IAIN ROBERTSON 

It is the end of year ‘show season’ for car companies wanting to herald their 2019MY offerings, reports Iain Robertson, as Vauxhall removes the covers from its latest up-market sub-compact, as if to prove that PSA is allowing it to bare its teeth, for the moment.

To be frank, I am unsure of whom to believe…when Vauxhall launched its new Astra three years ago at the Ellesmere Port plant, the company was said to be in a strong financial position. Yet, PSA Groupe arrived with Chinese cash a couple of years ago, bought both Vauxhall and Opel from General Motors and declared that Vauxhall was in a parlous state. As to the Astra model, despite it being one of the UK’s most popular cars and one for which I am hugely supportive, it was (apparently) a huge loss-leader.

According to the Gallic PSA Groupe that now owns Vauxhall-Opel, it has turned the ‘loss-making’ European brand into a potential profit earner. Jolly well done, PSA! You may have been the bitter pill that Vauxhall needed to swallow in its pursuit of a fair new car deal for both British and (through Opel) European car buyers (please pardon my sarcasm and cynicism). Fortunately, at this stage, which is admittedly early in the transition from American-Euro to French ownership, some of the niceties of the Vauxhall brand are remaining unaltered, as evinced by the pretty little Corsa featured here.

It is also fortunate that the plans for a GSi trimmed variant were already on the stocks prior to the PSA deal being struck (as Les Grenouilles would have been sure to have nipped it in the bud). As a result, the well-resolved vehicle dynamics, which are central to the new model’s armoury of consumer attractions, have not been tampered with, or watered down. Vauxhall engaged with Koni, the renowned manufacturer of high-end suspension damping systems, to engineer the ingenious selective damping suspension set-up of the new Corsa GSi.

The result is no less than excellent.

Many small cars receiving ride, handling and other detail mechanical revisions, by which they can command a higher price tag, tend to travel along a Nurburgring route. In other words, they become unforgiving in their handling traits and uncomfortable in almost every other area. Oh, sure, it all works on the smooth tarmac of ‘The Green Hell’ but, as soon as the car is required to travel on roads outside of race circuits in the unified Germany, it all goes to pot. The same applies to cars ‘refined’ and, then, endorsed by race, or rally drivers. They do not work either.

By working closely with Koni, a significantly better balance is achieved in the existing compromise of a vehicle’s suspension. In the Corsa, this means a crisper turn-in to bends, no signs of wheel lift and, thus, traction and less crashy damping overall. Body roll is minimal and dive (under braking) is virtually absent. The car feels more compliant, refined, yet sportingly firm and well-adhered to the road, without being harsh and pitching the car off it. All of which is immensely impressive, especially for a small car. The grip from the Michelin Pilot Sport4 tyres is prodigious, even in the wet conditions of the test. Overall, the car is delightfully pleasant.

Of course, the GSi lineage has a lot to live up to, since the first Nova GSi (later renamed as Corsa) of almost thirty years ago. In many ways, it was a trendsetter. Today, it has been a missing pillar in the Corsa line-up. The best-selling superminis are the upmarket versions, therefore this one arrives in market-ready state and not before time. Of course, a question mark surrounds its suitability for business use but there are firms aplenty that do not and need not spend fortunes satisfying their transport requirements.

The detail enhancements are spot on, from the 308mm brake discs rotating within 17.0-inch diameter standard alloy wheels (18.0-inch optional on the test car), to the comfortable, leather-clad Recaro ‘wing’ seats (£1,055 extra cost) for both front seat occupants. Vauxhall’s well-tried and trusted 1.4-litre turbo-petrol engine provides the driver-engaging verve. Developing 147bhp, accompanied by a healthy 162lbs ft of torque and driving through a deliciously ‘snickety’ six-speed manual gearbox, the Corsa GSi despatches the 0-60mph benchmark in 8.6s, before running out of steam at around 129mph. It is not as quick as the old Corsa VXR but, then, its market intentions are not quite the same either.

A chunky little thing, the GSi tips the scales at 1,278kgs and you can feel that bulk on the road, which will be beneficial to those buyers seeking apparent strength and stability. Yet, it is light enough to revel in its excellent road manners, while returning a posted WLTP fuel economy of 49.6mpg. Delve consistently into its performance pool and closer to 42mpg will be the norm. However, its 139g/km CO2 rating equates to £205 first-year road tax and £140 standard rate annually thereafter. However, the most important element is its low insurance group rating of 20E, which means that you have most of the sporting aspects, if not frenetic high performance, in a moderately affordable package.

Talking of affordability, the new GSi is listed from £18,995, before dealer discounts are applied, which means that it is pitched into Fiesta ST territory, although the Suzuki Swift Sport is probably its only true, numerical-spec rival, which is not only a lot lighter and less expensive but significantly zestier too. However, Vauxhall owns a well-earned place in the UK new car scene and the new GSi supplements the range’s raison d’etre.

Of course, its connectivity and driver aids tally complies with current EU expectations and the Navi 4.0 Intellilink touch-screen system (£650 extra cost) links to Apple and Android mobile-phones, using their navigation apps and Bluetooth music streaming. The rest of the soft-touch dashboard is typical tactile Vauxhall fayre and is beautifully assembled too. The instrument nacelle ahead of the driver contains the customary speedo and rev-counter, with digital fuel and water temperature ‘gauges’ and a digital trip meter between them. It is sparse but it works.

Being only a three-door car does inhibit access to the rear bench and, despite the skinniness of the Recaro seat-backs, which help to provide some extra legroom in the rear, it is a claustrophobic passenger space that can be awkward to access. Fitting child safety seats and then filling them with children will be an exhausting process for potential owners. The boot, on the other hand, is obstruction-free, deep and accommodating, the split-fold rear seatbacks more than doubling the available space, when they are lowered.

The new Corsa GSi is intentionally a ‘performance-lite’ alternative offering. There is enough energy to make cross-country forays enjoyable and fun, while the car is grown-up and leggy enough to take long motorway trips in its competent and comfortable stride. Yet, most important is its complete package offering, in that there are accessories and options, of which buyers might wish to avail themselves, but the bottom-line is moderate affordability with an important upwards shift in status.

Conclusion:     Immensely capable and pitched almost perfectly, the latest Vauxhall Corsa GSi is a classy performer that provides a practical missing link for sub-compact Vauxhall owners. Great handling allied to modest punch results in a superior and likable package that any buyer will enjoy. However, watch those accessories, because you might result in a £21k+ compact hatch.