GIVEN ALL the available options, were you Vauxhall, would you choose to launch your bestselling, most important model in the grounds of a hotel whose name is indelibly associated with perhaps the single most famous disaster of the 20th century? Liverpool’s Titanic hotel has certain things in common with the new Corsa: it’s attractive, roomy and designed round a structure that’s existed for ages. But that’s not what the headline writers will be thinking of if it sinks without trace.
What are we to read into this? Only breezy confidence was given off by the Vauxhall executives attending the launch. They admit freely this Corsa is not an entirely new vehicle but one that adopts and adapts the platform of the current Corsa — Britain’s third-bestselling car — which has been with us these past eight years.
They talk of evolution rather than revolution, of wishing to retain the old model’s strengths while addressing its weaknesses. Were the Corsa both the best and bestselling car in its class, the decision not to fix what ain’t broke would be more expected. But it’s not: the old Corsa wasn’t the best car in its class even when it was new, and it has been consistently outsold by the vehicle that has held this title since it was launched — the not much younger but enduringly brilliant Ford Fiesta.
When you look closely, though, this new Corsa is more of a departure than the press blurb suggests. Not one body panel has been carried over, and the interior is equally new. The suspension retains the same basic design but that’s only because it follows the same layout as in almost every small hatchback. As for the engines, the cheaper models, starting at £8,995, get little-changed 1.2 and 1.4-litre units, and the 99bhp 1.4-litre turbo also survives, but with more extensive modifications.
There’s a 1.3-litre diesel too, producing as little as 85g/km of CO2. The real interest, though, is in a new 113bhp 1-litre three-cylinder turbo engine that is both the smallest and most powerful available, at least until the 200bhp VXR model arrives in the spring.
The motor is the smoothest small engine I have yet encountered, making any V6 sound coarse and uncouth.
Vauxhall says the Corsa range has been extensively simplified, but there are still nine trim levels to choose between and by no means are all engines available in each. Bear in mind too that there are three-door and five-door models and that the expensive Limited Edition and SRi VX-Line models come with sport suspension and different steering, which as we shall see are both rather important.
Common to all, however, are those pleasant looks and an interior so spacious that four generously proportioned adults can travel in comfort, giving the Corsa a clear advantage over the Fiesta. The steering wheel adjusts for reach and rake, which is still a rarity in this class. The new dashboard design is clean, simple and of far better quality than in the old Corsa, or indeed the Fiesta, but probably on a par with that of two French newcomers — the Renault Clio and Peugeot 208.
All Corsas bar the cheapest two trim levels get Vauxhall’s good-looking and efficient IntelliLink 7in touchscreen, which can be hooked up to your Android or Apple phone and runs a number of apps.
The first Corsa I drove, a 1.4-litre turbo, was slightly underwhelming. The ride around town was very good and I liked the City steering setting, which allows you to park with your little finger, but at speed the suspension allowed too much vertical body movement for comfort, the new electric steering felt lifeless, the gearbox was notchy and the engine ran out of breath too early. Sure, this is a shopping car and no one expects it to handle or perform like a Porsche, but it was a tad disappointing.
Then I tried the 1-litre turbo with the sporty suspension and steering and found myself in a car transformed. The motor is the smoothest small engine I have yet encountered, making any V6 sound coarse and uncouth. Moreover, it’s enthusiastic right through its rev range. The firmer suspension exorcises all the queasy float of the standard car without damaging its low-speed ride, and the steering greets your turns with a firm, reassuring response.
So different are the two cars that the first thing I did on stepping out of the 1-litre turbo was to suggest that its steering and suspension (which cost Vauxhall no more money to fit) be used across the range.
Sure, this is a shopping car and no one expects it to handle or perform like a Porsche, but it was a tad disappointing.
Which presents me with a problem. The static qualities of the new Corsa are impressive, and the fact that it’ll go on sale for an average of about £1,000 less than its predecessor will make it popular. But the stodgy dynamics of the car with the standard chassis and 1.4-litre turbo engine would merit no more than a three-star rating. Whereas the 1-litre car with the better suspension and steering earns an easy four. In the end it is the latter car I’ll score because it’s the more interesting and newer.
But there is a bigger picture to consider. In the right specification the new Corsa is unquestionably a capable car, but I still couldn’t rank it ahead of the equivalent Fiesta. I’d place it towards the front of the pack that has for years been trying to chase the Fiesta down. It’s clear that, for a car based on an already ageing platform, the new Corsa is an impressive achievement.
Likeable, affordable and able, but still no Fiesta
2014 Vauxhall Corsa 1.0i SRi VX-Line specifications
- Engine: 999cc, 3 cylinders, turbo
- Power: 113 bhp @ 5200rpm
- Torque: 125 lb ft @ 1800rpm
- Transmission: 6-speed manual
- Acceleration: 0-62mph in 10.3sec
- Top speed: 121mph
- Fuel: 57.6mpg
- CO2: 114g/km (estimated)
- Road tax band: C
- Price: £14, 460
- Release date: On sale now
Vauxhall Corsa rivals
- Ford Fiesta 1.0 EcoBoost Titanium, £15,445
For Outstanding performance and economy; great handling; sharp looks Against Cramped rear; ageing interior
- Renault Clio Dynamique TCe 90 S MediaNav, £15,495
For Elegant styling; frugal engine Against Limited performance