However, the car still sold handsomely, the bulk of which went to fleets, and for two years of its life it outsold its arch-rival the Ford Mondeo, despite the Mondeo being generally viewed as a better car.
Just over a year ago the latest Mondeo went on sale, raising the stakes even further, with class-leading ride and handling, a striking design with echoes of the Passat, and Volkswagen-like build quality.
The Ford comes in three body styles and now has a full complement of petrol and diesel engines, including a new common rail diesel unit.
Vauxhall's task seemed tough and early pictures of the new Vectra, although showing a fresher shape, gave little clue to the scale of improvement over the existing car, if any.
Its job was also made more difficult by a facelifted Passat 13 months ago followed by a highly accomplished new Renault Laguna and a spacious Citroen C5. And, before the new Vectra will appear in UK showrooms, it will be challenged by a new Nissan Primera and will be followed by a replacement for the Mazda 626, the 6.
Our first experience of the new Vectra before Christmas showed promise, with a roomy interior, high quality materials and a competent chassis. But the real test would be when we drove it for ourselves.
Vauxhall managing director Kevin Wale said: 'The new Vectra is the most important car launch for Vauxhall for many years, and we fully expect it to lead the market.
'The new car's styling will be echoed in future Vauxhall products and it is a forerunner of a whole new generation of mid-sized cars and will help us stake a claim for the top position in this sector in the UK.
'It has excellent ride quality and passenger comfort and a strong presence and a comprehensive package of technical features. In 2003 it will be joined by the Signum and the estate. The Signum is a new interpretation of the family car. It will be flexible and have excellent driving dynamics with a longer wheelbase.
'The estate will have class-leading carrying capacity, and will also feature the longer wheelbase.'
From launch there will be 1.8 and 2.2-litre petrol engines and 2.0 DTi and 2.2 DTi diesels. Later, a 3.2-litre V6 pumping out 208bhp will join the range, as well as a 2.0-litre turbo and a V6 diesel, while 1.8-litre models will benefit from the option of a CVT automatic gearbox.
Unlike rivals from Ford, Renault, Nissan, Citroen and Peugeot, the diesels do not use common rail, but they will only have a limited life in the Vectra. Within two years they will be replaced by Fiat's second generation JTD engines, as part of GM's partnership with Fiat Auto. Fiat will also develop a new upper-medium car using the Vectra platform.
Behind the wheel
SEEING the new Vectra in the metal makes it easier to appreciate its appearance. It is a more practical shape than the current model with a more upright stance and greater presence.
The roof is 10mm wider than the current car with more vertical sides, freeing up extra shoulder room. Inside it really feels more like sitting in an Omega than a Vectra, and the car will easily seat five in comfort.
Only saloons were available on the launch but the boot offered generous luggage space and a low loading sill. It is no secret that the Audi A4 was used as one of the benchmarks for the new Vectra, and on first inspection it seems Vauxhall has come close to emulating the quality of the interior fittings and materials. The 'basketball' texture dashboard is also seen in the Corsa, but it is soft to the touch and makes a pleasant change from the hide-effect plastic we often see. The centre console is wider than before and its flat surface hints at more upmarket brands.
Clever touches include a switch panel on the driver's door containing controls for the windows, mirrors, sunroof, locking and boot release all in the same place.
The indicator stalks will be a more contentious matter, and took a couple of hours behind the wheel to get used to. Unlike conventional stalks, those in the Vectra once engaged do not stay up or down while indicating, but immediately return to their central position. The indicators flash and cancel when the car is steered through corners. However, Vauxhall has also incorporated the 'lane-change' trait used by Mercedes-Benz and Audi which flashes three times when you tap the indicator stalk up or down. It sometimes results in confusion when trying to cancel.
But this is a niggling problem which is overcome the longer you practice.
The current range-topping petrol and diesel Vectras were available on the launch (the 2.2 ECOTEC engine and the 2.2 DTi) and a spell behind the wheel of the diesel led to the first surprise. Much more effort has gone into sound insulation compared with the previous Vectra, with the engine settling into a muted hum while on the move.
The ride quality really impresses as the Vectra shrugs off imperfections in the road surface, and makes light work of harsher bumps. The steering is precise and it proved easy to thread the Vectra along some demanding mountain roads in southern Spain.
The driver always feels in control and composure is retained through hard cornering with just the slightest hint of roll around tight bends. The Vectra provides relaxed transport, but when required also proves enjoyable to push hard. Its petrol engined counterpart provided class-leading refinement - the engine is barely audible on tick-over, and only makes itself heard above 3,000rpm, but is never harsh.
IF Vauxhall set out to build the best all-rounder in the class, it is on the verge of success. We say 'on the verge' because of two things.
For now, the engine and body line-up are incomplete but will improve over the next 12 months with the addition of V6 petrol and diesel engines, a 2.0-litre turbo, and the new estate and Signum. The estate promises class-leading load carrying ability, while the Signum will offer a new perspective on the family car.
Secondly the car is not as involving to drive as the Ford Mondeo, but this can be qualified by an important point. The vast majority of its drivers will neither realise nor care that it is not quite as sharp or composed on the limit as its rival from Ford. The only people who will make a fuss about it will be motoring journalists who enjoy most of all the cars that flatter their driving ability.
We need to spend more time with the car before we make a definitive judgement, but for now we believe the Vectra is just behind the Mondeo at the top of the class in the upper-medium sector. We know that common rail is not the be all and end all for diesel, but we suspect that the DTi units might struggle against common rail versions. However, the 2.2 DTi is refined and responsive, with more than adequate torque low down.
The Vectra is a car drivers will be happy with and raises standards in an increasingly competitive marketplace.