Motoring / The Independent Road Test: A fashionable touch of flair: The new Vauxhall Corsa is a substantial improvement on the Nova, but its noisy 'boom' is a problem, says John Simister

BY NOW you have probably seen the controversial ad featuring big fashion names - Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, et al - and a small car. There has been much comment on the women, the ad, its director and its unprecedented budget. But what about the car?

The Corsa's styling is not too cutesie-cute, for Vauxhall is mindful that overdoing the rounded, friendly 'retro look' (that of the Nissan Micra is the unspoken example) can alienate young male buyers. So the new car is designed to have a dynamic demeanour, to suggest that it is fun to drive as well as to gaze upon.

And beneath the skin? Safety looms large in the buying public's consciousness right now, and manufacturers are reacting accordingly. So in the Corsa we find not one but two side-impact bars in each door, automatic belt tensioners for the front seats, height-adjustable seat belts both front and rear, and later this year the option of a driver's side airbag. Vauxhall reckons that the Corsa is the safest small car you can buy.

By my reckoning it is also the roomiest, with an abundance of head clearance, and knee room remarkable in the rear compartment of so small a car. It feels a lot more spacious than its most obvious rival, Ford's Fiesta, even though the two cars are identically long on the outside. That makes the Corsa three inches longer than its predecessor, the Nova, but it is the big increases in wheelbase and track that make the space.

You can have your Corsa as a slope-tailed three door or as a boxier, more upright and load-capacious five door. Engines range from a pair of 45bhp 1.2-litre units (one is an ultra-economical, ultra-clean 'E-Drive', which is not as gutless as you might think), through a pair of 1.4s with 60bhp or 82bhp, and on to two Japanese-made Isuzu 1.5-litre diesels with 50bhp, or 67bhp with a turbocharger. Finally, there is a 109bhp, 16-valve, 1.6-litre engine kept solely for the three-door Corsa GSi.

Trim levels conform to familiar Vauxhall logic, beginning with Merit versions and rising through LS, GLS and sporty SRi to the GSi. Then there is the Flair, the model tested here, which comes only as a three door and with the 60bhp 1.4 engine. Like all Corsas it is made in Spain. Novas were made there, too - and just to confuse you, they bore Corsa badges in every country except the UK.

If the Corsa is about fashion and fun, the Flair carries the torch. All Corsas have light, airy interiors with a neat, logical facia much like that of the bigger Vauxhall Astra, but only the Flair has bright blue heater knobs, instrument dials and upholstery apparently salvaged from an accident in a blue paint factory. Hideous? On the contrary, you cannot help but smile.

So what is this promising-looking car like once you are moving? Nothing special, it has to be said. The engine pulls with fair gusto from low speeds, making the Flair a ready companion in traffic, but the energy fades as the pace goes up. Worse, there is an unpleasant booming resonance that accompanies a typical motorway cruise in fifth gear. Vauxhall needs to fix this urgently, for it afflicts all Corsas except the diesels.

The gearchange is a further disappointment, with the loose, sloppy, worn-out feeling far too often found in Vauxhalls. But there is better news on the bumps and in the bends. Where the Nova used to fidget and lurch, the Corsa soaks up the bumps effectively even if it cannot match the fluidity and suppleness of a Peugeot 106. It leans more than the Peugeot in corners, too, but effective suspension damping means that the occupants are not thrown about.

If you enjoy your driving, you will find the Corsa far more entertaining than the Nova ever was. The tyres grip well, even in the wet conditions of our test, and the steering is positive, with none of the woolly response that went a long way towards depriving the old Nova of the expected small-car agility. It is reasonably light, too, even without the optional power assistance.

So while you will have more fun in one of the Corsa's French rivals, the newcomer passes muster. And when you take into account its other attractions - the safety features, the security deadlocks on models with central locking, the thief-proof stereo, the pollen filter to please hay-fever sufferers - the Corsa begins to make rather more sense.

Especially when you look at the prices. The test Flair, for example, is listed at pounds 7,940, which is more than pounds 700 cheaper than, say, a Nissan Micra Super S. And not only do all Corsas cost considerably less than their corresponding Nova forebears, they also undercut all their major rivals apart from the cheapest Rover Metro model.

How so? Vauxhall has cut its dealers' profit margins to 10 per cent from a former maximum of 16 per cent, taking away the dealers' flexibility to give a discount. So if you do not like haggling you are no longer at a disadvantage. Other manufacturers will surely follow. Until then, it is advantage Corsa.

SPECIFICATIONS

Vauxhall Corsa Flair 1.4i, pounds 7,940. Engine: 1,389cc, four cylinders, 60bhp at 5,200rpm. Five-speed manual, front-wheel drive. Top speed 96mph, 0-60mph in 14 seconds. Fuel: 35-40mpg unleaded.

COMPARISONS

Ford Fiesta 1.3 LX, pounds 8,575. Dependable, easily serviced, undemanding; noisy, rough, gutless engine is the downside, steering is stodgy and interior feels cheap. No fun to drive, but a pretty and reasonably roomy car.

Nissan Micra Super S, pounds 8,650. Lively performance, quiet cruising, terrific build quality and precise controls boost the appeal of this European Car of the Year.

Peugeot 106 1.1 XT, pounds 8,485. Smaller engine than Flair's but similar power. Class-leading handling and a superb ride. Engine can be noisy, cabin design is dull. A likeable car only now emerging from the shadow of the ultra-successful 205.

Renault Clio 1.2 RN, pounds 8,235. Also smaller engine than Flair's but similar power. Less roomy than it looks. Rides and handles very well, but feels plasticky inside.

Rover Metro 1.1S, pounds 8,255. Matches the Flair's power. Superb ride and refinement are not enough to mask dated looks and meagre rear seat space.

(Photograph omitted)

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