IAIN ROBERTSON

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Ever since the return of the Viva, Iain Robertson has felt strongly that the ‘other’ leading British car brand was on a fail-safe sales trajectory based on a realistic appraisal of what today’s car buyers both want and need…or is it?

 

When you reflect on the economic meanderings of the past eight years, since the disastrous collapse of 2007, it has become abundantly clear that a premise of taking from Peter to pay Paul has become common practice. Regardless of individual political leanings, the British peoples remain as stoically proud of their existences as ever they have been and an air of ‘carry-on-regardless’ has existed that, on the face of it, makes us appear as determined as we can be to ride out the storms.

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However, with UK consumer debt well into the ‘trillions’ of Pounds and showing no signs of reduction, it is abundantly clear that very few patrons ever part with their own funds any more. Yet, to expect carmakers to continue to subsidise acquisitions with up-front bonuses and lowly rental payments might be a situation that all of them will have to revisit with some speed in coming months. The days of private leases and attractive PCPs may well be numbered, so tenuous is our nation‘s apparent ‘recovery‘ from the abyss.

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Having said that, it was an executive at Ford Motor Company (not Vauxhall Motors) who highlighted to me that his firm earned more from every second-hand car that it controlled and sold than it ever did from new. Were that the viable case for the future, perhaps the subsidies will never stop. The fact remains that young people, contrary to some views, are not awash with cash. Even the older ones, having cashed-in their pensions, have been enjoying some elements of monetary fluidity but those actions take no account of how they might support themselves in later life, bearing in mind that our ‘ageing population’ is getting older, because people are living longer.

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To a carmaker like Vauxhall, the Viva is not merely a survival model. While Ford might well discount its products to compete, Vauxhall is clearing full profit margins from its Korean-produced tiddler and that bodes well for its dealers, who actually have honest margins to play with, which is a virtual novelty around the entire car scene at present.

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While it might sound cruel to refer to the test example as being in ‘poverty-spec’, the SE (the better trimmed SL, which reflects the original Viva trim designation and is more costly, just creeping into £10k territory when all the option boxes are ticked), which starts at a mere £7,995, is far from a poor man’s motorcar. As mentioned, the model arrives from South Korea, where the manufacturing cost per unit is significantly less than many of its rivals. However, volumes of scale mean that Viva (sold as ‘Karl’, when wearing a German Opel badge) is packed with features and items that are termed as ‘extra cost’, even on other Vauxhall models.

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Sadly, the SE does not have air-con as standard, which is a bad omission, because all meteorology students will inform you that our weather extremes are going to become more severe, which will mean heat spikes in summer and frigid dips in winter. Without air-con, windows will mist, regardless of the end of the temperature scale and the drive experience will be hindered the rest of the time. In addition, I believe that its deletion from the base specification will have a negative effect on the very residual values that Vauxhall is doing its level best to bolster.

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However, there is an up-side. As the SE is unlikely to sell in as large a quantity as the SL model, the issue of residuals might not rear its ugly head for that reason alone. While antilock brakes and stability control are now standard across all new cars, as are comprehensive airbag arrays and even TPMS (tyre pressure monitoring system), it is the other elements that make the Viva SE quite special, such as a lane departure warning system. The speed sensitive (with City setting) electronic power steering is a useful fillip, more on which in a moment, while electrically heated and operating door mirrors, electric front windows, trip computer, cruise control, daytime running lamps (with cornering function on the fog lights) and three safety belts in the rear are pointers towards a more defined quality offering. Even the little storage slots, of which there are several in the cockpit, carry rubberised bases to stop potential rattling of items.

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You see, Vauxhall has thought very intensely about its Viva and how it should be presented. While the Suzuki Celerio provides a far better ride and handling compromise, the steering of the Viva is very driver friendly, giving precise feedback to the hands and a decent percentage of return effect to the straight-ahead. However, the Viva leaves the Kia Picanto and Hyundai i10 for dead on the dynamics front. They feel small and not particularly engaging. The VW Group’s ‘up!-Mii-Citigo’ is undoubtedly a higher quality product, as slamming its doors will confirm, but its weight penalty plays against lively performance, which the Viva delivers aplenty.

 

The PSA Group offering (C1 and 108), in league with Toyota (Aygo) just feels cheap, flimsy and insubstantial alongside the Vauxhall. If you really want ‘small car appeal’, you will receive it in abundance from the East European (Czech-built) trio. Naturally, the Fiat Panda does play in this arena but it is slightly larger and in a somewhat different category of small car. However, the Viva utterly slays its opposition, when the whole package is contemplated.

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Powered by a 1.0-litre (999cc) ‘triple’, which is typical for the class, it develops a healthy 75bhp, which places it in the upper echelons of sub-compact, normally-aspirated engines. As a result, apart from its genuine refinement, which is a country-mile away from many of its competitors, it is a zesty unit that provides a genuine 106mph top speed, allied to a 0-60mph acceleration benchmark of 13.1 seconds and you do not have to rev its nuts off to stay with the traffic flow, thanks to a well-judged torque graph, which means that you can be up-a-gear most of the time, an exercise that results in outstanding fuel economy. The stated Official Combined figure seems low at 62.8mpg but judicious driving will see that figure reached and even exceeded on occasion. If there is one minor area of disgruntlement, it lies in the 104g/km CO2 rating (free first year; £20 thereafter), as many of the Viva’s rivals are comfortably below the 100g/km ‘barrier’, not that it will make much difference once the Chancellor’s new car tax regime slips into practice next year.

 

On the operating costs front, a seriously cost-effective insurance rating of 3E will please many buyers in the game of swings and roundabouts that constitutes running expenses. Interestingly, the only ‘extra cost’ item on the test car is metallic paint at £545, which hikes the on-the-road price to £8,540, a figure that will not make a major dent in some bank accounts and for those people terrified by car list prices, there are deals pitched at just under £25 per week, which will make a Viva a decent pocket-money runner.

 

The dashboard is well moulded but remains ‘plastic-fantastic’ in this sector. It is nice to see a decent digital stereo that delivers equally decent sound reproduction and the dials are clean and clear, while secondary details like fuel contents and water temperature are managed by LED bar graphs. Access to the cabin fore and aft is excellent and the driver’s seat adjusts for height, as well as rake and reach, to enable my two-metres form to fit in moderate comfort. The steering column only adjusts for tilt but, then, so do 90% of the Viva’s competitor products.

 

Although a useable amount of space exists in the boot, good enough for a weekend shopping trip, extra space results by lowering the 60:40 split rear bench. In truth, there is nothing to complain about in the Viva. It would serve as a company pool car, just as happily as an acquisition for a student, or even as primary transport for money-misers.

 

Conclusion:   Vauxhall made a well-judged decision to reintroduce the Viva. It is an attractive small car, thanks to its sculpted flanks and smiley front grille. Above all, it is an honest small car that is not pretending to be something that it is not. The driving experience is rewarding, while running costs are seriously low. That it complies with 99% of what motorists need but seldom perceive is much to its credit. It would make major sense as a business vehicle, while serving all other requirements well…as long as you opt for the air-con.

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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).