Just two days ago Mika Hakkinen won the Belgian Grand Prix and now here I am at Spa, braking hard for Bus Stop corner and changing down three gears through the semi-automatic gearbox to make a daring overtake myself. Only it's the number 27 to Francorchamps that I'm passing, not Michael Schumacher, and I'm driving a Vauxhall Corsa, not a McLaren.
The optional Easytronic gearbox is just one high-tech highlight of the all-new Corsa. The car also boasts electric power steering, four airbags (one of which is smart enough to detect the fitting of a special child seat), plus active front headrests and a DSA Dynamic Safety chassis - whatever that may be.
Vauxhall's test cars are also fully loaded up with ABS, alloys, electric windows, mirrors and sunroof, air-conditioning plus a funky Siemens CD-player/radio/satnav system in the dash with steering-wheel controls. In fact, just about the only thing missing from the options list is leather.
The Corsa has been thoroughly revamped inside and out. Its side profile is fairly familiar, though it's lower and leaner than the previous model. It's not as pretty in profile as a 206, but thanks to wheels that actually fill the arches, it now looks more hot hatch than holiday hire car. For the front and rear, the stylists seem to have closely studied the competition. So at the rear we have a Fiat look, whilst at the front it's Ford. The tall tail lights and big rear window might have been pinched from a Punto, whilst the slanty headlamps and nose are an edgy Ford clone. Still, despite the plagiarism, or perhaps because of it, the new Corsa is a lot more interesting than its predecessor.
Inside, although predominantly still dark plastic, there's a Fiesta-style silver centre to the dashboard that houses the - and I quote - 'infotainment system'. Must-have white dials are standard and the Corsa's dash is generally pleasant enough, though the quality of the plastics is a bit on the cheap side. The two test cars I drove had only 1,000 or so miles on the clock, and door handles and gear surrounds already showed scars. And while I'm whingeing, the Corsa has absolutely the most annoying 'tap-drip' of an indicator warning noise. It was so irritating that I barely used the blinkers at all.
However, the driving position can't be faulted. The seat adjusts for height, reach and rake and the steering wheel also has angle adjustment. There's a clear all-round view, hampered only slightly by the three standard issue rear headrests. It's roomy enough inside, with no complaints about headroom, though legroom in the rear of the three-door can be tight if there's a tall person in front. The boot is a fairly usable size with a reasonably low lip.
When it comes to other practicalities such as running costs, the Corsa will fair well. Prices run from £8,000 to £12,000 and service intervals are at 20,000 miles, whilst features such as the high tail lights should keep minor accident repair costs - and thus insurance premiums - reasonably low. And, in these days of petrol pump madness, fuel economy figures from 35.3mpg (1.4-litre 16v) to 60.1mpg (1.7-litre diesel) are very good news.
But now back on the road. First up is the Easytronic-equipped 1.2-litre 16v SXi. Despite offering just 75bhp at 6,000rpm, the engine is a peppy little thing. It's eager to rev and fairly refined at a cruise, with a top speed just over the ton and a 0-60mph time of 12 seconds. The gearbox, however, is less impressive. In theory it's great - a conventional five-speed manual 'box that can be controlled automatically or by the driver, without the need for a clutch. In practice it's not so hot. In automatic mode the upchanges are lethargic and, although you can just keep your foot flat to the floor, the shifts are smoother if you ease off when you feel a change coming. Kickdown is a bit more enthusiastic as long as you push the pedal to the stop.
In manual mode, the main problem - like all of these semi-autos - is that for some unfathomable reason the shift works in the wrong way. You push the lever forward to change up and back to change down. Almost everyone I have spoken to reckons this is unnatural. Racing cars always work the other way, so why not road cars? Several times I changed up instead of down going into corners, and I had to think about every change to get it right. At full throttle you can't change gear, though the electronics will take over at the red line and up-shift for you, whilst at part-throttle you can buzz the engine right to the limiter. It's all rather confusing.
Mechanically, Easytronic is much the same as Ferrari's F1 shift (albeit less sophisticated), using hydraulic actuators to engage gears and the clutch, and also allowing you to block-change rather than go sequentially through ratios. Yet it doesn't work nearly so well. No doubt the next generation will be better, but at the moment it's a bit like buying a WAP phone, knowing that in a year it will be obsolete. So don't.
The Corsa can also be had with a one-litre, three-cylinder 58bhp engine, a 1.4-litre 16v with 90bhp and a choice of two 1.7-litre diesels with 65 or 75bhp. Top of the lot is the SRi with 1.8-litres, 16 valves and 125bhp at 5,600rpm.
This sporting flagship comes for the first time in both three and five-door variants, but it's the three-door model that I have to play with.
Badges and wheels are all that distinguish it from the SXi, though it also rides 15mm lower on stiffer suspension. Like all Corsas it uses MacPherson struts and a torsion beam system for the rear. Added to this is the Dynamic Safety system (DSA) which adjusts the toe angle of the wheels under braking to help prevent the car from sliding on uneven road surfaces.
A wider track and stiffer bodyshell all contribute to make the new Corsa considerably more agile than the old one. It grips well, it doesn't roll too eagerly through corners and offers safe understeer-biased handling. Mid-corner throttle lifts provoke a twitch from the tail, but not serious slidey stuff.
Only the electric power steering is a bit of a let-down. Super-light at parking speeds, the system is supposed to offer progressively less assistance as the pace picks up. Admittedly at motorway speeds the steering does feel more meaty, but turn into a fast bend and it lightens up too much and kills any feedback. The ride is good, though, and well controlled in most situations, though rough roads can find the bumpstops fairly quickly. The Corsa's brakes, thankfully, are perfectly up to scratch.
In all, the Corsa's chassis is a vast improvement on the outgoing model. It may not be as fun to drive as a Fiesta or 206, but now at least when you hire one on your holidays, you will finally enjoy taking the coast road.