Driving Vauxhall’s forgotten performance saloon

Whoever said this 1990s repmobile held no merit can’t have heard of the SuperTouring. We took to the road in a 2.0-litre Vectra with a difference...

£1.1 billion could easily fund an Apollo space mission, or pay off Iain Duncan Smith’s breakfast tab. It’s no small amount of money. So, when Vauxhall claimed to have spent such an amount on transforming the family-favourite Cavalier into the ‘all-new’ Vectra, customers and journalists were confused in equal measure.

While the aesthetics were different, the newcomer drove like a Cavalier, sounded like a Cavalier and employed most of the trim from a Cavalier. Refinement, economy, space and value were all but identical. As a result, the new Vectra careered headlong into a wave of negative publicity instigated by the nation’s automotive darling: Jeremy Clarkson.

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Clarkson’s Top Gear review was scathing enough to prompt enraged Vauxhall bigwigs to declare all-out war on the BBC. They demanded an apology, pushing for a retest to be performed by a different presenter. It never happened. Instead, the Vectra soldiered on with a less-than-sparkling image, yet sales seemed unaffected. Fleet managers across the nation queued up at their local dealership to whip out their chequebook and order top-spec motorway warriors for every salesman in the country. Adverts with Tom Baker, such as this, certainly helped:

The Vectra fights back

While the Vectra drew no end of condemnation, no one could deny that the family wagon was well equipped and often available at a knock-down price. Over half a million were sold between 1995 and 2002, providing families with dependable transport and taxi drivers with the means to make a living. They were everywhere. At the turn of the Millennium almost every car park in the UK had some form of Vectra on site, whether in hatchback, estate or saloon guise.

Yet regardless of sales figures and contemporary dependence, petrolheads complained of a lacklustre driving experience and tarnished salesman persona. However, all that changed with the arrival of Vauxhall’s tuned Vectra touring car. Claiming podiums like Meryl Streep does Oscars, the Vectra stormed the BTCC, entering the dream garages of all pre-pubescent teenagers. Naysayers were largely silenced, and single dads collecting their children from the school gates in a Vectra diesel suddenly became sex symbols.

To capitalise on this success, Vauxhall crafted a ‘SuperTouring’ special edition, with claims that the new model brought racing technology to the road. Vauxhall aficionados hailed the vehicle as a Carlton for the ages, while street racers braced for the fire-breathing monster to start ripping up the tarmac.

However, before you even think it, we have to point out that this was not a road-going rally car. It wasn’t at all similar to the beloved Vauxhall Carlton, that bonkers supersonic barge on which all other fast Vauxhalls are judged. Rather, this was a committee-inspired market exercise to inject the tarnished Vectra with a healthy dollop of Max Power street cred.

It should have worked. Besides boasting an ultra-ASBO paint scheme and sporty brake calipers, the hull sat on low-profile tyres and hard-hitting touches were styled into the bodywork. The front air dam boasted aggressive ducts, while the racing wheels could bring tears to a glass eye. As could the asking price.

The SuperTouring was wholeheartedly exclusive in a land populated with cheap Vauxhalls. Available for £25,000 (£46k with contemporary inflation), the model was on the market between November 1996 and September 1997. No more than 500 were made and of those, only half were installed with a V6 under the bonnet.

The forgotten performance Vauxhall

Folklore on the classic car scene dictates that all SuperTourings were sold with a 167bhp 2.5-litre V6 powering the front wheels. Yet there was another engine in the range – a 2.0-litre four pot.

Needless to say, the smaller engine received little love from enthusiasts. Too weedy for the collectors and too slack on the specification sheet for boastful yobbos, the 1998cc specimens took so long to shift that the last was apparently sold on an X-registration, spending the best part of four years on the forecourt seeking a home.

Finding one nowadays remains a rare achievement, with almost all of them scrapped, bastardised for engine transplants or crashed when showing off to girls. This is why, when Keith Murray of Morris Leslie Classic Car Auctions gave us the heads-up that a mint-condition example was on site, we travelled up to Scotland for a shot behind the wheel.

What’s it like to drive?

As soon as the ignition key turns, you’re aware this is no ordinary Vauxhall. There might be lashings of familiar trim shared with all other Luton models residing in the cabin, but blipping the throttle yields a raw, almost guttural feel no standard Vectra can muster.

Setting off and working through the gears produces no end of hilarity, even if the torque curve dies out far quicker than you’d like. To get the best out of all 134 horses churning away under the bonnet, the rev counter must remain planted well above 4500rpm. The engine has to work hard, clearly pushing the drivetrain out of its comfort zone.

Hit the sweet spot and the speedometer can breach 60mph from a standstill in little over nine seconds, continuing on well past the legal speed limit to 131mph. Not that we dared try such a feat on the twisting back roads of Errol, Perthshire. Especially with such bone-hard ride quality.

While handing is remarkably sharp and direct considering that the steering set-up is largely stock, the compromise comes in the form of a twisted spine. Tuck the nose into a tight bend and there is no end of grip, the suspension hunkering down for level and tight manoeuvring. That’s if the road is smooth.

Hit a pothole, however, and your teeth shatter. Mount a 50 pence piece and you can count its sides. Traverse a harsh corner with so much as a mild undulation, and the shunting vibrations will snap your femur without a moment’s hesitation. This thing is rigid to the third degree. During our travels we had to negotiate a level crossing – and it damn near killed us.

Neither is all forgiven when hurtling down a straight road. There’s an overwhelming sense of missed opportunity when peering down the curved bonnet. Although great fun, you can’t help but feel the project was only half finished. If you’d spent this amount of money back in 1996 – of which could have acquired a well heeled BMW 318i – then the pangs of regret may have set in.

There should have been four-wheel drive and a larger engine. The engineers surely longed to add a turbo to ensure the SuperTouring could kick it with the likes of Ford’s Escort Cosworth. Instead, the longer you spend behind the wheel, the more you feel this is a shadow of what should have been.

While the distinct lacking of out-and-out grunt creates an endearing sense of occasion when screeching around the B-roads and tackling each turn with continued momentum, it all feels a bit fake. There is no doubt that this car is faster than a standard Vectra, yet you can’t help but feel you’ve ended up with second best.

While handling and braking remain truly engaging and highly receptive, when trying to pilot the vehicle in a manner that BTCC drivers adopted there is a clinical deflation. Trying to set off with gusto feels almost cartoonish, the revs bounce but you don’t achieve the force those aggressive styling cues hint at.

The result? It looks great. It sounds great. The handling shames far more expensive rivals, but as a 2.0-litre there isn’t enough power to match the car’s appearance. You wouldn’t find us noting the stiff ride quality if there was something to make up for it, which is probably where the V6 comes in.

Don’t think it’s not worthy of your time, however. While it may have been flawed when new and struggled to find a market segment to call its own, as a modern classic to invest in the Vauxhall provides a distinct curiosity factor.

According to figures, only 44 of the 250 special 2.0-litre SuperTourings have survived time’s onward march, resulting in a rare take on the old-school family favourite. The Vectra is not as punchy as its V6 brethren, but for an exclusive weekend toy without the harrowing fuel consumption, yet boasting everyday usability, little else hold the same 1990s vibe in the price bracket.

Photography by Gillian Carmoodie

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