If there were an award for the world’s most erratic car company, then Opel AG would surely bag it. Here’s why: in the late ’80s and early ’90s this firm, based in the German city of Rüsselsheim, was producing some pretty epic cars. Modern classics such as the Kadett GSI and Lotus Omega rocked the establishment and became the blue-collar poster cars of a generation. As did the Calibra coupé and the radical Kadett TS, which, thanks to its turbocharged engine, could easily give the BMW E36 M3 a cracked septum.
Then, almost overnight, everything went pear-shaped. Performance and panache made way for staid styling and lacklustre dynamics. Aside from the occasional OPC performance model, Opel had morphed into a vehicular appliance factory, churning out cars no more exciting than the Toyota Corolla. It was a sad state of affairs.
Fortunately, things are finally starting to look up again. Somebody at Opel has flicked a switch. And the ensuing surge of power has produced a fresh new generation of machinery — like the Adam and the Mokka, which easily match the youth-oriented cars being made by Citroën, Renault, Audi and Mini. Even the Corsa, a stalwart of the range since 1982, has been reinvented to better take the fight to its old enemy, the Volkswagen Polo.
Not surprisingly, the earlier versions of the Corsa were often criticised for being a little underwhelming in the styling department. So this time the designers were allowed a little more creative licence and have turned the car into something that warrants a second look when it zooms by. They have achieved this by sculpting in several new features, like a set of quirky chiselled headlights and a bold trapezoidal radiator grille which give the Corsa a much meaner face.
The profile sees sharper, more defined shoulder lines, while the rear now has horizontal light clusters that cleverly trick the mind into thinking the car is slightly wider than it is. I have to say that it is a successful makeover — one that gives the five-door and three-door derivatives a much-needed shot of relevance in our fashion-crazed market. This approach has also been carried through to the interior.
Although the innards of the old version weren’t too shabby, I did find the sprawl of buttons adorning the centre console somewhat messy. Fortunately, Opel has sorted this out by streamlining the switchgear as well as bolting in a neat 7-inch touchscreen infotainment system. Known as IntelliLink in nerdspeak, it is a dead ringer for the system that you will find in the Chevrolet Sonic RS. This means that it uses apps stored on your smartphone (Android-and iOS-compatible) to give you automotive must-haves like satellite navigation (Bring-Go) and internet radio (Stitcher). Although these systems might increase your monthly data bill, the initial outlay is less, which means that more motorists can enjoy the trappings of 21st-century technology as they thread their way through the streets.
I was also astounded at the level of specification, the choice electronics Opel had put into the cars we drove at the launch in Frankfurt last week. Things like a heated steering wheel, rear-view camera, heated windscreen, blind-spot detection, lane departure warning and traffic-sign recognition made this fifth-generation Corsa feel like a properly premium product. Seriously, it felt as if I were piloting a machine from a much higher tax bracket. Of course, whether any of these features make it to South Africa remains to be seen.
In a more negative vein, I have to admit that the new cabin layout did feel a bit tight. The front foot wells are noticeably narrow, and the rear legroom is, at best, on the stingy side — especially if somebody tall like myself is in the driver’s seat. And when it comes to luggage, don’t expect to squeeze much into the boot either. My test car couldn’t swallow two carry-on suitcases, which meant one of them had to sit awkwardly on the back seat. Not ideal when your test route steers you across some particularly twisty mountain passes.
Although this may have been disappointing, the Corsa’s road manners were certainly not, thanks to a chassis redesign that includes a stiffer subframe, lower centre of gravity and completely revised suspension geometry. My car also benefited from the optional Sport package that had stiffer springs and larger (17-inch) alloy wheels. Topped off with surprisingly direct steering and not much body roll, this Opel fired through corners with a pleasing dexterity. OK, so it may not be quite as sharp as a Ford Fiesta, but it is definitely nicer to drive than a Volkswagen Polo.
The new Corsa also comes loaded with some tasty new engines. Following the downsizing trend, Opel has made available two versions (66kW or 85kW) of a three-cylinder turbocharged petrol engine equipped with direct fuel injection. These engines are smooth and refined — the Ford EcoBoost now feels a bit rough by comparison — and offer a useful amount of torque lower down the scale. But they also aren’t afraid to rev right up to their red lines. By contrast, the four-banger 1.4 turbo is designed to deliver pretty much all of its power quota below the 4 000rpm mark, which makes it feel annoyingly asthmatic whenever you venture beyond it.
Opel also offers normally aspirated 1.2 and 1.4 petrol engines, as well as two versions of the same 1.3 turbocharged diesel — none of which was made available to drive at the launch. It hasn’t yet been confirmed which powerplants are destined for South Africa. So I guess we’ll just have to wait until the car is officially launched here some time in the first half of next year. Either way, the new Corsa is a competitive package, one that certainly has no problem standing up to its more established competitors from Ford, Volkswagen and Toyota. It’s a confident all-rounder which, despite its sometimes tight interior, demonstrates that Opel AG is making a serious comeback. Let’s hope it lasts.
Engines: 999cc three-cylinder turbo; 1364cc four-cylinder turbo
Power: 66kW at 3700rpm or 85kW at 5000rpm; 74kW at 3500rpm
Torque: 170Nm at 1800rpm (both derivatives); 200Nm at 1850rpm
0-100km/h: 11.9- or 10.3-seconds; 11-seconds (Claimed)
Top speed: 180km/h or 195km/h; 185km/h (Claimed)
CO2: 100g/km or 115g/km; 119g/km (Claimed)
Fuel consumption: 4.3l/100km or 4.9l/100km; 5.1l/100km (Combined)
Price: TBC when launched in 2015