Paul Horrell 09 February 2012

The future of Vauxhall looks bright

Despite rumours GM may close the marque, Paul Horrell reports there are exciting times ahead

Vauxhall

If you follow the business news, you'll soon be reading stories that GM is thinking of closing or selling Vauxhall-Opel. GM's European division announces its 2011 results next week, and leaks say the losses will be "horrendous". We've been seeing hysterical editorials in places like the respected Forbes magazine telling the American management to cut Vauxhall-Opel loose.

It's not just the pain of the actual losses. It's a political matter. The US Government still has a stake in GM, and the American electorate are currently deeply hostile to the idea of subsidising foreign workers.
It all makes an entertainingly sensational read, but no separation is going to happen.

It's certainly true that the company needs to shut a factory, and sadly that means laying people off. But the chances of Vauxhall-Opel getting sold or closed are close to zero. The Insignia and the Astra, and the next Corsa, Mokka and all the rest, are all intricately linked with GM's wider global range. Much of the engineering and design work happens in Germany. So the Detroit bosses would not be happy if any of them went to an outside owner who might let the patents slip out of control.

GM would end up selling its cars against cheap knock-offs of themselves. That's why it wouldn't allow Saab to be sold and killed it instead: the 9-5 has a lot of engineering in common with so many vital GM vehicles. And if they can't sell Opel-Vauxhall, they won't close it either. That costs even more than keeping it open.

So what are they going to do to stem the losses? Happy to say, it's not just about slashing budgets. There are going to be cars that should at last put some excitement into Vauxhall.

This year we don't just get the brutal yet not un-slinky Astra VXR. Top Gear's Green Car of the Year the Ampera is coming our way too, a smooth and grown-up electric-drive car that's flat-battery-proof. We really could live with it. Then the Mokka, a pert crossover that should take the fight to the Nissan Juke and maybe even the lower-end Mini Countryman. In summer we'll see a new Cabrio, based on the Astra but - I happen to know - surprisingly different and far sleeker than the predecessor.

At the tail end of the year comes the car they codename the Junior, though it will get another badge. The hope is that it'll do for Vauxhall what the DS3 did for Citroen: it's a desirable, semi-premium little hatch. Not just a substitute for a three-door Corsa either, but an entirely separate model.

These cars all take Vauxhall into new territory, and interestingly, if you remember that the VXR is a coupe and the Focus ST a five-door, you find none of them has a Ford rival.

So Vauxhall-Opel is investing in new cars to dig its way out of its mess. And encouragingly in the face of the downturn, it doesn't intend to stop there. Next year is an all-new Corsa. Before 2013 they'll launch three new lightweight powerful diesel and petrol engine families to rectify the uncompetitiveness of their current 1.2 to 1.6 engines. And a twin-clutch box, and an eight-speed auto.

Last year Opel-Vauxhall got a new boss, Karl-Friedrich Stracke. He's an engineer, and it's clear he's going flat-out to take the fight to his best rivals. He wants to make the best cars, and no excuses. ‘We need to focus on engineering. Our problem was in the past we didn't. I want to win against VW, against Ford. The company needs to have that driving passion. If you don't, you will lose.'

In fact, he's so mad-keen on cars he wants to make a new range-topper above the Insignia, and a bigger crossover, and a roadster. The core of such vehicles are available from other GM divisions worldwide. But it'd take a brave - indeed foolhardy - person to believe that Vauxhall or its dealers have an iceberg in hell's chance of doing that top-end work at the moment. One of his first jobs is to have strong words with the dealers, who've got a lot to do with Vauxhall coming dead last in the 2011 JD Power satisfaction survey. Vauxhall has to do the basics before the fancy top-end plans.

To be fair, Stracke did say these expensive cars were just his personal wishlist, not a firm plan. ‘But that lightweight rear-drive new Cadillac ATS architecture is efficient. I could do a lot with that.' And 10 years ago we'd have said the same about Volkswagen's upmarket push, but now it does nicely with stuff like the CC and Touareg. I guess you need to stick your neck out to make progress.

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