Opel returns with glory

Bobby Cheetham

OPEL is back in South Africa with a bang – and there's a promise of more to come from the General Motors stepchild brand which at one stage was on the verge of being sold.

Acknowledging that the Opel brand had been through tough times, General Motors South Africa president and managing director Mario Spangenberg, speaking at the launch of the new Opel Astra and uprated Meriva and Corsa models, said: "It's true we've been struggling for years, especially in Europe, now we are focusing on building our brand and making a comeback.

"Opel has been losing money for years – we were nearly sold off. The good news is that during General Motors' bankruptcy we realised that we have much technical knowledge that trickled through to other vehicles and we had quality personnel. It was decided that GM would reinvest in Opel," Spangenberg said.

This was echoed by General Motors South Africa Opel brand manager, Chris Cradock, who said: "The arrival of the Astra sedan to South Africa is significant for GM South Africa as it completes the Opel Astra range and supports our efforts to rejuvenate and strengthen the Opel brand in this market."

What is it?

The new Opel Astra consists of a four-model range, which encompasses three different petrol engines and three transmissions for a broad spectrum of choice.

All three engines are importantly part of Opel's Ecotec engine family and all subscribe to Euro 5 emissions regulations.

The star in the Astra line-up is the sporty 1.6 Turbo Cosmo sedan, which comes with a smooth and powerful 132kW turbocharged petrol engine.

The Corsa OPC Nürburgring Edition is a feisty hot hatch ready to thrill South African drivers. With only 65 of the limited Nürburgring Edition models produced by Opel globally, allocated to South Africa, the latest addition to the Opel range is likely to become a sought-after collector's item. Already 40 of the 65 allocated to this country have been sold!

The OPC "Ring", powered by a 1.6-litre OPC turbo engine, increases from the standard vehicle's 141kW to 154kW, giving a specific power rating of 96.2 kW per litre which GM says is exceptional in this engine class.

Then there's the family passion wagon, the Meriva.

GM has decided to introduce only one model, the new 1.4 Turbo Enjoy, available with higher levels of specification than before and suitable for the young family's needs.

How does it look?

Sleek and modern styling makes this the most attractive Astra yet.

The Astra sedan's best attribute is its new boot – which integrates well into the overall design without looking bulky or out of place, with an integrated boot spoiler and a smart, chrome-plated exhaust outlet.

It is also now 230mm longer than the hatch model.

The Corsa Nürburgring Edition's visual highlights include two new, exclusive body colours – apple-green "Grasshopper" and red "Henna".

Other features distinguishing the Nürburgring Edition from the existing Corsa OPC are a front spoiler lip and a new dual exhaust in stainless steel, as well as "Nürburgring" logos on the B-pillars.

The Meriva's styling remains the same and only the interior benefits from a few minor refinements and extra storage compartments.

What's it like to drive?

The "Lord of the Ring", the Corsa OPC Nürburgring Edition is untouchably the most thrilling of the new Opel models to drive, although the top of the range Astra 1.6 Turbo Cosmo sedan comes a very close second.

The "Ring" model is a fun, sporty vehicle that gets the blood pumping with its exhilarating performance and general driving dynamics.

The performance enhancing features include lower ride height, newly developed spring and damper units by Bilstein and a new lightweight front braking system from specialists Brembo with bespoke, high-performance brake linings.

The control algorithms for the chassis support systems – ABS, Traction Control (TC) and the Electronic Stability Control (ESC) – have all been recalibrated by the engineers at the Opel Performance Centre to match the car's new configuration.

But don't expect a smooth ride! The low profile tyres, lowered suspension and hard suspension, give the OPC a hard ride – but this is what one can expect from a track-prepared specialist sports car.

The 1.6 Astra Cosmo develops 132kW at 5500rpm and 230Nm of torque at 2200rpm results in a world class performance, the engine delivering a 0-100km/h sprint time of just 8.7 seconds and a top speed of 223km/h – remarkable figures for a 1.6 litre engine.

Driving the Cosmo is a very rewarding experience due mainly to the impeccable suspension set-up which manages to provide a comfortable drive, yet firm enough to handle the horses under the bonnet.

The Meriva is very adequate in the family car category and, while not in the same class as the performance cars, it provides a generally good driving experience.

Any special features?

The Astra sedan also boasts a generous 460 litres of luggage space, meaning that even the most over-packed family holiday can become a comfortable reality – or indeed that the vehicle can double as a utility vehicle, with a total of 1010 litres of cargo volume available when the rear seats are folded forward.

In the Corsa OPC Nürburgring Edition, the sporty nature of the hot hatch stands out as its best feature.

For the Meriva, the best feature has to be the copious storage space the vehicle is blessed with.