New Statesman

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From being one of the first to virtually remove the front grille on its cars, starting with the Chevette, GM’s Vauxhall-Opel arm has returned to an eye-catching, almost Ferrari-like, egg-crate grille to characterise its newest large saloon, the Senator, a 137 mph five-seater flagship.

Two engines are available, both fuel-injected sixes already seen in the range but with minor revisions: the 2.5-litre has 140 bhp and comes in manual or conventional auto form, while the top two versions share the 177 bhp 3000cc unit with the Carlton 3000 and have the option of a new and sophisticated four-speed auto-box. This is connected to the engine electronics, which during hard acceleration retard the ignition, smoothing out the shift. Three programmes are offered: ‘economy’, with gentle shifts and a high overdrive top; `sport’, allowing higher revs and locking out top, and ‘winter’, in which the vehicle starts off in third to minimise wheelspin, reverting to ‘economy’ above a pre-set speed.

Under the label ACT (Advanced Chassis Technology) Vauxhall’s big saloons now feature a degree of passive rear-wheel steer, tending to toe-in under unstable conditions, and negative scrub-radius geometry at the front which it claims helps to maintain a straight course when braking on patchy surfaces. However, the only final answer is ABS, and this is standard on the top-line CD, and optional on the others, as is the new electronic ride control, developed by Delco.

Three settings, from ‘comfort’ to ‘sport’, are selected by a dash switch, but the computer in charge also considers the speed of the car— ‘comfort’ reverts to ‘medium’ over 70 mph. On the relatively rough roads we drove the new Senators on in Ireland, though, the most comfortable setting seemed to be ‘sport’, since the softest position was very soft indeed, while the stiffest programme remained quite acceptable while noticeably sharpening the car’s response.

Feedback through the new Servotronic steering system is equally positive, and the weighting varies smoothly with road speed.

Inside the Senator, a large binnacle encloses normal instruments on the two lesser cars, and LCD readouts on the CD. The system is getting better, but is still difficult to read in sunshine. Height-adjustable front seats include double lumbar supports, and seemed a good compromise between the hard-edged sports-type and the armchair approach. Although this is a saloon, the rear seats can be folded down to extend the boot, and the headrests are mounted on the rear shelf to allow this. Luggage straps are fitted, and the boot opening is generous, with the spare standing upright out of the way.

Other comforts are manifold: airconditioning comes with the CD, but otherwise the heating system features separate left and right thermostatic control, including rear vents. If air-conditioning is specified, it extends to a neat cool-pocket in the front glove compartment. Door pockets, four reading lamps, electric mirrors and one-touch windows, height-adjustable belts front and rear, and a double-security lock system which closes all windows feature on all models, and CD also adds a trip computer, leather wheel, and electric sunroof.

From outside it is obviously a Vauxhall (or an Opel), despite the novel grille which helps to distinguish it from the very similar Carlton, and the drag factor has been kept down to 0.30 by such features as externally-hung door windows and a teardrop plan-form. Certainly the interior is very quiet even at speed, helped by a larger silencer and bonnet insulation, and allied to the pleasant ride quality and good seating, long journeys would seem unlikely to fatigue the driver.

Whether in manual or automatic form, those 177 horses feel rather restrained, possibly because of the high level of refinement, and a fair amount of shifting is needed to make the most of them. Yet the chassis feels good for a big car, understeering no more than expected, and easily controlled with the large wheel. The Senator has the blessing of an appearance which is distinct from its rivals, which may be of value since these include, apart from the Ford Granada and Rover Sterling, such prestige models as BMW 5-series and the lesser Mercedes, which pitch against the Senator CD’s £19,820 tag. The 2.5i and 3.0i will cost £14,830 and £16,500 respectively. GC