Taking advantage of a driving opportunity based at Vauxhall Motors, Luton-based Heritage Centre, Iain P W Robertson sampled one new engine, one sadly overlooked drop-top and one gusset-ripping classic sports saloon.

In my view, the past few years have been exceptionally revealing for Vauxhall. Its owner, US-based General Motors, has given the impression of not giving a hoot for the brand’s future survival. Its UK history means nothing to the Americans, despite the fact that GM has been involved with Vauxhall for over a century. Yet, despite rumours about the ill state of the UK firm’s health, Vauxhall is actually in the rudest of forms.

Its recent ‘win’ to produce the new Astra on Merseyside assures its status as a reliably proud British car manufacturer. It continues to assemble its Renault-related Vivaro light van at Luton and its regular battle with Ford for No.1 brand in the UK has never felt more vibrant. It is interesting to note that Vauxhall is the UK retail sector leader by some margin, whereas Ford tends to predominate in the company car market. The fact remains that Vauxhall is currently producing (with Opel) some of the best models in Europe, not just in superficial looks but also in engineering terms. All it needs to do is re-establish its brand identity and the developmental repairs will have been carried out successfully.

As an additional aside, its retail offering is the best and most flexible of them all. The company trialled Personal Contract Plans (PCP) with the Adam model range and has now extended the programme to its more popular volume models, as part of a value package that makes it sound remarkably ‘small company’. However, it is that same, slightly edgy presence that makes Vauxhall so alluring to its customers. It possesses a personality with which Ford often struggles.

 

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Whisper diesel
Vauxhall is deservedly proud of its new, 1.6-litre ‘whisper’ diesel engine. Its figures are impressive: 133bhp, 116g/km CO2, 64.2mpg Official Combined. However, it was an essential development for the company. The old Isuzu 1.7-litre unit was very long-in-the-tooth and would not meet future exhaust emissions targets, with any economic viability. The ‘Fiat’-based diesel units may be more modern but GM’s relationship with the Italian company is dead and it needed to make its own mark, however costly designing, developing and building an entirely new engine can be.

As fitted in the Meriva junior-league MPV, complete with (annoying) stop-start technology, the performance is respectable (122mph top speed and 0-60mph in 9.6 seconds, but it feels swifter) and the driveability is strong. The Meriva is a delightful compact family car, possessing heaps of character, a decent interior layout, massive practicality and the Vauxhall ‘Lifetime/100,000-miles’ warranty package, in return for a £21,895 spend.

To be frank, this does seem like an over-inflated price tag but I am sure that most Vauxhall dealers would heft a sizable chunk of their profit margins into making any deals work for their customers, whether for business, or private, use. You could always ask for a PCP. Fortunately, the ‘whisper’ diesel is certainly refined and a lot quieter than previous Vauxhall diesels, especially at idle speed, but the current Ford-PSA 1.6-litre unit remains the class of the field, in almost every respect, even with just 115bhp to hand. However, the new unit represents a positive step in the right direction for Vauxhall, allowing it to compete fairly with its key rivals.

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Ignored convertible
I have a confession to make. I had elected to ignore the Cascada model, Vauxhall’s not-so-trendy drop-top, since its original launch. It meant nothing to me. The company always had an Astra Convertible on its strength and I could not comprehend why it needed a marginally larger, more tarty alternative. On top of which, it has been stuck in the mud in sales terms, a factor not aided by the £34,220 price tag of the version pictured. To be fair, £4,560’s worth of options had been applied to that one.

Okay. So, here is my Gnostic conversion. Having driven the Cascada on Bedfordshire’s back-doubles, I can tell you that I finally ‘get it’. It is a grand tourer of a car, a vehicle in which you might be eminently happy to waft south to the sun and care less about who, or what, is in the back seats, because there is only space for two small people, or probably a couple of afghan hounds.

It is not the most practical of cars, thanks to the space-robbing demands of its folded, fabric convertible roof within the boot area. Yet, it drives beautifully, especially when powered by the bi-turbo 2.0-litre diesel engine that whips up a strident 192bhp and oodles of mid-range pulling potency. It is enough to gift the Cascada a top speed that nudges 145mph, while helping to breach the 0-60mph benchmark in a few whiskers less than 9.0secs. It costs only £125 annually in VED charges.

Yet, its most impressive quality lies in its near-BMW-6-Series on-road presence. It is a handsomely attractive car and it presents well, both inside and out. There is actually a lot to admire about the Vauxhall Cascada that has taught me an important lesson that I ought to try it before denying it, even though its name sounds like a ’poopie-tablet’. I have become a convert to this convertible and it is not even a close rival to the former Astra drop-top.

 

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Who needs a VXR?
Soon to celebrate a quarter of a century since its introduction, the Vauxhall Lotus Carlton remains, I am happy to confirm, one of the UK’s most thrillingly key sports saloons. Yet, I had forgotten just how brilliant the car was. Thankfully, Vauxhall’s Heritage Centre has the original press car that I drove in late-1990.

Based on the Carlton GSi 24v saloon, a sporting family car of that time, complete examples were shipped from the Russelsheim (Opel) factory to Lotus Cars at Hethel, Norfolk, where the transformation into 3.6-litre, £48k super-saloons could commence. Its only rival at the time was the significantly costlier 3.5-litre BMW M5. With just 33,000 miles registered on its odometer and never having been used as anything other than a press test car, this Lotus Carlton still feels as tight as Phil Collins’ snare drum.

I have no reason to believe that anything less than its original 377bhp remain viable beneath the bonnet, as full throttle applications simply took my breath away, with the almighty response from its rear-driven layout. Of course, by comparison with a modern day super-saloon (and I am thinking of the monster Holden-based VXR8 in Vauxhall’s current line-up), it feels slightly fragile and significantly cruder in its build quality. Yet, that is also its greatest attraction, as a classic car. It feels untamed, raw, even, lacking in the fineries and technological advances of modernity. Yet, I fell in love with this one of just 286 UK cars built and that is part of Vauxhall’s present-day magic too.

Conclusion: It is too easy to ignore Vauxhall, yet it is a brand possessing a great history and an indomitable reputation. While its cars might not have appealed to the more style conscious of buyers over recent decades, solid reliability has given them a workhorse repute that is unsullied. I think that the latest crop of models is by far its best looking and they also work well in dynamic terms too. As stated earlier, Vauxhall now has a branding exercise to complete and then it will take the fight to Ford most positively.

About Iain P W Robertson

Frequently being told to 'go forth and multiply', Iain P W Robertson's automotive wisdom is based on almost forty years in the business, across all aspects from sport to production, at the highest levels. He likes dogs and drives a Suzuki (not related).