The Independent Road Test: Heart-pounding, breath-shortening fast: The Cavalier Turbo looks like a family saloon, but its prodigious power could threaten good sense. Brett Fraser put his foot down

The age of the 'super saloon' has quietly crept up on us. While our attention was focused on the hot hatchback - popular with thieves, unpopular with insurance companies - several manufacturers have introduced a new breed of performance car. These are cars that look tame, but have the punch of a Porsche or a Ferrari. Cars such as the new Vauxhall Cavalier Turbo 4x4.

Ford was first to give us the discreet 150mph family saloon, its Sierra Sapphire Cosworth. But that has been usurped by the unsubtle Escort RS Cosworth. The Sierra Cosworth's demise was timely for Vauxhall's Cavalier Turbo, which ably performs the same role.

Your fellow road users are given only the scantiest clues that the Cavalier filling their rearview mirror is capable of 149mph, and will sprint from standstill to 60mph in around 6.4 seconds. Only when you've passed them will they see the 'Turbo' badge on the boot lid. The 16in alloy wheels are a more obvious giveaway when the car is at rest.

The Cavalier range has recently been revised, the grille and lamp assemblies being the most noticeable of many changes in the specification. The Turbo is the best of the new Cavaliers, not because of its prodigious power but because it performs with such proficiency.

The first thing the driver notices is how fast the thing is: heart-

pounding, breath-shortening, pulse-racing fast. Two factors contribute to this: a 200bhp, four-cylinder, 2-litre, turbo-charged engine, and the four-wheel-drive system that puts all that power on the road.

The engine has already appeared in Vauxhall's sleek Calibra Turbo. It is a turbo-charged version of the excellent 2-litre, 16-valve unit that powers the Astra GSi. That engine was designed from the outset to be used in motor sport, so it is well able to handle the stresses of the extra 50bhp provided by the turbo-charger.

Some turbo-chargers suffer a small delay between the accelerator being pressed, and the entire stable of horsepower being unleashed - turbo lag, as it is called. The Cavalier's turbo-charger operates so smoothly that you hardly notice it is there. At a little under 2,000rpm there is a barely perceptible boost, but if you keep pressing your right foot, the view from the side windows promptly becomes a blur. A gutsiness at low revs means the Cavalier never feels out of puff, even when the turbo isn't blowing, a distinct advantage over many other turbo- charged forced-induction engines. This one even makes the right noise - a sporting, mechanical raspberry.

Impressive though the 0-60mph figure is, the Cavalier's everyday get-up-and-go is what makes it special. On unfamiliar roads, when you have to guess which way they will twist next, the Cavalier is ready to catapult off when acceleration replaces apprehension and anticipation.

None of this would be possible without four-wheel drive. Vauxhalls are notorious for behaving badly when called upon to feed a lot of horsepower through their front wheels. The Cavalier has perfect manners, uncorrupted by power. Its handling demonstrates a wonderfully neutral balance: even in tight corners the car does not understeer. On dry roads or in deep standing water, its roadholding will challenge your courage, and sometimes your good sense. And having all four wheels putting the power down is an enormous boon coming out of corners, eliminating wheelspin and ensuring that none of the traction is wasted.

If there is a criticism, it is that the Cavalier does not give as involving a drive as a good sports car. But it isn't a sports car. It's an executive/family saloon, lavishly equipped, well priced ( pounds 19,137), solidly built, comfortable to drive and ride in, that goes as hard as a thoroughbred sports car.

Specifications

Vauxhall Cavalier Turbo 4x4, pounds 19,137. Four-cylinder, 2-litre turbo-charged engine. Power: 2OObhp at 5,6OOrpm. Four-wheel drive, six gears. Performance: top speed 149mph, 0-60mph in 6.4 seconds. 22-32mpg on unleaded fuel.

Comparisons

Alfa Romeo 155 Q4, pounds 21,024. Left-hand drive only. Based on the Lancia Integrale but lacks its flair. Buy it only to be different.

Audi 80 2.8E Quattro, pounds 21,595. Not as fast or exciting as the Cavalier, but still desirable. Has a creamy V6 engine, smart styling and interior, and is built to last. Rather heavy, though, and ride quality is harsh.

Ford Escort RS Cosworth, pounds 24,810. Flamboyant in the extreme. An enthusiast's car, faster point-to-point than the Vauxhall, but the engine and turbo-charger is not so smooth.

(Photograph omitted)

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