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.