Vauxhall Vectra Exclusiv 1.8

Vilified and condemned, the Vauxhall Vectra has had a bumpy ride... until now. A dynamic overhaul - and a welcome new look - has given this British staple a much smoother ride.

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Price: £14,750. On sale now
Engine: 1,796cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 122bhp at 6,000rpm, 123lb ft at 3,800rpm
Transmission: five-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 127mph, 0-60 in 10.5sec, 37.2mpg official average
CO2: 182g/km

Pity the Vauxhall Vectra. Vilified by a famously vocal car critic, condemned to anonymity in its role as motoring white good for the motorway classes, symbol of executive-home conformity as portrayed in those Harry Potter opening scenes.

It does a job. But the job description did not include keeping its operator entertained. I remember writing, of the Vectra Estate early last year: " More's the pity then, that so much of the car/driver interface is such an act of sabotage. At least it feels no different if driven in Wellington boots and padded gloves."

Vauxhall, to its great credit, has taken this to heart. Not GM Europe as a whole, though, because buyers of the Opel version haven't been as underwhelmed as UK buyers - which means Vauxhall buyers. So Vauxhall's engineers have set the agenda for a thorough re-think of the way the Vectra feels to drive. Some of the results are being applied to Opels, too, and Opel engineers and mainland-Europe test-tracks have been involved, but the driving force has come from Britain and the need to make the Vectra feel good on British roads. And that's the first problem: our roads.

Simon Johnson, Vauxhall's vehicle dynamics manager, explains: "On the other side of the channel, roads tend to be better surfaced than here, with less road camber, fewer broken edges and fewer low-frequency bumps caused by subsidence. The corners usually have fixed radii and often lack the hedgerows that restrict visibility. So the driver has to make far fewer steering corrections than is usual here. It's these factors that cause precision and agility to be given such high priority in Britain, while on the continent the emphasis is more on refinement. There, less feedback through the steering is seen as a positive factor."

Now you see why I've been talking so much about feedback and steering consistency and flow in The Independent's road tests. Many of our roads are highly rewarding to drive upon, but only if the car is up to the job. What Vauxhall has done with the Vectra is the perfect case study for making cars feel good in the UK, not just for keen drivers but for all drivers - even those who may not be conscious of why a car feels the way it does.

The Vectra's dynamic reinvention coincides with a welcome new look, specifically its front end, which has new sheet-metal up to the windscreen, modelled in the image of the current Astra. It's a big improvement on the former bluff squareness, and has the unexpected side-effect of making the Vectra seem smaller, handier, more lithe. Inside, the textures are more convincing in their facsimile of leather, the dashboard's contours are smoother and the instruments are tidier. There's more soft trim on the doors and the steering wheel is smaller, which not only looks more inviting but contributes to the Vectra's more alert feel.

The other obvious change to the model range is a new 2.8-litre, turbo-charged V6 with 230bhp. It joins the existing engine range of a 1.8-litre, 122bhp unit; a 2.2-litre with direct injection and 155bhp; a 2.0turbo with 175bhp; and three diesels: two Fiat-designed 1.9s with 120 or150bhp and a 3.0 V6 from Japanese-affiliate Isuzu, which releases 184bhp. Such is the interplay of modern motor manufacturing that this same unit also appears under the bonnet of a Renault Espace.

The key thing that has gone on under the Vectra's new clothes, says Johnson, is to reduce friction in the movement of the various suspension arms so the dampers (or shock absorbers) can work properly. This is achieved with new rubber bushes for the rear suspension arms and the front anti-roll bar, with intermediate metal plates embedded within. This has allowed Vauxhall to raise the dampers' ability to damp low-frequency bumps by 25 per cent. Abrupt body movements are reduced because the lower-friction suspension "breathes" better with the road. Plus the steering's been improved, thanks again to those vital rubber bushes, the power steering has been recalibrated and firmer engine-mountings reduce shake and shudder on bumpy roads by restraining the movement of the heavy engine.

If you looked under a new Vectra and the previous version, you'd see no obvious difference. Yet the two cars feel very different to drive, which shows the importance of those little bits of black rubber, and the bits and pieces inside the dampers. It's worth remembering this when your car - Vectra or otherwise - needs new suspension parts. Only the manufacturer's genuine bits, when those bits are vital for the calibration of the car's characteristics, will keep the car feeling as it should.

And, yes, it has all worked beautifully. I drove four new Vectras, and I could tell within 200 yards that these were cars transformed. It's a car set free: the Vectra feels connected to the road and you feel connected to the Vectra. The steering does what you want, when you want; you can make precise corrections in the middle of a corner and know that you'll get a proper response, not an ironed-out approximation.

All of this makes the Vectra a massively more rewarding drive, with precision approaching a Mondeo's or a Honda Accord's. And if the road is lumpy or undulating, the Vauxhall flows with it instead of fighting and giving up. Certain road types can make the rear suspension feel a touch choppy to the rear passengers, but it's a small price to pay for the improvement elsewhere. Driving it has changed from a chore to a pleasure.

The best-of-the-best vehicle could well be the new, automatic-only V6 Turbo, but I haven't had a chance to try that one yet. I did try the 120bhp CDTi - which showed the easy pace typical of a modern diesel and reasonable quietness - and the 2.2 Direct, whose petrol-engine proved smooth, relaxed and well able to propel the Vectra's bulk.

The 2.0 Turbo proved the most fun, its engine bursting with energy to give arousing drive if you're in the mood. Occasionally the power is a little too much for the front wheels, as they tug against the steering wheel, but it's not a problem. On the contrary, it's good to feel what's happening. But in some ways the entry-level 1.8 Exclusiv model has the best balance of attributes overall, with plenty of equipment, a low price, enough pace and the best illustration of the new-found driving pleasure.

Meet Jeremy Clarkson's new company car.

The rivals

FORD MONDEO 1.8 LX
£15,800
The Mondeo is ageing now, but it still looks good thanks to its recent visual uplift. It's expensive for what it offers, but the Mondeo is still a taut, sporty drive with a firm but rounded ride.

PEUGEOT 407 1.8 S
£15,255
The 407's radical, semi-supercar face and low build make for a dramatic-looking car, and it's well finished inside. Its sophisticated suspension gives terrific handling and a fair ride.

VW PASSAT 1.6 FSI S
£14,995
It's fine value given its technology, including an electric parking brake, but the new Passat feels less special inside than the last one and feels aloof to drive. This 1.6 version is noisy, too.

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