Cars equal fantasy, and the allure of new identities. Jay Merrick flinches at automotive pulp fiction, and examines Vauxhall's new design pragmatism and technical progression

Cars, and car design, have become irony-rich. We're often cast as the gullible soft machines who drive the hard machines. We've become part of automotive production, bit-part players in petrolhead pulp fictions devised by Tarantino wannabes.

We might even suspect that we, not the cars, are the final product. The scenarios are invariably amazing: the sterilised soundtracks in which Wagner meets Leftfield; the highcontrast landscapes full of not-quite-graspable meaning; the voiceovers whose message turns out to be massage. We're riders on the automotive industry's storm, mere pixels in what the world's most provocative architect, Rem Koolhaas, refers to as "the violent surf of information".

And what do we get? Cars that dance, cars that shake their booty, cars covered in mud the colour of Neuhaus chocolate, cars that behave like dogs, cars that just sit there in carefully sculpted shadows.

But really effective design - the kind whose ultimate forms deliver much more than function or shape - is invariably founded on hard facts and extremely specific requirements. And yet, the character of new cars - mechanically complex, packed with high-tech materials, whole micro-environments on the move - is usually homogenised into little more than a single, carefully textured image and typographically brilliant tag-line.

Good design deserves a certain respect. If, for example, you happen to own a Screwpull, you'll know exactly why you own one: it works beautifully, pulling the cork effortlessly from the bottle of room-temperature New World cab sav, or very slightly chilled Gewurtztraiminer. Somebody's thought it out, and it shows - but not ostentatiously. And if it isn't a corkscrew that's engaged your appetite for design, it could be the sound system which really delivers, or that small cuff detail on your favourite suit.

These are pleasurable facts, not slippery fictions. They matter because you know precisely why they suit you. Like the designer, you've thought about it. And you've made a judgement on the design. You have, in effect, set the specifications.

Vauxhall have keyed into this reflex with the launch of the New Signum as "a car full of ideas".We're being asked to consider a series of innovations that will help to get you from A to B in intelligently arranged conditions. And though image matters, colour coordinated special effects and professionally murmured sales spiel are just fast-food. One can't yet drive a 30-second prime-time television advert.

Driving is a significant activity. We're entitled to wonder what exactly it is that our bodies are connected to as we hum along the A1 or the M25, steer carefully through Ludlow, or pull up near that Bengali curry restaurant in Whitechapel that everybody pretends they discovered two years before it became so totally a la mode.

And now, free of irony and riding Rem Koolhaas's violent surf of information in a more composed manner, let's rearrange those seven letters again. Our "musing"shuffles tidily back into Signum. What is it that Vauxhall wants to connect us to? What have they delivered in the New Signum that might make coherent sense of automotive sensation?

The most obvious thing about the car is the restraint of its bodyform. There's no look-atme here. The outline, the cuts, the folds, are assiduously clean and stylish. The body has nothing to prove; it's comfortable in its skin.

The only exception to the general restraint of the design is the dynamic front end. This delivers a powerfully graphic statement that begins with the characteristic shoulder-line and bonnet crease, and flows into a sharply tapered front bumper and the new, sculpted headlight assemblies. Chrome details drive the New Signum's image home. The Vauxhall badge is clasped in a gleaming V whose wings form the key horizontal graphic, and chrome has also been finessed into the grille-slats, fog lamp and air-intake surrounds. By hatchback standards, this is almost lavish - and gives the front end a sporty vibe.

The car's side elevation has four flowing horizontal signifiers: the chrome trim that sweeps back along the top edge of the doors, the subtle but graphically crucial shoulder-line that runs the length of the car, a bump-bar, and the skirting. And their key attribute is slimness. Which means svelte, rather than bling. The fold-and-step of the hatchback door itself is equally restrained, and the scale and wrap of the rear light clusters is particularly elegant.

The New Signum's chief designer, Eduardo Ramirez-Carcamo, has produced an executive hatchback the demeanour of which is not so much hot, but calculatedly cool and very carefully composed - suggesting that the model's technical refinements are just as effortlessly built in.

The New Signum's extended wheelbase gives the passengers more room in the back and there is individually adjustable and reclinable FlexSpace® seating. The suspension has been tuned to deliver a firmer ride on Britain's wearing roads, and is part of an Advanced Chassis Technology system and Electronic Stability Programme. Satellite navigation gives voice-prompts and can, if necessary produce routes that avoid motorways. The climate control can " split"front seat requirements and even react to excessive sun-heat on one side of the car. These technicalities don't affect the feel of the interior in the slightest. The overriding sensation is of understated, subtly organised comfort and efficiency.

The design reflects a physical progression of three of Vauxhall's most successful models. Ramirez-Carcamo's new package is an evolution of the VX220 and the latest Astra and Tigra. It's tough to be different in a family, but the New Signum is just that; and it may be the first hatchback that carries the "executive"tag convincingly. This is absolutely not a tough toy for tough boys; more a smart, intelligently arranged car for those who've become used to intelligent arrangements.

And those arrangements are reflected in Ramirez-Carcamo's tastes. The 36-year old studied car design in Coventry and then at the Royal College of Art, but his personal interests reveal that he's anything but a petrolhead."I like music,"he says."I like opera. And I listen, at the same time, to punk. I don't have pictures of cars on the walls in my flat. I prefer to collect ceramics, and I like anything to do with architecture. I like modern architecture that's integrated into existing environments - new buildings that are well integrated."

That instinct for integration - the morphing of old into something more modern - has served him well in the case of the New Signum."Two things were very important,"he says."To reflect quality. Clear surfaces, simple graphics. And to add some sportiness.We wanted all the changes to be more expressive, and have a certain visual elegance.To look solid and well-built through the treatment of those surfaces and lines."

Vauxhall's sleek new "car full of ideas"cuts against the grain of hatchback presentation. The emphasis on hard technical detail rather than shimmer, pragmatism rather than irony, user-satisfaction rather than personality transplants means that it'll never segue into moody dreamscapes for boy-racers. Nor will it vanish into a mirage of techno-babble. The New Signum is a thorough, point-by-point demonstration of improvements that are also class-leading advances.More than enough, presumably, to muse about.

Drive time Sean O'Grady

I have a soft spot for Vauxhalls. Those wonderfully over-the-top Crestas from the 1950s in two-tone mint green and pink; big, butch Americanesque Viscounts in the 1960s; elegant Victors in the 1970s; and a whole string of unbelievably tough and durable models in the 1980s and 1990s such as the Senator, a great favourite with Britain's motorway police. None were perfect, but, in objective terms at least, they all held their own against some distinguished contemporary opposition.

So I was intrigued to be given the opportunity to drive the latest example of the genre, the New Signum. These days Vauxhall is a much more creative outfit than it used to be, and cars such as the Meriva and Zafira have shown the make's willingness to try out new body shapes and clever packaging ideas. This is, of course, also very much what the New Signum is about. However, cars are, or should be, a bit more than great big metallic hold-alls; they're also about driving.

In this respect, too, the diesel Signum Design I sampled recently proved a competitive product. It was fitted with the fairly new 1.9CDTI 150. It's a diesel unit that was jointly developed by Vauxhall's parent, General Motors, and the Fiat Group. Thus it is a similar powerplant to the one you may have seen raved about in various sporty Alfa Romeos, and there's nothing wrong with that. As a thoroughly modern, advanced common rail turbo-diesel, this engine wants to be revved a bit and it will shift itself readily enough: it has a top speed of 118mph and the zero-to-60-mph sprint is over in about 11 seconds. It will happily keep pace with, for example, a Mercedes C-class estate. And talking of premium German makes, you will find the same no-nonsense, straightforward cabin design in the New Signum as you will in any VW, Audi,BMW or Mercedes-Benz.

The controls are very much in that typically German style as well. There's a very precise feel to the stalks, clear dials and rotary switches for the main lights, with a handy automatic option which means you can never forget to turn your lights off or, indeed, forget to turn them on at night and in tunnels and underground car parks. Vauxhall has also opted not to go so far along the trendy route of trying to combine all the many functions of satellite navigation, audio player, in-car phone and air conditioning, and combine their control through one gigantic jam-jar-lid sized dial on the centre console.On that point, at least, you'll find this vehicle easier to use than rival Audis or BMWs.

No less pleasurable to use is the extremely smooth six-speed gear change. Combined with a very "torquey"engine, (that is one that supplies a good deal of power even when you're not revving it very hard) it means that you hardly ever find yourself either in the wrong gear or making a mess of finding the right one. A somewhat basic engineering point, you might think, and one that can make all the difference to how easy a car is to live with day-in, day-out, but still something that a surprising number of manufacturers don't pay quite enough attention to.Handling is predictable and neutral and the steering wellweighted at all speeds.

My abiding memory of the New Signum Design, though, will be how surprisingly comfortable it is. Other badges, notably the French marques, have garnered a reputation over the years for producing supremely smooth, soft-riding cars. Yet here is a Vauxhall that can match them for long-journey comfort; in the New Signum you'll find very well-sized, supportive seats mated to a wellsorted UK suspension set up and that means a pretty soothing time at the wheel. So, the New Signum is a very rewarding driving machine. Even the sat nav worked efficiently, never a forgone conclusion on even the most expensive cars. Judge it objectively, and you too may find yourself surprised.