It is a slightly surprising fifteen years since I last drove a Vauxhall Corsa. I remember the occasion well. At the time, I still had my Rover 414 Si (the R8 model) and I was driving into Cheltenham, and as I paused at the traffic lights on the Tewkesbury Road, more or less immediately opposite the then location of the local Hertz office, I could see steam wisping from around the edges of the bonnet. A stone had punctured the radiator, and although the car would probably not overheat if I kept moving, thanks to the pressure in the system, prudence suggested that I seek help, and a rental car. Hertz had but one offering for me, a first generation Corsa Merit. If ever there was a car that was misnamed, it was this loathsome device. It had absolutely no merit at all, and with its weedy 1.2 litre engine, and four speed gearbox, it could barely propel itself. Basic would have been a kind term for a car with no rear wiper and only the most rudimentary of trim. For whatever reason – and it is not just choice or prejudice – the Corsa has continued to elude me ever since that encounter. It has advanced two model generations, and sales have increased such that in many markets it now outsells its closest rival, the Fiesta, as well as seeing off the many other competitors in the supermini class. Long overdue, therefore, for a reappraisal of the latest car, which was something facilitated when Hertz in Bristol came up with a 3 door car which would serve as my transport one-way to Heathrow.
The test car was fitted with the 1.2 16v engine, which develops a total of 79 bhp (I think, though trying to get this information from Vauxhall’s website proved completely fruitless!). Given the increasing size and weight of modern cars, this is far from sufficient to make the Corsa fast, and it did not take long to confirm my expectations that this would prove to be something of a sluggard. Indeed, by the time I had reached the traffic lights a few hundred yards from the Hertz Bristol location, I was pretty sure that I had no ball of fire. The engine is quite smooth, and refined sounding, but a combination of the gearing, its relative lack of power and what it is being asked to do are all such that it struggles to move the Corsa with any verve. If you rev the car hard, you can make reasonable progress, but drive it in the way that most of its target buyers would do, and it will not quite embarrass itself with other traffic, but it gets perilously close.
Out on the motorway, I feared that this is the sort of car that would be an unpleasant long distance companion, and that were one to get baulked in traffic, the act of regaining speed and momentum could involve a couple of down-changes and lots of assault on the ears. The traffic was light, so I did not really get to test out the second of these hypotheses, and the first proved to be only partly true. At motorway speeds, the Corsa’s engine is not its biggest problem. That is the terrible tyre roar that was evident on the various different surfaces of the M4, which made the Corsa a far from restful place in which to be for 100 miles. Not a good start, then. For many years, GM Europe cars were not noted for the quality of their gearchanges, but things have got better lately, and I am pleased to report that the shift in the Corsa proved to be perfectly fine, with the lever slotting readily and cleanly between the gears with no resistance or baulking. Reverse is selected by pressing up on the latch under the knob, and pushing the lever over to the left and forwards, and it also engaged cleanly, every time. I wish I could praise the other dynamic attributes of the Corsa, but sadly, I cannot.
The steering is certainly very light, but that is largely because it is pretty devoid of any feel, and whilst the handling could be described using epithets like “safe” and “predictable”, these also mean that it is no fun at all. The ride has to be condemned as just terrible. Whether it is a consequence of the 16″ alloys that come as standard as part of the SXi trim, or not, I do not know, but I can report that the car felt uncomfortable on almost all surfaces, picking up every ridge, join, surface imperfection and unevenness and transmitting them to the occupants of the car. It felt jiggly even on smooth surfaces, but on some sections of the M4 – a road whose surface differences I know well and have experienced in a wide variety of test cars – I became aware of surface imperfections that no other car has ever picked up. Those buying a car like this are likely to be interested in low running costs. If I divide the number of miles I drove, by the fuel I put in the Corsa, it comes out at 38.1 mpg. As this was a rental car that may well not have had quite as full a fuel tank as the gauge would have you believe, the actual economy may of course have been better than that, but assuming it was not, then this mediocre figure is doubtless a consequence of how hard I had to work the little engine to propel the car.
Utterly unimpressed by the dynamics, time to look at the static qualities of the Corsa. The test car was a three door model, and I have never quite found the styling to my liking. Those “mini-Astra” looks don’t quite work as the front of the car looks too long for what is presented behind the A pillars, and the fake-coupe styling with the almost triangular side rear windows do little for the rear passengers who have quite a dark place in which to sit, or even for the driver who has rather more limited over the shoulder visibility than you get in just about any other supermini. Indeed, visibility from the driver’s seat is quite a challenge, as the thick and steep A pillars do little to help, either, though the small extra front window ahead of the door is useful for angled junctions. Inside the Corsa, though, the story is rather better. A lot better, in fact. The dash is well designed, and is made of good quality plastics, so it looks like something befitting one of the better cars in this class. There were two things which I did notice, though. The whole of the centre of the dash is trimmed with a reasonable quality metal effect piece of plastic and there is a strip that goes around the upper central part of the dash, around the display for the clock and this reflected annoyingly in the windscreen, which was just plain irritating.
The Peugeot 207 suffers from the same problem. What might have looked good in a studio, to liven up a large slab of black plastic is less good out on the road. The other odd thing was the translucent switches for the some of the heating controls (and note, I said heating and not air con, as unless you specify the air conditioned model, what you get is just old style heating and ventilation controlled by three rotary dials), as well as the electric window switches on the driver’s and passenger side door. When the lights are on, they do not look so bad, but in broad daylight they just look very cheap and horrid. The dash itself comprises a main binnacle of speedo, rev counter, and smaller dials for fuel and water, which are clearly presented. The speedo only has indications for even numbers in multiples of 20, with just a little mark for the odd multiples, so judging 50 mph (important for Specs camera monitored parts of the motorway, for instance) was not that easy. The column stalks are physically different to those encountered in the outgoing Astra and Vectra, but also operate with that “one touch” approach to which I have finally got used. If ever there was a solution to a problem that was not there, this is it. There is a large rotary dial for lights on the right of the column. The wheel itself has controls for the stereo system mounted neatly on the spokes.
The best bit of the Corsa SXi has to be its seats. These special sports-style seats, which wrapped around the body quite nicely and hold you well in place were nicely trimmed, and proved to be very comfortable, although anyone who is large-bodied might have cause to disagree. You would not want to spend long in this car because of the dynamic failings, but if several of you did, then those in the back have a reasonable amount of space, but might feel a little claustrophobic because of those small side windows. Another irritant is that when the front seats are slid back after allowing someone to access the back, they do not return to their original setting, and have to be repositioned to suit the driver. There is a decent amount of space for their oddments to be stored, with a reasonable glove box, door bins, with a little shelf under the door handles, useful for pens and other small detritus that collects in family cars, and recesses in front of the gear lever and behind it. The boot is not huge. There is a false floor available, which can be used so that the load area is flush with the opening from the tailgate. Putting this in situ means that there is a shallow stowage area underneath, but it means that the boot is not very deep. It accommodated my suitcase, laptop back and coat and that was it. You can fold the asymmetrically split rear seats forward by simply dropping the backrests onto the cushion, creating a lot more space. The back rests can be set in one of two positions, thus if the rear passengers will sit a little more upright, there is a small amount more luggage room available.
Vauxhall have a number of different trim levels available for their cars, and the test car, an SXi, comes relatively high up the range. As well as the 16″ alloys that look good, but wreck the ride, you get front fog lights, darkened front and rear lights, a chromed exhaust pipe, those rather nice sports seats, a leather covered steering wheel, column mounted stereo controls, a height adjuster for the driver’s seat and a CD/MP3 player. Air conditioning costs extra, but when you look at the list price of the 3 door SXi, it strikes me that this is a reasonable deal.
It will come as no surprise to learn that I was not impressed by the Corsa, at least in this spec. I am sure that one with a better engine – either the 1.4 or perhaps the diesels – would score more highly, but the truly terrible ride and the road roar were just lamentably unacceptable, and are not failings that I have experienced in any of the Corsa’s competitors. Whilst lots of people clearly do rate this car sufficiently to buy it in large quantities, I do not, and were I in the market for a supermini, I would turn elsewhere. Almost anywhere else would be better than this one.