Remembering GM Europe’s pretty but clawless felines.
Over the past fifty years or so, the B-segment supermini has been a staple of the European automotive landscape, to the extent that it has, so far at least, managed largely to resist the onslaught of the crossover. In the early days, there was some experimentation with the precise mechanical layout, but most automakers quickly settled on what they realised was the optimum in terms of cost and packaging; a transverse four-cylinder engine with an end-on transaxle gearbox and unequal-length driveshafts to the front wheels, MacPherson strut front suspension with a torsion-beam axle at the rear, disc front and drum rear brakes, all wrapped up in a three and/or five-door hatchback body.
Many young people began their driving careers in a supermini, not least because they were so popular with driving schools, then widely available second-hand. They were cheap to buy and, crucially, relatively cheap to insure, even for a novice driver without the benefit of a no-claims discount and with a better than evens chance of having a bump in their first year on the road.
Given the ubiquity of the supermini and the resulting economies of scale for its component set, it is unsurprising that European manufacturers were keen to apply it to a wider range of derivatives. First, there were the ‘warm’ or ‘hot’ hatch variants with larger engines and a smattering of ‘go-faster’ addenda such as spoilers, alloy wheels, body side stripes and, inside, sports seats, steering wheel and a rev-counter, but still with the same bodywork underneath the garnish.
For more conservative customers and markets(1), where the hatchback format was regarded as having too much in common with commercial vehicles, some manufacturers tacked on a ‘proper’ boot, with varying degrees of aesthetic success. Largely the same markets also displayed a taste for supermini-based estate cars. There were also some convertible variants(2), usually small-run coachbuilt conversions of the production three-door hatchback, but sales of these were insignificant relative to the mainstream production models.
Given that superminis were largely bought by young single people or retired ‘empty-nesters’, both groups having only occasional need for rear-seat accommodation, one obvious derivative would seem to be a coupé, which would sacrifice a degree of practicality for a more appealing and sportier silhouette. The friends of young drivers would be sufficiently agile and supple to cope with restricted entry to and egress from the rear seats, as well as the cramped accommodation therein, for shorter journeys at least. Likewise, the grandchildren of the retired.
The first mainstream European supermini that I recall being offered with different sheet-metal as a ‘coupé’ in addition to the regular hatchback was the 1981 second-generation Volkswagen Polo. This was, in reality, not a coupé at all, merely a more conventional looking supermini for those who found the utilitarian appearance of the regular ‘breadvan’ model with its vertical tailgate to be unpalatable. Forward of the B-pillar, both Polo variants were identical(3) and only the most charitable would regard the coupé as in any way sporting.
When one mentions B-segment sporting coupés of the 1990s to European car aficionados, the first that comes to mind (from a very small field) is the Ford Puma. Under the expert guidance of engineer Richard Parry-Jones, Ford had transformed its reputation for the dynamic qualities of its cars since the nadir of the execrable 1990 Escort Mk5. The most striking evidence of the transformation was the 1993 Mondeo Mk1, an all-new clean-sheet design.
However, Parry-Jones had also been applying his talents to the Fiesta. The 1989 third-generation model had been nothing special in dynamic terms, but the heavy makeover that produced the 1995 fourth-generation Fiesta incorporated many detail changes that improved its handling markedly, to the extent that development of a sporting coupé spinoff, the Puma, was approved and the car launched in 1997.
Ford was, however, not the first to launch a supermini-based coupé using all new sheet-metal. Rival GM beat it to the punch in 1994 with the Tigra, a coupé based on the second-generation Corsa B platform and mechanical package. It was first unveiled to the public in concept form at the Frankfurt motor show in September 1993 and received a hugely positive reception.
The Tigra was styled by a young team of designers under the direction of studio chief, Hideo Kodama. Although it used Opel’s contemporary (and 1990s generic) curvaceous organic styling theme, the Tigra was still a highly distinctive, pretty and pert car, with slim headlights and a low bonnet line, rising waistline with a broad reverse-rake B-pillar, large wraparound glass tailgate and a high, sharply truncated tail.
If its exterior appearance was bespoke, the interior was decidedly ordinary, with a dashboard carried over from the Corsa, which meant decent functionality, but lots of grey plastic and little to surprise and delight. The flecked seat upholstery looked like something more usually found on public transport. Moreover, rear-seat accommodation was very tight, with a pair of individual seats comprising nothing more than thinly upholstered separate pads for the seat cushion and backrests, with no head restraints. The headroom in particular was very limited and further compromised by the forward reach of the rear screen, which extended over the heads of rear-seat occupants, making them uncomfortably hot in sunny weather(4).
Of course, the Tigra was not a car designed with rear-seat passengers in mind. Its USP concerned how it looked and how it drove. The looks were bang on target, but what about the driving experience? Power was provided by GM’s Ecotec inline-four DOHC 16V fuel-injected engines in either 1.4-litre 89bhp (66kW) or 1.6-litre 105bhp (78kW) capacities and power outputs. Standard transmission was a five-speed manual, with the option of a four-speed automatic. UK prices at launch were just under £11k for the 1.4-litre entry-level model and just under £13k for the 1.6-litre version.
The Tigra would be built at the GM plant in Zaragoza, in north-eastern Spain, around 160 miles (260km) west of Barcelona. Car Magazine journalist Peter Dron visited the region to test drive the new model and reported his findings in the November 1994 issue of the magazine. Dron sampled both engines and found the smaller capacity unit to be the more engaging. “Both [engines] need to be revved to their 6,500rpm red line to deliver their best, but the smaller engine feels crisper. The 1.6’s extra power is rarely obvious – in fact, it feels the more flat-footed below its 4,000rpm torque peak.” The comparative figures for top speed and time from 0 to 60mph (97km/h) were 126mph (203km/h) and 9.5 seconds for the larger unit, and 118mph (190km/h) and 10.5 seconds for the smaller.
The higher-geared (than the Corsa) steering had 2.75 turns from lock to lock but still felt lacking somewhat in precision: “you constantly ‘nibble’ through bends to find the line. Overall handling is safe but not dull.” The suspension changes were generally regarded as an improvement: “the springs and dampers are well matched although, at times, vertical shocks from changes of surface or frost ridges seem severe. The 1.4-litre car, which has thinner anti-roll bars, seems to transmit fewer road shocks to occupants.”
Dron found the driving position comfortable, the only criticism being a lack of telescopic adjustment for the steering wheel. The chunky A-pillars “do not significantly obstruct the sightline” but “you have to allow for the blind spot caused by the nearside [B-pillar] when emerging from angled junctions.”
A month later, the magazine subjected the Tigra, in 1.4-litre form, to a Giant Test where it was pitched against the Fiat Punto GT, Honda Civic Coupé LSI and Peugeot 106 XSi 1.6. The Tigra’s strongest suit was, predictably, its stylish looks, but its performance and accommodation were judged to be lacking and it came third overall. In fairness, the winning Honda cost a substantial £1k more than the Tigra and the second-placed Peugeot was a smaller car from a class below.
The Tigra sold strongly on the basis of its attractive, sporting style, but it never really enjoyed the performance to meet expectations raised therein. This was all the more disappointing because GM’s contemporary 2.5-litre 168bhp (125kW) ‘Ellesmere Port’ V6 from the Vectra A would have fitted under the bonnet and was briefly considered before fears concerning the cost of insurance for young drivers at which the Tigra was targeted scuppered the idea. Nevertheless, a total of 256,392(5) Tigras were sold between 1994 and the end of production in July 2001. It was sold in Europe under the Opel and Vauxhall marques and also exported to Brazil and Mexico, where it was sold as a Chevrolet.
The Tigra name was revived in 2004 for another Corsa-based model, a then highly fashionable metal-roofed convertible carrying the suffix TwinTop. This time, Opel wisely dispensed with the near-useless rear seats, a decision that allowed the designers the freedom to style a very pretty car that had none of the awkwardness that blighted other similar supermini-based convertibles such as the Peugeot 206CC and Nissan Micra C+C. Recognising that this would be a niche model, Opel outsourced production to French coachbuilder Heuliez.
The Tigra TwinTop was powered by in-line four-cylinder engines in 1.4-litre 89bhp (66kW) and 1.8-litre 123bhp (92kW) versions, with a Fiat-sourced 1.3-Litre diesel offered in some markets. The car was launched at the Geneva motor show in March 2004 and went on sale in October of that year. It was sold under the Opel and Vauxhall marques in Europe, and as a Holden in Australia. The Tigra TwinTop remained in production until May 2009 and total sales were 90,874 units.
(1) Southern European and, oddly, Ireland.
(2) The Peugeot 205 and Talbot Samba, for example.
(3) The Polo Coupé also had a much narrower B-pillar and conventional round rear wheel arch, rather than the flat-topped version on the regular hatchback. Both these changes made it look less distinctive and more mainstream, just as intended.
(4) Especially so in the UK, where air-conditioning was not initially available, even as an option.
(5) Sales data from www.carsalesbase.com.
34 thoughts on “Tyger, Tyger Burning Bright”
Good morning, Daniel. A Tyger burning bright sounds about right. The Tigra was the first car I ever saw burning on the shoulder of the highway. It was in the same color as the first photo of this article. I could just see the back of the car as the rest was already engulfed in flames. The occupants had escaped the car and a queue of vehicles was forming, waiting for the fire brigade. When we passed the burning wreck the significant heat could be felt in the car.
I see very few Tigras around these days. There is a heavily tuned one around here somewhere, complete with Lamborghini doors. The thing looks horrific, but as it left the factory it wasn’t an unpleasant car to look at.
Here is the Tigra I was talking about.
It’s not my cup of tea either. There used to be another customized Tigra here before. I presume it had the same owner. Or maybe it’s the same car that has been modified again and repainted?
One supermini-based ‘exotic’ that’s undeservedly forgotten was the barchetta. Based on Punto Mk1 platform and mechanicals and truly coachbuilt by Maggiora in negligible numbers with lots of effort and manual work.
On the Tigra Mk1 you had to take off the front bumper to change headlight bulbs – surely not a way to keep running costs down for young owners.
The Tigra Mk2’s roof mechanism was shared with the Peugeot 206CC which also was made by Heuliez. Both were plagued with the usual Heuliez quality problems, particularly around their roof which in both cases had a tendency to get stuck semi-open, go out of adjustment and allow water in the car.
After the Fiesta yesterday, here comes another gem today, the Tigra. Thank you DTW.
A successful achievement by the designers to make a respectable product out of the available possibilities (design language, technical basis).
The interior is of course due to the costs and the spirit of the times. Forgivable.
Even today, the Tigra is still nice to look at.
The sales figures of the second edition were far below those of the first. The reason was probably not only the considerably higher price but also a change in fashion. Nowadays, this vehicle category is (unfortunately) completely extinct.
Good morning Fred. Four-seater tin-roofed coupé / cabrios were mainly abonominations, with their ridiculously huge windscreens and huge backsides. I was happy to see the back of them:
The Tigra TwinTop (stupid name) was much better proportioned, thanks to sensibly only having two seats.
The Tigra was a vert pretty car in both its incarnations. Predictably, the local hairdresser in my parents’ village owned a Tigra… I’ve always admired cars like these that make compelling propositions out of limited raw materials. The second Tigra was indeed notable for being just about the only non-awkward-looking CC, although the 206 CC still looks very acceptable to me, in stark contrast to its bigger brothers and its successor. I think there’s a second gen Tigra around here somewhere, as well as a 206 CC. I have to admire the owners, because it can’t be easy to keep them running.
Of course, going further back, small coupés in what would now be the B segment become more ubiquitous, especially from the likes of Fiat and Alfa, and the Honda CRX of course, which was just off the market when the Tigra arrived. It was replaced by the… somewhat less compelling CR-X del Sol. Nissan did their bit with the 100NX as well, as did Mazda; all part of Japan’s 1990’s boom era. Might I also suggest the Toyota Sera and Paseo? The Sera is not unlike the Tigra:
and, Freerk, it features gull wing doors as standard:
The Paseo is quite handsome as well, I think:
I have seen both around occasionally, even the Sera, if I remember correctly. Unfortunately, Toyota then tried to pass this off as a coupé:
Which, somehow brings me to four pictures of Toyotas for a piece about Opel. So, sorry for that…
No worries, Tom. We love below-the-line off-piste excursions here at DTW. As a commenter, I used to be a serial offender in this regard!
As regards the Toyota Sera, we covered it back in 2020:
Apologies for the awful title I chose for the piece…😝
😁 If it’s good enough for Ned Flanders, it’s good enough for anyone…
I missed the resemblance with the Toyota Sera. Well spotted, Tom.
The CRX Del Sol was the car for those who thought folding hardtops are too simple.
[video src="https://s3-us-west-1.amazonaws.com/hmt-forum/honda_delsol_roof.mp4" /]
Thanks, all. I rather like the slight absurdity of this kind of engineering-in-miniature. Although I’m not technically minded enough to fully appreciate it, I do appreciate the madness that goes into engineering something that complicated, seemingly just for the heck of it. I like it rather more than engineering fancies like “we’re building a 1000bhp, 400kph supercar. Because we can.” Although the end result is awesome in its own right.
I suppose the Sera was simply following the then current design trends, albeit with a bit of that late 1980’s “aero-futuristic” Japanese flavour added. It is remarkable that both makers ended up plumping for those enormous rear windows, canopies almost. The Renault 11 and Porsche 924 were already quite old by then.
I hadn’t made the connection with the Toyota Sera, Tom, but it’s an interesting comparison with the Tigra.
Daniel, I think you were perhaps being a little mean to the Polo Coupé; it was more of a hatchback, but some versions were pretty sporty, such as the G40.
And although it’s not a coupé in style, thank you for reminding me of the Citroën Visa convertible.
The Visa Décapotable was one of the last cars with a real French name.
Thanks Daniel, for reminding us of the Tigra; I always liked them, especially the first generation. When it was presented at the 1993 Frankfurt motorshow, there was also a convertible variant on the stand of which I made this photo. Unfortunately that one never progressed past the pre-production phase:
Looks wise the Tigra was pretty decent apart from lacking a more aggressive front, even if it was dynamically inferior to the Ford Puma and could have at least benefited from either a tuned 1.6 or larger 1.8 engine to match the Puma’s 1.7 engine.
Not a fan of the 2nd Tigra its coupe convertible with retractable hardtop, even though it looks significantly better than the original.
Nice article about a nice car Daniel.
I remember considering the twin top as the only steel roof retractable cabrio with decent styling… of course it benefited from the lack of back seats but even still it had a nice silhouette both open and closed!
I always thought these type of cars were better suited for girl/female drivers, excuse me for any discrimination here, but I once saw a famous local male star driving a tigra and, him being a bit on the muscular type, the car felt one size too petite for him.
An “entertaining” ad for the 2nd generation Tigra:
Some creative at an ad agency thought that was a good idea…and persuaded Opel it was too…amazing!
Some more interesting background and pictures, from Car Design Archives:
Thank you Daniel.
After thinking about yours today’s article several times, I noticed at the eight-hundred-and-one* mark that there is definitely another quote hidden in the headline.
As a visitor with a cheap card like I am, I first thought of Toyah aka Mrs Fripp. But because I still have a working internet connection, I was able to research that it’s apparently not quite so banal – and it’s probably more William Blake.
You guys are killing me.
* This is my tit-for-tat.
Hi Fred. Knowing little about popular music and having questionable taste in that medium, my reference was solely to Blake and I’m perplexed by your reference to 801. Perhaps you would be good enough to enlighten me? 😁
I have to it’s a mystery, to me.
* have to say, even.
“We are the 801, We are the central shaft” is a quote from the song “The True Wheel” from Brian Eno’s second album “Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy)”*.
(The band “A Certain Ratio” named themselves after another line of lyrics from this song).
“801” was later the name of a (short-lived but terrific) band of Phil Manzanera, Bill MacCormick, Francis Monkman, Simon Phillips, Lloyd Watson and Brian Eno.
*and here we have the Tigra again…
Fred, I’m flattered that you might think me capable of such a highbrow musical reference. You must be confusing me with our esteemed editor, who knows all about that sort of thing. 😁
Fred: Even by your standards, that’s an impressive piece of juxtaposition. Oddly, I have that little ditty rattling around in my head on quite a regular basis. Of course if we refer back to Freerk’s original comment, we could instead consider ‘Baby’s On Fire’ from Mr. Eno’s ‘Here Come the Warm Jets’ debut.
Sorry folks, talk amongst yourselves for a moment…
For the first supermini-based coupé, what about the Peugeot 104 Z of 1973? I know the regular 104 didn’t get a tailgate for another couple of years, but in every other respect it fits the bill.
I cannot disagree, Jonathan. Peugeot certainly ‘coupéd’ the hell out of the 104 to produce this:
I always thought the 104ZS looked like it had been (very neatly) rear-ended by a truck. 😁
A friend’s wife had one of these. Predictably, she is a hairdresser. I remember a common problem was that if the door was slammed with all orifices closed the rear glass had a habit of popping out. I think this was rectified later on, perhaps with one of those mechanisms by which the window drops a little when the door is opened?
Another memory of the Tigra was the hilarity that ensued one day when the head of PE at my high school, a stocky 6’3″ former goal keeper for Sheffield Wednesday, turned up in his new 1.6i in Burnt Orange. As you can imagine he was ribbed mercilessly for buying a girl’s car (such was our schoolboy humour at the time).
Also thanks whoever brought up the Visa Decap’. I had one of these in the summer before starting university and it was extremely fun.
A design I immediately admired from afar, and one that seems to have aged extremely well. At the time the Puma debuted, I felt it was the superior design. 25 years on that is not the case for me any longer, and I actually find some aspects of the Puma downright ugly now… One of the things I feel that really showcases the overall “rightness” of the original Tigra’s design is how well the car looks in all sorts of colors, and Opel did a great job selecting hues that really suit the car. There aren’t many designs I can think of that can look equally attractive in acrid greenish yellow, orange, lapis, teal, metallic green, pastel yellow, etc. They work so well it makes a nearly universally flattering shade like silver almost offensively drab by comparison!
In regards to other early supermini coupes, the arguable progenitor of the current interpretation of such a vehicle, the Autobianchi Primula, added a trunked coupe in 1965 to complement the range, and if you dare to include a very bizarre looking Japanese Nissan, the Cherry coupe debuted in 1971 and came with a proper hatch.
Hi cjiguy. I agree with you about the Puma:
I’ve always thought it looked less than properly planted on the road, especially at the rear. I don’t like the rather uncertain bodyside crease that runs forward from beneath the rear light clusters, and so much of the rear window glass is blacked out that the rearward visibility is dreadful.
I always felt that the Tigra was one of those cars which, when the concept was shown, journalists would gush and say “build it like it is, regardless”, overly enthusing over the possibilities of a niche vehicle, then, once it had been produced, would criticise it for the lack of practical rear space etc. It still looks good to me though.