Fleet News

Vauxhall Vectra 1.8/3.2 hatchback

Vauxhall

Review

THE new Vauxhall Vectra will be doubly important for the company's fleet aspirations. This is because when the Omega faces the axe next year the Vectra will have to perform the tasks of repmobile and accessible executive express.

It is likely that the new Vectra will also be called upon to fill the role of the Omega as a high-speed police pursuit vehicle.

However, Vauxhall is not planning to carry out the task with the humble saloon and hatchback. In fact, by the end of 2003 Vauxhall should have the widest range of engines, body styles, transmissions and trim levels in the upper-medium sector.

Early next year the Vectra will gain a 2.0-litre turbo petrol engine and a 3.0-litre V6 common rail diesel, both of which will come with six-speed manual transmissions. The first quarter of 2003 will see the launch of the Signum - a Vectra-based sports hatchback with a longer wheelbase and innovative interior packaging - while the Vectra estate will arrive by the end of 2003.

Both the Signum and estate will share a wheelbase 11cm longer than the saloon and hatch liberating extra rear space and offering rear seat passengers more legroom than in the Mercedes-Benz S-class.

And there are three different trim levels in both the 'luxury' and 'sporty' interior lines. Base models are LS or SXi respectively, stepping up to Elegance or SRi, with Elite and GSi at the top of the range.

SRi and GSi models will be hatchback only for now and Vauxhall believes the SRi will be a strong seller, particularly with fleets. About 20% of sales of the old Vectra were SRi models in recent years.

Vauxhall freely admits that its experience with fleet sales has decided specification and model line-up for the new Vectra - after all 80% of old Vectra sales went to fleets. It means standard kit on the entry-level LS includes the sort of things expected in the sector, such as electric front windows and mirrors, a CD/radio, remote central locking, ABS with emergency braking assistance and height and reach adjustable steering.

However, there are items which you might expect to pay extra for on other cars, including active front head restraints (reducing the risk of whiplash injuries in collisions), side curtain airbags, air conditioning, cruise control, cornering brake control (CBC), auto-dimming rear view mirror, rain-sensing windscreen wipers and a trip computer. SXi models add alloy wheels, sports seats, a leather-covered steering wheel and front foglights.

New five-speed automatic transmissions are currently available for all but the smallest engines, but there is a General Motors-sourced continuously variable transmission for the 1.8 due in January 2003, which could also be offered on the 2.0 DTi if the CVT can be shown to handle the extra torque. What Vauxhall is not talking about at the moment is the new common rail diesel engine range which is due to appear during 2003 - obviously keen not to dissuade customers from choosing the current diesel engines.

The Vectra will eventually be fitted with versions of Fiat's JTD common rail turbodiesels which should make it more competitive with rivals on fuel consumption and carbon dioxide emissions - currently an area where there is a chink in the armour of at least the 2.2 DTi.

Behind the wheel

HAVING already tried the 2.2-litre petrol and diesel Vectras on the international press launch in February, I was keen to get behind the wheel of a more typical fleet model.

The 1.8 LS is the entry to the Vectra range, and no doubt thousands of company car drivers who might have escaped the exodus from petrol to diesel will be offered one as their means of transport. This was also the first opportunity to drive the Vectra hatchback, which is built at Ellesmere Port alongside the Astra.

In profile the glass area of the hatchback is similar to the old Calibra, except with a higher and longer roof line.

The LS does without the fake wood trim found in Elegance and Elite models, while the top of the dashboard and doors are covered in the pleasant soft-touch 'basketball' textured plastic found in the Corsa. Steering wheel controls for the stereo are standard and, unlike the previous model, the range of adjustment for the driver's seat and steering makes it easy to find a comfortable driving position.

But the most noticeable difference between the outgoing model and the new one is the size and design of the interior. The width inside is most impressive, really making the Vectra match cars in the luxury car sector for roominess, and while it might not match the Ford Mondeo for rear legroom or the Citroen C5 for rear headroom, it comes very close.

The 1.8-litre engine puts drivers in the same company car tax band as the 2.0 DTi for the first year of the new rules, but the diesel's price premium and the 3% tax supplement work against it, making the 1.8 a safer bet for benefit-in-kind tax-conscious drivers. With 120bhp on tap the 1.8 makes a decent fist of lugging around the new, larger Vectra and the relative lack of torque only becomes apparent heading into the hills in fifth gear.

The gearshift is slick, if a little long, and the Vectra's general demeanour on the road is one of unfussed progress. The engine is refined, although the exhaust note has a pleasant rasp when the Vectra is on full throttle. The Vectra smothers bumps at least as well as a Mondeo and remains composed when driven hard.

After a long stint in the entry-level car, I took the range-topping 3.2 Elite on a short route and was less impressed. Although the V6 offers plenty of torque, it is put to best use in a straight line with rapid acceleration and a crisp six-cylinder howl. The long throw gearchange hinders progress and as the clutch pedal is released the car jerks forward in each gear unless you deliberately go gently. Also, the 17-inch alloys on this car led to fidgety ride quality over bumpy surfaces.

Driving verdict

VAUXHALL must be quietly confident about the new Vectra, with a decent upper-medium hatchback and saloon and further developments on the way next year in terms of body styles and engines.

It is such a great leap forward that it renders the outgoing Vectra a distant memory and is utterly competent, although not sparkling, in every department.

I feel the company is being too modest about the step forward the new Vectra represents, perhaps stung by ill-informed criticism by failed celebrities and ratings-hungry TV shows. The true verdict on the car is that it is the most well-rounded performer in its class.

CO2 emissions and fuel consumption data correct at time of writing. The latest figures are available in the Fleet News fuel cost calculator and the company car tax calculator.

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