Luton. Not usually high on most people’s must-go-and-visit list so therefore that it was the chosen location of PetrolBlog’s inaugural Big Day Out, didn’t seem particularly incongruous.
This wasn’t merely a moment of Midlands madness from the site’s founder Gavin REDACT-REDACT but a way to pay homage to some of the finest and newest metal to wear Vauxhall’s griffin badge.
A full summary of everyone’s thoughts from the day, including almost an hour of PetrolPod podcasting, will appear on PetrolBlog soon.
In the interim, here are my thoughts on the models sampled, together with a PetrolBloggy rating out of ten.
Somewhat ironic that of all the new Vauxhalls available to sample, none were even built in Britain, let alone the spiritual home of Luton:
SE 1.7CDTi 16v Start/Stop 4×4 – £23,490
Sitting below the larger Antara, the Mokka is Vauxhall’s latest crossover, offering an SUV stance with limited off-roading ability should you feel the need. Vauxhall are pleased with how it’s selling and slipped into conversation a several month long waiting list for the Korean-built model.
Styling, both inside and out, will be familiar to current Vauxhall owners, which is to say the design is inoffensive and attractively detailed without blazing a new trail. Interestingly, this SE grade model had been specified with a two tone brown leather interior with metallic trim. If the words don’t make it sound especially appealing, the pictures confirm it works.
Over a mixed route of road types and speeds, the Mokka rode and handled competently and without drama. You couldn’t exactly grab it by the scruff of the neck and hurl it enthusiastically through bends but despite its height, it didn’t feel like it was going to topple over in corners either.
Economy and performance from the 1.7-litre CDTi was impressive, aided by the stop/start function but the noise permeating into the cabin seemed more in keeping with the darker days of the Frontera.
Not without ability and usefully cheaper and more practical than MINI’s Countryman albeit with a less appealing badge.
PetrolBlog Rating 6.5/10
Slam Extreme 1.4i 16v VVT (100PS) – £14,000
You only need a limited appreciation of the current car market to understand what Vauxhall’s trying to do with the ADAM (yes, it’s written in capitals).
As more buyers downsize their cars, they still want something that makes a statement and screams individuality. So, using the Corsa as a basis, Vauxhall has created a pert little 3-door hatch, with four seats and a massive range of personalisation options.
The Griffin hasn’t gone the retro route of the Fiat 500, MINI and Volkswagen (New New) Beetle primarily because it doesn’t have a much loved older model on which to base the styling. Could you really imagine a modern day Nova, Chevette or, perish the thought HA Viva? No.
So ADAM’s new and contemporary. Hence the Jam (entry level), Glam (luxury) and Slam (sporty) trim levels combined with crayzee names for the colours – this one’s James Blonde and I’ll Be Black, in case you wondered.
It’s well made, well equipped, individual and priced at a slight premium so it’s straight into the MiTo, 500, MINI and DS3 market and will undoubtedly be popular with those who like its perceived Britishness (yes, it still happens) and its friendly styling.
Few will buy it because it drives as well as a MINI. It looks sporty in Slam trim but even with 99bhp in a fairly light car it’d struggle to burst its way out of a wet paper bag. But I’m not going to labour that because it’s probably not the ADAM’s point.
It’s an automotive statement for urban chic chasers and around town it’s smooth, quiet and rides well. If you want to be entertained along B-roads, look elsewhere.
PetrolBlog Rating 7.5/10
Electron – £38,995
I’ll get straight to it. I’m a big fan of the Ampera and its sister car and joint holder of the 2012 Car of the Year Award, Chevrolet’s Volt.
Intelligent use of a hybrid powertrain provides smooth, quiet and fuel efficient motoring in a package that’s appealing for most business users and families.
There’s genuine pace about the Ampera’s performance yet even at a steady 70mph there’s enough battery life to take you around 25 miles before the engine kicks in.
It handles well too by virtue of the low centre of gravity provided by the batteries’ location deep in the chassis.
There’re compromises – it’s a strict four seater, with limited headroom for those in the back because of the aggressive slope of the tailgate glass. Open the rear hatch and you’re presented with a fairly shallow space that does little to shield possessions from prying eyes: a net stretches across from above offering as much opacity as a pair of 40 denier tights, while the gap between the rear chairs is completely open.
In high specification (and price) Electron trim, the Ampera’s well equipped but for a useful amount less the Volt is similarly equipped. Whilst the Chevrolet’s nose looks a little more American (read glitzy), its white interior mouldings have an Apple level of iCoolness that the Ampera’s speckled grey can’t match.
PetrolBlog Rating 8.5/10
Vauxhall’s got a surprisingly high number of sporty models in its back catalogue but few were as well regarded as their contemporary competitors. Are they more appealing now they’ve aged and we’re accustomed to anodyne automotive acceptance?
Astra GTE (Mk I)
There’s a definite rightness about the look of the first generation Astra which was merely amplified in the GTE makeover with more body-coloured exterior trim and imposing black detailing.
It was a similar story inside with Recaro-style seats, moody hued upholstery and finishing touches like the GTE three-spoke steering wheel.
In spite of the relative freshness of its looks, the driving experience was significantly more old school. Whilst straight line speed wasn’t shabby and it was a delight to snick between the five well-spaced ratios, I’d not driven enough Popeye grade spinach to hustle the Astra through tighter bends, so heavy was the steering at low speeds.
What it lacked in power assistance it more than made up for in feel, which was all the better because tackle a corner at pace and the GTE seemed happier heading towards the field in front of you.
No problem, you’ll just stamp on the brakes and erode that speed, won’t you? Erm, no, not exactly because it didn’t feel like it had the stopping power to decimate the performance anywhere near quick enough.
And that for me took away the overall enjoyment from the package. The GTE’s a hot hatch that’s designed to be driven fast but doing so requires so much forward planning to get it quickly through bends that the ‘fun’ factor is replaced with a technical exercise.
PetrolBlog Rating 7/10
Astra GTE 16v (Mk II)
Without a doubt, of the older Vauxhalls available to sample, this was my pick of the day.
Let’s get the negatives out of the way first – its squeezed-from-a-tube styling has dated badly and the nasty plastic of the cliff-like dashboard is nigh on identical to the one in my old man’s British Rail specification Astramax van. But that’s it.
With the 16 valve head offering a significant power boost over the then regular Astra GTE, the snub little hatchback (and dated or not, I’ve long liked its styling) offers the sort of performance that wouldn’t be out of place on many a lukewarm hatchback today.
It wasn’t simply a case of cranking up the power either because the GTE enjoyed visual differentiation over lesser Astras too: subtle body kit, unique bumpers, rear spoiler, black appliqué on the tailgate and GTE-specific tail lights too.
Inside those heavily bolstered sports seats were joined with natty LCD instruments. Okay, it maybe feels KITT on a budget but even now there’s a coolness as those 7-bar digits flicker to register your speed.
Whilst it enjoys the same slick gear change as the Mk I GTE, the steering is now assisted, losing a significant amount of feel. The payback is it’s much easier to live with and doesn’t ride as harshly either.
Overall, as a package, extracting performance from the GTE 16v is a much easier and for me, rewarding proposition.
PetrolBlog Rating 9/10
Calibra: neither a sports car nor a grand tourer be.
As captivating as I still find its looks, incidentally penned by Wayne Cherry who was also responsible for the Firenza’s Droop Snoot, it’s impossible not to view it with X-ray eyes and spot all the Mk III Cavalier hardware underneath.
Open the door and you don’t even need your copy of Observer’s Book of 1980s Repmobiles to hand spot the Cavalier dashboard, albeit tarted up with white dials and a couple of ancillary instruments lower down the dashboard.
This SE9 edition was one of the run-out specials featuring a body kit, BBS alloys, leather trim and smoothly linear EcoTec V6 engine under that low-level bonnet.
Sure, piling into winding B-road corners reveals its tendency to corner like an ocean liner but the Calibra’s stood the test of time well in other regards.
Its ride quality isn’t at all bad and it’s fairly brisk. Plus it looks good, providing you can find one that hasn’t been ‘improved’ by multiple visits to Halfords.
Would I? I’d certainly be tempted if the price was sensible.
PetrolBlog Rating – 7.5/10
High Performance Firenza ‘Droop Snoot’
For a spell in the mid-1970s, this was as wild as the Griffin got. Droop Snoot was never part of the High Performance Firenza’s official moniker but any car enthusiast can picture that aggressively angled nose cone grafted onto the otherwise standard looking bodywork.
There’s little doubt it looked great with Cibie headlamps behind the clear covers and a Vauxhall sticker, rather than metallic badge, gracing the nose in the style of the firm’s then concept cars.
Essentially an HC Viva with a slinky 2-door coupe body, the HP Firenza offered a heady 131bhp from its 2.3-litre Slant Four engine allowing it to keep pace without problem with today’s traffic.
Channelling that grunt through chunky, high profile rear tyres allows for tail happy junction getaways but handling nearer the limit is more for the brave with its propensity to wiggle through corners.
Driving the Droop Snoot feels lack a manly pursuit, but one for the 1970s gentleman. Sadly my chest wig, medallion and Jason King moustache had been left at home, but it was surprisingly easy to get accustomed to the dog-leg set-up of the five-speed manual gearbox.
Less entertaining was offset steering wheel which erred towards the centre of the car.
As an experience the Firenza entertains but I wouldn’t find it appealing as a daily driver.
PetrolBlog Rating 7/10
Vauxhall had successfully (and inexpensively) landed itself a gem of a car with the VX220 of 2000, essentially a re-bodied Lotus Elise, with a 2.2-litre four cylinder from General Motors providing the power. And like the Lotus the reviews were positive.
Less so with the flagship VXR220. Used as a method of launching Vauxhall’s then new VXR brand, along with an even scarier version of the Monaro, out went the existing engine and its place came the company’s 2.0-litre turbocharged motor, generating 237bhp.
Styling and chassis modifications complemented the increase in grunt but in making the VXR220 properly hardcore but by making it track car hard, Vauxhall eroded much of its appeal.
A decade on and this still holds true. Once you’ve got into it (even Harry Houdini would have had his work cut out with the vestigial roof panel in place), it feels like a racing car made road ready. Tiny steering wheel, lack of creature comforts, hip crushing seats and exposed body work.
Find a smooth piece of road and the VXR220 is a gem, screaming engine note rising as the horizon gets ever closer, each gear change accompanied by a satisfyingly mechanical ‘ker-chun’. The steering is impressively sharp and direct too, unsullied because it’s the rear wheels that are driven.
But on anything other than billiard table standard asphalt, it’s easy to tire of the VXR220’s loutishness. If using one regularly is something you plan to do, ensure you’re on first name terms with a chiropractor.
PetrolBlog Rating 5.5/10
All photographs © Keith WR Jones 2013
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