Like haute cuisine, building a sporty car is all about blending the right ingredients in the right amounts to create that perfect offering. A little too much seasoning and the dish is spoiled, much in the same way that the smallest thing can ruin a sporty car.
Which is the case with Vauxhall's new range-topping Vectra GSi. Featuring the largest engine ever shoehorned under the Vectra's bonnet at 3.2 litres, the GSi offers 208bhp. This is enough to endow Vauxhall's upper-medium challenger with a 155mph top speed and the ability to sprint from rest to 62mph in just seven seconds.
You even got a sonorous engine note to accompany the performance on offer. But there is one thing that spoils the recipe and that is the five-speed manual gearbox.
Allied to a sharp clutch which makes finding the biting point tricky, the driving experience is marred by the quality of the shift. The gearbox action is too long for a start and lacks any feel, which makes smooth gearchanges difficult.
This is incredibly frustrating because the rest of the package is hard to fault.
The chassis set-up is a happy blend between sport and luxury, meaning your fillings won't fall out every time you drive over a pothole or bump in the road. It means you could comfortably cover many miles during the course of the day without putting a disc out in your back. Your body is also enveloped in a figure-hugging sports front seat which grips you in all the right places.
The rest of the interior is standard Vectra, silver insert strips apart, which means an information screen above a wide centre console housing all the essential items such as stereo and ventilation controls. The GSi, along with its SRi twin, also has a three-spoke steering wheel.
Externally, the GSi also benefits from some styling tweaks which lift the Vectra's appearance. Deeper front and rear bumpers with mesh inserts, a different grille and a rear spoiler make the GSi look much smarter than its more basic brethren. It also makes it look as good as its key rival – Ford's Mondeo ST220. Both share a chunky, high-waisted design and both benefit from the sports additions, although neither model shouts too loudly about the performance on offer.
Both are also similarly modest in their pricing. The Vectra is priced at £21,215 on-the-road while the ST220 hatchback costs £21,750. Performance-wise both are also similar, although the Mondeo's extra few horses (it has 220bhp as its name suggests) sees it win the spec-sheet competition.
But out on the road the differences between the two become more marked. While the Vectra feels cool and composed most of the time, the Mondeo feels like a bit of a hooligan – hunting out every crease in the road and jarring the information through the steering wheel.
The two cars are very different animals – the Mondeo is far more entertaining to drive and feels like a sports saloon should, whereas the Vectra feels more of a grand tourer. Deciding on which of these cars you should drive depends on your outlook. The Mondeo is more hardcore and is better to drive, but you need to be on your game to get the most out of it. The Vectra scores with its high speed refinement and its strong performance.
For munching those motorway miles, the Vectra would be the first choice. And even though adding an automatic gearbox hits CO2 emissions, I would go for the five-speed automatic for an extra £1,300 to escape that clutch and gearbox combination.
Model: Vauxhall Vectra 3.2 GSi
Engine (cc): 3,175
Power (bhp/rpm): 208/6,200
Torque (lb-ft/rpm): 221/4,000
Max speed (mph): 155
0-62mph (sec): 7.0
Fuel consumption (mpg): 28.8
CO2 emissions (g/km): 243
BIK tax 2003/04 (22% tax-payer): £123 per month
CAP Monitor residual value (3yrs/60,000): £5,600/27%
Typical contract hire rate: £466
Transmission: 5-sp manual
On sale: Now
Price (OTR): £21,215