Roomier Vectra Returns in Style

Families throughout Europe will soon be able to pack more into their Vectras, because after a 10-year absence from the mid-sector station wagon scene, Opel/Vauxhall is offering a station wagon version of its mainstream Cavalier successor.

More of a style-conscious traveler than a load-lugger, this new car offers a choice of four engines: 1.8 and 2.0-liter 16v gasoline, 2.5-liter V6, and a pioneering, super-efficient 2.0-liter direct-injection turbodiesel. The costs range from about $21,500 to $33,500.

There is no denying that the new model is neatly styled, with a sporty "wedge" look and a great deal of inherent practicality. Its high roof, which features integral luggage rails, provides 81 millimeters more headroom for rear occupants than the sedan version, while the wrap-around tailgate maximizes trunk space.

Although maximizing load space was not a design priority, the new car offers very decent luggage capacity. And, of course, the load area, with a minimum capacity of 460 liters, can be enlarged to 1,490 liters by folding down the rear seats that are available on all models. To put this in context, it's 10 liters short of a Ford Mondeo trunk, and in maximum mode, a handful of liters less than the class-leading stablemate Astra Estate.

More importantly though, it allows a 1,000-liter box to be fitted into the rear, and this is more of a "real world" measurement than the usual polystyrene ball method that seeks out all the unusable nooks and crannies of a luggage compartment.

There are several special features which make this station wagon particularly practical. There's an extra "hideaway" compartment under the trunk floor; an unusual load-through hatch makes it a cinch to get long items like skis and fishing rods into the car when you already have rear-seat occupants; and, the load space sill is a mere 560 millimeters off the ground, so there's no problem sliding in heavy loads like a chest of drawers.

Safety features include a strong floor-to-ceiling net fitted directly behind the rear seats to prevent luggage flying forward in the event of an emergency stop, and a trio of three-point seat belts and head restraints for the rear-seat passengers. These safety features naturally complement the already high level of safety in the existing Vectra models.

I've test driven the car and it is an easy vehicle to control, with handling and ride that equal those of the sedan and the hatchback. The station wagon uses the same suspension, with self-levelling rear suspension coming as standard on the more expensive versions, but at the front end is a development of Vauxhall's proven DSA (Dynamic Safety) system.

In the larger engine form, the Vectra station wagon is quite a mover. Top models get the 2.5-liter V6 unit that's in the sporty SRi sedan, and with this they are capable of going from start to 100 kilometers per hour in just under nine seconds, reaching a top speed of 222 kilometers per hour.

There's also a new 2.0-liter turbodiesel engine -- a sophisticated 16-valve unit that runs surprisingly quietly and offers very reasonable performance, despite its humble 60kW power. This engine is unique in being a direct-injection unit that makes use of four-valves per cylinder operated by a single overhead camshaft, along with sequentially-opening inlet ports.

These ports are optimized for particular operating conditions. One is angled to make the incoming air swirl in a "whirlpool" motion as it enters the cylinder. It's at low engine speeds that vigorous swirl is needed to ensure the full mixing of air and fuel droplets to keep the engine running cleanly, so only this port is used under these conditions, the second port being shut off automatically by a butterfly valve.

But when power is required, the second, more direct port opens progressively to let "power" air in. This technique, which hasn't previously been used on a diesel, achieves 50 percent greater air swirl at low engine speeds, along with much better cylinder filling (which translates into better power) at high speeds. The result is more flexibility, lower emissions and better fuel returns than have previously been achieved with similarly sized diesel engines.

Vauxhall is convinced its new Vectra station wagon will be a success, and it's hard to disagree. It makes an impressive package, even if it doesn't excel on load-swallowing ability. Its tremendous new diesel engine may well be just the beginning of a whole new family of efficient diesels to take the General Motors Vectra into the new millennium.

Ivor Carroll is a writer for Auto Express in Britain. He contributed this article to The Moscow Times.