The Independent Road Test: It's very good looking but looks aren't everything: The Vauxhall Calibra has stunning lines and a classy ambience but handles more like a numb saloon than a precision sports car, says Roger Bell

VAUXHALL'S Calibra is a stunning-looking car. It is also very practical: unlike most coupes, the Cavalier-based Calibra is a genuine four-seater, even though access to the rear compartment is a tight squeeze. The luggage area below the tailgate is family-sized, too.

Into this outstanding package has gone General Motors' new, British-made, 2.5-litre V6 engine, already used in up-market Cavaliers and by GM's Swedish affiliate Saab in its new 900.

At pounds 19,870, the 170bhp V6 is still not the most expensive or sportiest Calibra - the pounds 22,370, 204bhp four-wheel-drive turbo retains both those titles - but it is arguably the best and certainly the most refined.

Smooth, vibration-free delivery is the six-cylinder engine's raison d'etre. In the main, GM's compact V6 provides it, even though you are sometimes aware of a slight tingle through the gear-lever and pedals. Performance is strong, but in this market sector - where acceleration is a critical factor for many buyers - both Rover and VW field more powerful competitors. Even so, the lively Calibra V6's discreet but classy wail (a far cry from the raucous four-cylinder engines of other Calibras) will be music to the ears of enthusiasts. Fuel consumption is good, too.

The flexible 2.5 V6 is at its best when you are moving quickly through the gears. Just as well, then, that the shift of the new manual gearbox (the four-speed auto, which offers three 'modes' for different driving styles, costs pounds 754 more) is clean, light and pretty well idiot-proof, even though its travel is long. Send too much power to the front wheels on a slippery corner and an electronic traction-

control system cuts the power to prevent wheelspin. The same sensors also control the powerful brakes' anti-skid system. Clever stuff.

But brilliant though the Calibra V6 is in some respects, its racy mien flatters to deceive. Despite sharpened steering (now fitted to all Calibras), the uncommunicative V6 handles more like a numb saloon than a precision sports car. It lacks crispness and resolution: it leans too much on corners and heaves too pliantly on its coil-sprung suspension to satisfy serious drivers. Nor is the ride anything special: pocked and bumpy roads induce much fidget and agitation.

The driving position is flawed, too. Although the seat is supportive, the fixed-position steering wheel is uncomfortably high, even for my long arms.

There is nothing wrong with the tidy, workmanlike dashboard, however. The instruments are big and legible, the switchgear chunky and easy to grasp, the heating andventilation system effective. Standard equipment includes good anti-theft security, a safety airbag for the passenger as well as the driver, and even a pollen filter.

The Calibra V6 has cracking good looks, a cosseting cabin and a classy ambience, but, like a pretentious tandoori restaurant I know, it lacks flavour and spice. It takes more than a smooth, potent engine to turn an attractive coupe into a real sports car. It's a pity that Vauxhall did not grasp that.

SPECIFICATIONS

Vauxhall Calibra V6, pounds 19,870. Engine: 2,498cc V6 with four camshafts and 24 valves; 170bhp at 6,000rpm. Five-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel drive. Performance: 0-60mph in 7.5 seconds, top speed 147mph (claimed). Average fuel consumption 31.7mpg unleaded.

COMPARISONS

BMW 325i coupe, pounds 22,650 (320i costs pounds 19,750). Understated looks disguise cracking driver's car. Smooth and potent straight-six engine, lovely gearbox, precise, well-balanced handling, terrific grip. Much more fun than the Vauxhall, but not quite so frugal. Extras can lift price alarmingly.

Honda Prelude 2.3, pounds 18,480. Dramatic styling rivals Calibra's, but small boot and cramped rear compartment. Strong performance from frenzied four-cylinder engine, crisp handling from firm sports suspension. Great to drive, not so easy to live with. Cabin marred by gimmicky dash.

Rover 220 Turbo, pounds 18,630. The cheapest 150mph car. Blistering performance from feisty engine, strong in muscle, loud in voice. Unruly under hard, low-gear acceleration; handling otherwise competent rather than accomplished. Nicely made and well-appointed, but not so roomy as Calibra. Lacks finesse.

VW Corrado VR6, pounds 19,998. The car the Calibra V6 should beat - but doesn't. VW's larger 2.9-litre engine gives even stronger acceleration, particularly mid- range. Combines terrific performance with razor-sharp handling that the Vauxhaull lacks. Dumpy looks. Cabin well- finished, rear seats adult-sized. Great car.

(Photograph omitted)

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