Better Never Than Not at All

Recently we have been debating Opel and Vauxhall. The general consensus is not that good for a brand fielding its best products since the last lot of good products…

1995 Opel Vectra “B”: source

…which, if you think about it, it is pretty much most of their cars with one very debatable model and one not debatable model. For reasons known only to Opel and Vauxhall’s marketing staff, Opel have been tarred with a Clarkson-shaped brush. Good old Sir Jeremy, now Lord, Clarkson, saw fit to damn the Vectra “B” because it wasn’t an Alfa Romeo, Porsche or BMW M3 but happened to suit the needs of regular motorists.

In so doing he seemed to crystallise a lot of bad will that had formed around Vauxhall, bad will that I feel was probably mostly grounded in some lingering class war. I agree that the Vectra “B” lacked a lot of excitement. However, other car makers have offered cars which lacked a lot of excitement and, today, still do but without being on the receiving end of what I can only call knee-jerk vilification.

The candidates are now presented….

The Escort of 1990.

1990 Ford Escort: source

The 2010 Citroen C4.

2010 Citroen C4: source

The 1995 Mercedes W210.

1995 Mercedes W210.

The 1995 Nissa Almera.

Nissan Almera saloon.

The 1981 Renault 9/11 duo (here’s an 11).

Tonal monochrome produced a clearer image: 1983-1898 Renault 11 TXE

Each of these cars is some form of mediocrity and even allowing that the Vectra B is on the same level, the five companies responsible for the stars shining above this text don’t generate the same level of oppobrium.

About the 1990 Ford Escort, Honest John says, “The 1990 original was a deadly dull and deeply cynical car, dreadful unassisted steering, rust kills them off.” Since then Ford have fielded not a few duds, some less fairly judged than others (the Fusion got a kicking it didn’t deserve) but recent cars are not that inspired.

About the C4, Honest John says: “Array of warning chimes can be annoying. Relatively crude suspension not in the same class as the Focus or Golf. EGS ‘automatic’ takes getting used to.” HJ calls the styling neat. I call it garbled and over-wrought and the craftsmanship was shoddy. I reviewed the 2015 version and forgot I did so until now. Citroen is possibly one of the most persistently disappointing brands. There have been exceptions. The C6 is an honourable attempt in recent times. The rest is mediocrity plus airbumps. They sell very well though, being now a Skoda/Volvo/Hillman sort of brand (I was thinking 340 more than 240 and 740 there).

About the W210 Mercedes, Honest John says: “Severe, catastrophic rust problem, body and structure; even brake pipes and fuel delivery lines.”  If nobody really expected excitement from Opel/Vauxhall, everyone expected quality from MB and this repellent car under-delivered hugely. MB continue to market a very variable range of cars. All forgiven though. One simply never hears much about this lump except maybe from DTW.

About the Renaults 9 and 11, Honest John says: “After decades of flamboyance, this was a step too far towards boring conformity for Renault, and its lack of fans bears testament to this.” Today Renault hardly stands out. While on the styling front they are doing some interesting things, none of them are driver’s cars and none innovate in terms of engineering. Nothing wrong with that; it sells cars.

About the Almera, Honest John says: “A Focus, Leon or Corolla of the same age is nicer to drive, especially on a twisty road.”  On balance, despite the neat design, I consider it a wasted effort, one among many from Nissan at that time.

For the sake of balance, Honest John says this about the Vectra B: “Lacklustre handling, fares badly in reliability surveys and can suffer from a long list of mechanical problems.” That puts the car in the middle of this pack though some owners find reliability has been okay. The RAC says this: “As a used buy, however, the Vectra range makes a lot of sense. The large range, proven mechanicals and of course, Vauxhall’s extensive dealer network all add up to sensible, low cost family motoring.”

In the end, the Vectra is just a car and Opel only a car company. The bigger point is about what we know and what we think. I laboured for a long time under the misapprehension that motoring scribes were reliable sources of opinion and absorbed a lot of their biases. At one point those same same scribes rather liked Opel. I have a wad of favourable articles about the Senator, Monza and Ascona.

Then, when I can’t say, “it’s just a Vauxhall” began being the standard position. And that was, for a long time, my own view. My experience of the cars changed in the last few years having driven most of their range and having applied a fresh look to the much-maligned Astra F. All I would like to do is to get readers to question what they read (apart from this article, of course) and try to find other bits of received wisdom that are not founded on enough evidence.

I’ve made my point about Opel. Are there other makes or models which might be re-evaluated up or down? Over to you…

Author: richard herriott

I like anchovies. I dislike post-war town planning.

32 thoughts on “Better Never Than Not at All”

  1. Question: if Opel happened to offer cars that suited the needs of regular motorists, then why are they bankrupt?
    Isn’t it just so that the needs and expectations of the average motorist have changed and Opel didn’t suitably react to this change?
    How did it happen that when the Vectra B was on offer BMW sold more Threes than Opel Vectras and Ford Mondeos combined?
    How did it happen that the medium-sized three-box segment never had been bigger and at the same time Opel’s and Ford’s sales numbers in this category dwindled away?
    How comes Opel stopped making Omegas and Ford stopped making Granadas at roughly the same time BMW started making Ones and Audi started making A3s?

    And not only did Opel miss market change truly big time, the Vectra B was a terrible car on its own. It’s Opel’s all time low in build quality and uninspiring to drive, to name just two of its biggest weaknesses. Being corrosion prone and having durability problems didn’t particularly help, either.

    1. The first question is a good one. Opel have been selling top ten cars the entire time. My answer is that it suited GM to make them lose money. McDonalds in Denmark hasn’t made any money for decades either. And Google struggles to break even in Ireland. Simply, GM made Adam Opel pay for GM services even as Opel designed cars for global sale.

      Your question about BMW selling more 3s than Ford and Opel sold Mondeos and Vectra’s points to a change in the market, not an Opel-unique issue.

      Ditto the Omega/Granada question.

      As my point above show, others made not-so-good cars too (though I think the Vectra better than that) and were forgiven. Also, there’s objective evidence (RAC) the Vectra’s not so bad.

      More interestingly, is there another brand you (and other readers) deserve reappraisal? I’ve made a case for Opel. Is there some other marque who should get similar re-estimation?

  2. I disagree on the effect of some of the examples presented. Everyone knew the MkV Escort was a bad joke at the time and it got absolutely pasted in the press. Ford as good as admitted it was a total shed, too. I also don’t recall anyone saying the R9 was anything better than a rental heap for a family trip to Marseille, either. The real question is not why the treatment of these is different to that of some Opels. Rather, it is: what is it about Opel (and Vauxhall) that makes them so resistant to fair, reasonable analysis?

    Let us say, for the sake of argument, that the majority of the cars they build are acceptable-to-good. If this is indeed the case, one is left with a troubling conclusion – that the core problem lies in perceptions of the brand. This is problematic because marque perceptions are exceedingly difficult to turn around. One of the biggest problems is that when it comes to negative connotations, everyone has an opinion about what is problematic, few of which coincide. That is to say that negativity begets negativity.

    I risk getting red-carded at DTW for mentioning the R-word, but I honestly think that GM’s generally unserious approach to racing made for an important difference against other mainstream brands, and Ford especially. Back in the day, Ford had Rothmans Escorts blasting along every rally stage in the country. Vauxhall had Russell Brookes’ Manta with ‘Andrews Heat for Hire’ on the flanks. As far as competition is concerned, that pretty much sums up the marketing nous of the two companies right there. This is before you get to Ford’s spending on Formula 1, Sierras in touring car racing, Focuses in rallying, etc, etc compared to Opel’s essentially nonexistent presence in any of these categories (Holden touring cars don’t count).

    The thing is, prolonged exposure and success in racing is not about technology transfer, or even to a large extent ‘sell on Monday’. In the end, it is largely about building brand affinity and iconic imagery. It’s true that the vast majority of people don’t watch motorsport or have any interest in it. But the people who form the public’s opinions about cars more often than not do. Many of the journalists writing mean things about Opels and Vauxhalls probably had their early automotive consciousness impacted by Ford’s huge presence in racing. The fact an RS500 has precisely zippo to do with a Sierra 1.6 is entirely irrelevant. It is a question of essentially buying long-term goodwill toward the brand. So, sure, the MkV Escort was atrocious and a bunch of other Fords around that time were no great shakes either. But as long as the halo stuff for both road and track kept appearing (oftentimes the same thing), the goodwill kept on. In this sense, think of the homologation specials as shiny, distracting baubles. Opel got blown out of the water for decades on this front and that just isn’t something you can fix overnight. Arguably, it isn’t even something you can fix for an entire generation, if the perceptions are that solidly embedded.

    1. Please don’t forget that a certain Walter Röhrl was world rally champion with a Rothman’s sponsored Opel Ascona 400 in 1982, humiliating the all conquering Audi quattros.

      Opel raced a Lotus Omega in the German championship without much success. Only after BMW analysed Opel’s CAD data did they find that all forces from the roll cage were fed into the engine block, distorting it until the crankshaft snapped. BMW suggested some design changes that cured these problems. So far for Opel’s competence in racing. BMW did this at not cost for the sake of the sport because they could not see a competitor struggling so much.

    2. “Please don’t forget that a certain Walter Röhrl was world rally champion with a Rothman’s sponsored Opel Ascona 400 in 1982, humiliating the all conquering Audi quattros.”

      Case in point. Who on earth remembers that? Even when they did have some success, they did absolutely nothing with it. The fact the Ascona’s world title is basically entirely forgotten isn’t just down to the fact that Rohrl was the towering talent of his generation and everyone intrinsically understood the Ascona was an also-ran without him. Opel were utterly clueless about how to utilise the gifts that fell into their lap (firing Rohrl for his trouble was just a particularly high-profile piece of idiocy). Same deal with the DTM Calibras, really – I had honestly forgotten these even existed until I saw them referenced recently. By contrast, people really remember the airborne 155s.

  3. I also think the Vectra B is a rare and special case, in that there is a body of opinion that says it was actually a worse car than its predecessor. I have no opinion on this matter either way, but feel it should be noted. Part of the stinging barbs may be due to that fact, not merely the simple fact the Vectra was mediocre on its own merits.

  4. Regarding Stradale’s point, when the Cavalier Mk 3 was current, one of our family cars was a 1.8L, on the proverbial 3 year lease. By the standards of the time it could be considered an honest, pleasant, if unexciting car, a good motorway companion with its characteristic high 5th gear, and needing no attention whatsoever beyond routine maintenance.

    Soon afterwards, we had a Vectra as a loan car for several weeks, of similar, perhaps slightly higher spec.

    No doubt, under the skin, the Vectra had significant improvements in aspects like crashworthiness, updated powertrains, etc. But although it’s a long time ago, I do remember being struck that, simply to drive or ride in, it didn’t feel a significant step forward from the Mk 3. More like a slightly updated version. ‘Our’ example had a heavier feeling to drive, and when pulling away briskly in first gear, particularly uphill, a driveline vibration which shouldn’t have been there.

  5. “when it comes to negative connotations, everyone has an opinion about what is problematic, few of which coincide.”
    This is the key. Bear with me while I try to marry up a broad brush go at the wider global context with what I see as the social psychology of the France and UK I actually see daily.
    The US and Europe are hugely over-producing cars, so not all makers can make money. Commonality of metal bits can hide that with sales to India/China/S America etc, whether built there or not. Plus finance deals, which do make the money.

    Socially, France and UK more polarised now, with “anti-élitism” flavour of the decade:
    “I’m a pleb and I don’t care who knows”, so I buy Fiat/Opel and especially Dacia.
    “I’m a pleb but you might not guess” = Skoda/several of the ridiculous plethora of Renault (especially Twingo/Clio)/Seat/Fiesta…
    “I’m a patriot above all — or compelled to show I’m integrated” = any French Big Three: how else could such indifferent cars sell so many?
    A variation on this is:
    “I’m rural, getting in the food you all need” = any off-roader will do for this, but big farmers go Rangy if high-spec Nissan etc looks too military. Ordinary Landys seem to have a special cachet: “I actually do the work.”

    “I’m middling, so don’t blame me for the country’s difficulties: it’s not my fault” = Mégane/Scenic/C5/308/3008 etc.

    “I’m standing apart from all this ‘identity’ stuff” = Focus and, crucially, most basic Audis.

    “Eat dirt, plebs, and outamyway” = most BMs/Mercs/Audi fastbacks.
    Etc etc.

    With Opel, Corsa coupé sells better than the saloon. In pro-natalist France, young families go straight to a basic 4/5-door Astra for all the kids’ gubbins.

    Time for my second coffee.

  6. There’s a delicious irony in GME products being a victim of class snobbery, given that this company led the way in marketing different trim levels so that people could tell you had a better car than your neighbour.

    ‘Oh, new motor John? The GL? Mine’s a GLS…’

    1. GME took this to greater lengths than anyone else I seem to recall. I’m sure I saw Cavaliers with “ABS” “Automatic” etc. on the back as well as the trim level. They also seemed to have more trim badges than everyone else.

      Who can forget that utter wazzock on that 90s driving documentary talking about how he’ll pull over to let an SRi pass but not a GL?

  7. Thanks for your comments today.
    What didn’t happen was for commentators to suggest other marques in need of reappraisal. Is everyone content with the way the other marques are generally perceived? I am most interested in upward re-evaluations.

    1. I personally feel Toyota should get more respect than they seem to. Interestingly, in the wake of Toyota closing its factory in Melbourne this week, one of the rags had a piece talking about the lack of emotional impact this had compared to Ford’s closure, or Holden’s impending one:

      It rambles a fair bit and it’s hard to identify a clear point, but as far as I can tell, the gist seems to be, Toyota failed to tap into an emotional connection, and become a part of Australian culture, in the way other brands did. I suppose this is true to an extent, but why? Is it solely because they didn’t fight it out for overall honours at Mount Panorama? No-one would ever say an XD Falcon or a Kingswood was exciting, or anything other than pretty stodgy really. But then, Ford and GM-H had GT-HOs, and XU1s, and Brock Commodores, to burnish the legend somewhat. Even Chrysler had the Charger. I myself am quite partial to a tidy E80 Corolla Twin Cam 16, but they’re not really in the same string-pulling emotional league, are they?

      And yet notwithstanding that, Toyota has arguably some of the most interesting and innovative mass-production technology of any manufacturer. I believe Hybrid Synergy Drive will come to be recognised as one of the great unsung technological achievements, precisely because it is so remarkably normal and unnerving to pilot – and this lack of growing pains has caused people to underplay its significance. I am told that the HSD system is determined internally by Toyota to be one of the most reliable components they make, which is saying something. I don’t believe many other companies could have pulled it off as well as Toyota did. And I am a fan of the Prius – I think people who criticise it as dull, boring, bland, etc are either subscribing to the prejudice of a hive mind or are simply not terribly interesting themselves. The thing about the Prius is this – the hybrid tech works extremely well, but so does the rest of the car. That is, it makes eminent sense as this generation’s Camry. They are impressively spacious, very practical with the hatchback (arguably more so than the current Camry, and in a smaller footprint), utterly reliable, and ‘good enough’ to drive.

    2. “I personally feel Toyota should get more respect than they seem to.
      […] the gist seems to be, Toyota failed to tap into an emotional connection, ”
      I remember CAR magazine’s GBU section where they commented
      “Corolla, Carina, makes your washing cleana..”
      Toyota cars are four wheeled white goods.
      Perfectly functional but unappealing.

    3. Stradale: so that’s Toyota nudged up one. I can see some merit in that. The waku-doki thing is working out and they’ve been diligent engineers. Anyone else?

    4. Vanilla Subarus seem to signify almost nothing in Europe (unlike the hot-shoe versions, which carry an increasing whiff of feral danger as they age) but in USA they very definitely say something about their owners – university educated, Democrat, probably gay (or at least socially liberal).

      I am not sure where I am going with this, but they seem to occupy that part of the market once owned by Saab… slightly off-beat, a little superior, but not flashy.

  8. Boy, if I ever saw someone damning something with faint praise? If you want to upsell the virtue of the car, don’t compare it with the worst kind of heaps from the last couple of decades.

    We’ve talked about this before, the death of the middle market. And I don’t think Ford or GM could’ve forseen thirty years ago that their entire market sector would slowly wither and die.

    I see it as the 60’s redux, where the 2-litre executive market totally eclipsed the old 3-litre vanguard. Rover and Triumph was on the track already then, but lost it on the way. At the end, it was BMW that won the day, only following Them and Alfa Romeo in their path.

    1. The death of the middle market can’t have been such a great surprise as it happened outside the car world first with consequences like M&S leaving the Continent and fighting serious trouble on home turf.
      Carel Rhys from CAIR institute in Cardiff published a very interesting car market analysis about twenty years ago. His predictions were that manufacturers like Ford and Opel would get under serious pressure from premium brands pushing into their market from above and from cheap Asian manufactuers selling their goods on prices.

    2. Ingvar: that historic parallel is a good reference. It’s worth following up.
      I didn’t mean to damn the Vectra by reference to those five cars; it was more that I wanted to show that at least five other brands had offered at least one unremarkable-to-bad car and survived. Frankly, Citroen deserve to be where Vauxhall are now (C6 aside, it being a revenant).

  9. The Vectra B is highly regarded in Brazil. Until its introduction, Chevrolet had long ruled the market of mid-size cars, first with the Opala, then with two generations of the Monza and the late introduction of the Omega A (launched here in 1992). In 1997, the Vectra was selling like hot cakes to the Brazilian middle class and so it did until 2000, when the Civic topped it. Since then, the Brazilian non-SUV/crossover mid-size car market is a duopoly of Corollas and Civics.

    So, is the Vectra B mediocre? Yes, but it could be worse. Whilst I’d rather have a Laguna Mk1 (which, in my book, aged rather well) or a Rover (either a 45 or a 75), I like how the Vectra’s side mirrors integrate into the A-pillar surroundings. The C-pillar and the front grille are also nicely done. As for the other mediocre cars you mentioned, Richard, I have a soft spot for the Escort, now send all others to the crusher.

    And what about a Kia Shuma?

    1. Yes to the Laguna Mk1: it has aged well. The form language is really consistently applied.
      The 45 puzzles me. I don’t want to rudely dismiss your suggestion – can you convince me a bit more on that one please?

  10. Stradale mentions the positive impact Ford’s racing activities had upon customer’s perceptions of the brand, and I wouldn’t dispute that at all. Certain people to this day, still get weak-knee’d at the sight of an RS-Escort of a certain vintage. You don’t get that sort of thing with Vivas or Kadetts.

    Another reason for GM’s lack of regard I would contend was the marketing of their UK arm. My abiding memory of Vauxhall during the 1990’s and immediate pre-millennium era was the toe-curling embarrassment of a generation of Griff Rhys-Jones ‘Once Driven, Forever Smitten’ TV spots. I would suggest these did more to cement the idea of the Vauxhall owner’s image being one of capitulation to a suburban death by a thousand Midsomer Murder episodes.

    So while at the same time, Ford regaled us with the unforgettable Brian May-penned, ‘Everything We Do Is Driven By You’, campaign they somehow managed to swerve the same terminally naff brush. Vauxhall’s non-image I believe, gave Clarkson and his ilk licence to single out GM’s cars, which in most senses were broadly on par with those of Ford. (At least until another chap by the name of Jones showed up…)

  11. One brand that, in spite of sales, are being looked down on is the Dacia. I think it will be adjusted upwards.

    1. Isn’t interesting they aren’t hated though? Dacia didn’t attempt to sell iffy cars like Skoda did in Western Europe though they did sell some. They’ve made no effort at pretension so it’s “take me as I am”. Would you agree that their transition from zero to acceptable will be shorter and easier than Skoda’s.
      A good suggestion, by the way.

  12. Very much enjoying this debate. I have a lot of sympathy for what Richard is trying to do here. I do think Citroën is worthy of reappraisal, although I think I could predict the outcome. I would add that it does seem to be putting together a new thread for its range, although some of the models yet to be addressed (vanilla C4, C5) may be more tricky to design in the new idiom. May I add that I don’t like the new vibe, but can at least appreciate that the management is trying to apply cohesion.

    I’d like to nominate Mercedes and Volkswagen for reappraisal. The former because I think it has completely lost its high-ground position over the last decade. The latter because Volkswagen looks like it is at risk of being swallowed by its Skoda, Seat and Audi brethren. Volkswagens have become the ultimate middle of the road cars, albeit sensibly engineered, well built and with very nice perceived quality, even within their own family. The fact that it’s designers are resorting to ‘with added gimmick’ styling only serves to underline this point in my mind.

    1. It´s no problem.
      So, are you trying to nudge Citroen up a step? They seem to have been reinventing themselves since 1992.
      Wild XM, muddled Xantia, boring ZX, inscrubable C5, plain Saxo, geometric C1 Mk1, Germanic C5, classical C6, DS range, airbumpy cars… that´s all over the place, isn´t it?

    2. Speaking of Mercedes, AutoNews posted an interview with the fragrant J. Mays the other day. In it he criticised the German manufacturers on design, suggesting they are not being true to their culture. Singling out the Sindelfingen massive, he said, “I could not tell you what Mercedes is doing, but it’s not German,” before recommending a ‘quieter design language and more continuity’. Dear lord, anyone would think he was suggesting a return to VAHH. The man’s a heretic I tell you!

    3. No idea what VAHH stands for, but I don’t like the sound of it. Neither sensual, nor pure.

  13. Clarkson didn’t go hard enough on the Vectra B.

    It was up against the Mondeo, and followed the Omega, both excellent cars. The Vectra looked good compared with the Ford Mondeo, went very well, managed bumpy roads unlike its predecessor and had the world at its feet. It was ruined by its unyielding front seats, poor driving position (cue armrest-gearchange-ulnar interaction), early Ecotec implosions, disinterested dealers and general GM apathy.

    Then again it was a depressing time in carland what with Ford wandering in and out of design and Citroen losing its way completely.

    1. Mr Godwin – we meet again. Thanks for dropping by. I am going to have to make a point of testing a Vectra B. I imagine these kinds of tests aren’t done. As you may have noticed I’ve made some surprising discoveries by doing my own road-tests.
      Why was GM/Vauxhall so uninterested in selling or supporting the B? It was an important market. Theories?

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