Okay, that's not 100 per cent true. New Vectra certainly is bigger, more impressive and more expensive than before. And Holden does believe some models in the range will compete with the BMW 3-Series for buyers. The question is: does it deserve to?
The answer: Yes. And no.
Let's address the no part first. As pure brand names, neither Holden nor Vectra have anywhere near the heavyweight cachet of a badge like BMW, regardless of European heritage. So from that perspective it's first set to the German.
But from all other perspectives the Vectra wins any direct comparison hands down, especially when you bring the mighty dollar into the equation. Against the 3-Series, Vectra has more power, more performance, more equipment and just as much interior space for significantly less of your hard-earned dollars. But hey, we're getting a little ahead of ourselves here. Let's start at the beginning.
Vectra first bobbed up in Australia in 1997. Many, including the critics, weren't exactly sure how to take this European addition to a burgeoning Holden line-up. It squeezed in above the Astra and (just) below Commodore. Vectra had two big problems: the medium car market was in rapid decline; and Commodore represented much better value for money.
The 2003 Vectra addresses both those concerns comprehensively. It is confident and self assured, aware of its potential shortcomings, and equally aware of its strengths - without which you and I would have little reason to buy it.
Against the tape, the Vectra is 101mm longer and 91mm wider than the previous model. It rides on an entirely new front-drive platform, is powered by two new engines with manual and automatic transmissions, and is available in both hatchback and sedan (notchback) body styles.
Vectra hatch is built in the UK by GM's Vauxhall subsidiary at Ellesmere Port. The sedan comes from Russelsheim, assembled by GM Opel. General Motors says the Russelsheim plant is the most modern automotive manufacturing facility in the world.
Holden says Vectra is the first volume model to reflect Opel's new design style, though we saw hints of it on the 2003 Rodeo. Vectra's strong lines and bold graphics are expected to have some influence on next Astra and Barina. No news on whether Holden's design team will adopt some of the cues for its next big Commodore makeover in 2005-06.
The 2003 Vectra is powered by two new engines: a 2.2-litre ECOTEC four-cylinder, and a 3.2-litre ECOTEC V6. Both produce more power than the engines they replace, and both are Euro4 compliant, which means extremely low exhaust emissions. As one senior Holden engineer put it: "You could almost breathe straight from the exhaust."
The 2.2-litre four-cylinder engine develops a respectable 108kW of power (up 4kW) and 203Nm of torque (up 3Nm). Not massive gains, and not eye opening either. For comparison, the 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine in the Mazda 6 produces 122kW and 207Nm.
The 3.2-litre V6 engine is substantially more powerful than its four-cylinder brother, producing an exciting 155kW and 300Nm. That's equal to, or better than, its most direct competition. Think Volkswagen Passat, Subaru Liberty, Honda Accord, Renault Laguna and Nissan Maxima: only the last two come close to that kind of engine performance for the money.
Get into the more prestigious side of the medium car market, where models like the BMW 3-Series, Audi A4 and Alfa Romeo 156 prosper, and the Vectra's performance advantage starts looking even better against similarly priced models.
Price for the 2003 Vectra is a doozy. If you bought one of the previous versions you may want to sit down, because this little car has grown up, and the price is no exception. Three models, two bodies, two engines, four transmissions - here's the breakdown at launch in March 2003:
RRP (correct at launch March 2003) 5-sp man 5-sp auto
Holden Vectra CD sedan $34,990 $36,990
Holden Vectra CD hatch $35,990 $37,990
Holden Vectra CDX hatch n/a $43,990
Holden Vectra CDXi hatch $47,990 $49,990
Six colours are available across the entire range, and the only two options are metallic paint ($300) and sunroof ($1890, CDXi only).
Standard equipment on all Vectras is impressive, supporting Holden's claim that it is "the most sophisticated mid-sized Holden ever". Power windows, power mirrors, eight-way adjustable driver's seat, CD stereo, cruise control, tilt and reach adjustable steering wheel, variable intermittent wipers and air-conditioning are all part of the basic car.
Anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution and brake-assist, cornering brake control and traction control are standard safety systems on every model, along with dual front airbags and side airbags. The entire Vectra range also lobs with GM's active head restraint safety system first debuted on the 1997 Saab 9-5, and also fitted to the last two 9-3 models.
Effectively, the front head rests move forward in an accident to minimise the occupant's head movement and the subsequent whiplash effect.
The higher spec CDX model, available with automatic transmission only, adds front fog lamps and 16in alloy wheels, as well as six-stack CD player, woodgrain interior accents, trip computer, velour trim and leather steering wheel.
The top of the range CDXi boasts bigger 17in tyres and alloy wheels, sports bumpers, rear spoiler, black bezel headlamps and twin exhausts. Sports suspension and ESP-plus -- the next generation of ESP vehicle stability -- are the major mechanical changes, while inside the CDXi gains heated leather seats, sports steering wheel, dual-zone climate-control air-conditioning, a refrigerated glovebox and various chrome highlights.
What this tells you is the Vectra is very well equipped in any guise, and should not be struck from the shopping list lightly.
On the road the 2003 Vectra is a very impressive piece of kit: worlds ahead of its predecessors. Quiet, smooth, refined and reposed, it imparts a true feeling of prestige and poise.
In basic four-cylinder form the Vectra is not going to win any stoplight grand prix, neither is it going to disappoint. We test drove both the five-speed manual and five-speed automatic (with tiptronic-style gear selection) on the launch and both impressed with their willingness to accelerate from low revs and their sprightly nature on the move.
There's a strange sensation in the manual every time you change up a gear as the electronic throttle slows down the engine shutoff -- which feels something like the driver over revving. Holden engineers tell us this is an emissions related issue -- the engine management system is ensuring all fuel is burnt efficiently and not passed through to the exhaust system.
All driver input points are functional without being fiddly. The steering is very well weighted, both at parking speeds and on a highway cruise. Throttle, brake and gear shifters are functional almost to the point of invisibility -- as they should be on a car claiming prestige.
This is not a driver's car; the steering does kick back over sharp bumps while cornering hard, the pedal actions are a little doughy, the throttle feels delayed and the gear lever is functional without being snickety quick. These will, however, only be an issue when a driver is pushing the Vectra hard, and it's arguably not what this vehicle is designed to do.
Move up to the CDXi, though, with its deliciously rev-happy 3.2-litre six-pot screamer and sports-oriented suspension, and you have every right to expect a sharp chassis and spirited performance. And that's exactly what you get, even though the CDXi weighs 1510kg, 120kg heavier than the base model CD.
Having driven the vehicle only at the launch -- on roads hand picked by Holden -- we're reluctant to sound too gushing about the 2003 Vectra, though there's no denying it did impress with both its ability to cruise in comfort, and its back road balance. We'll be subjecting the Vectra to our usual seven-day roadtest in late April, where we choose the roads, the conditions and the situations to really test the Vectra's credentials.
Remember to check back at that time to see how Vectra handles the real world.
NB: At the time of writing Holden was unable to supply fuel economy figures or acceleration figures on the Vectra models, though CarPoint will publish its own fuel numbers after completing a seven-day road test.