cars that Motor Sport readers could well favour over established opposition — from Astras and Kadetts with their now recognised astonishing cornering prowess, to the large six cylinder saloons and coupes. If the public ever discover GM’s secret, then Ford are in for real sales trouble in the UK, just as they have been in Germany and the USA. — JW.

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