Driving Saturn’s (Maybe) Future Small Car

By Andy Bannister

03.04.2008

If the trend towards smaller cars in North America continues to grow, chances are before long Saturn will have to look seriously at offering the European Opel Corsa as its entry-level car.

The Corsa slots in below the Astra in Europe and competes with models like the Yaris, and Jazz (Fit in the US). One of its deadliest rivals is Ford’s long-running Fiesta – soon to be seen in a new version which will be heading Stateside. Another big competitor in Europe is VW’s Polo, also bound for the US market.

Roughly the size of the Korean-made Chevrolet Aveo, the Corsa is now in its fourth generation and has grown up a lot since its 1982 original, GM’s first ever small hatchback. Although principally a European product, Corsa derivatives – sometimes from previous generations – are also built in countries as far apart as South Africa, Brazil and Mexico.

I recently had the chance to drive the current Corsa, during a visit to the Portuguese island of Madeira, and was impressed by the solidity and “grown-up” feel of the car and its quality interior, a huge step ahead of its Korean-built cousin. Eventually, Corsa and Aveo will share platforms in the next generation.

In case you’ve not heard of it, Madeira is a dot of volcanic rock in the Atlantic Ocean, about 300 miles off the coast of North Africa. It combines sub-tropical vegetation with some pretty amazing scenery, being a island where every square inch of fertile soil is utilised to grow crops meaning the island is connected by a network of sometimes impossibly steep and narrow roads.

This was unfortunate in terms of my introduction to the little Opel, as my Corsa’s 1200cc petrol engine, whilst perfectly adequate and even reasonably sprightly on the flat, floundered badly when confronted with the type of gradients Madeiran drivers have to cope with. On some journeys I literally never made it out of second gear and first gear was often the only way to make the car climb the slopes.

As a result, fuel consumption – usually the saving grace of most small cars – was certainly higher than expected. Despite being on an island measuring just 35 miles long and 13 miles wide I needed to fill the tank twice in less than two weeks.

Even the Madeira’s fast highways, blasted out of solid rock and connected by an engineering marvel of tunnels and bridges, contain often quite sudden and severe gradients. Making progress on the fast highway near the south and west coasts required concentration and a knack for anticipating gradients.

Elsewhere, the main requirement is for an agile car able to steer out of danger when meeting a local heavy truck or bus careering energetically around a hairpin bend – no mean feat, as Madeiran roads often have a steep precipice on one side and a deep and vicious gutter on the other.

While road surfaces are suitable for all types of cars, the mountainous terrain means that rainfall on the island is high, and when it comes it does so with a vengeance. Waterfalls appear from nowhere crashing down onto roads or at the mouths of tunnels, and on some minor roads it is not uncommon to have to swerve around fallen boulders or – occasionally – to have to stop altogether
and clear them off the tarmac.

I was slightly disappointed to be given the five door version of the Corsa, which is roomy and quite attractive but has nothing to make it stand out from a crowd of similar-looking rivals. The real looker of the range is the three-door, which has a substantially different body resembling a small coupé. No Corsa four-door saloon is offered yet in Europe but no doubt one could be easily conjured up to compete with the new Fiesta which will have a three-box variant alongside the familiar three-door and five-door models which Europeans tend to prefer.

Cars inevitably seem to get bigger with each successive generation, and certainly the Corsa is much longer and wider than it used to be and nearly large enough to compete with models in the class above in terms of interior space.

Ironically, I found this a drawback during my trip, as my Corsa was not as agile as I expect small hatchbacks to be, nor was it nearly as easy to slot into a tight parking space as I thought, leading to quite a few anxious moments about the possibility of damaged paintwork.

Inside, the car – when not straining every sinew to climb a hill – was commendably quiet and refined, with a good driving position and excellent visibility. I found the indicator stalks unnecessarily fiddly, though, making signalling a somewhat hit-and-miss affair. Driving abroad means you inevitably “go native” after a while as you gain confidence and begin to drive like a local. I found that the car was at its best speeding along the narrow one-way streets and squares at the heart of Madeira’s old capital Funchal, a city certainly not designed with the motor car in mind, being founded a few years before Christopher Columbus, a regular visitor, set off on his epic journey to the Americas.

With standard alloys wheels, air-conditioning, electric windows, this Corsa was well equipped despite being relatively low down the company’s pecking order – 1400cc and 1600cc petrol models are available, as are torquier diesels.

Certainly, it felt and looked pleasant inside, lacking the blanked-out switches, painted metal and cheap trim which afflict many lower-priced cars

Many guide books to Madeira strongly advise against self-drive and this is capitalised on by the island’s fleet of yellow taxis, almost all of which are products of Mercedes-Benz, many of them almost new E-class models. These are often seen gliding serenely towards some beauty spot with a full load of tourists aboard. Buses are another popular option for reaching the more remote towns and villages, and are driven with great spirit and speed, often to the consternation of unwary pedestrians and oncoming drivers.

The island’s recent wealth means many of the old cars that used to be a delightful feature of any visit to mainland Portugal or its islands are much less in evidence nowadays. Perhaps the exception to this rule is the good old Renault 4, the practical hatchback launched by the French manufacturer in 1961 and sold for over 30 years.

Portugal had its own factory making these distinctive little runabouts, and many private motorists and city council and government agencies on Madeira continue to run them, particularly the later 4GTL model, whose 1100cc engine is better suite to the island’s terrain than earlier 750cc or 850cc models.

High and remarkably narrow by modern standards, the Renault 4 is a sight to behold when cornering enthusiastically – it rolls so much you might think is would topple over – but one thing it has in bucket loads is character. By contrast the Opel is just a little bit more boring than I expected.

As a reliable and smart companion for everyday journeys around the streets of suburbia, though, this Corsa is at least as good as most of its European rivals. With Ford’s new Fiesta on the horizon and Saturn’s range increasingly converging with the European Opel line-up, it would seem a logical additional offering if it can be imported from somewhere where the exchange rate doesn’t mean it will be unprofitable.

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Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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3 Comments

  1. The Corsa could make it here if it is given another engine. If a gets an engine that is a little more powerful but still thrifty, then Americans would go for it.

    Better yet, a hybrid setup that would deliver at 60 mpg.

  2. Too small for Americans, I think. A lot of fat Americans couldn’t even fit in it.

  3. We want more SUVs!

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