A key area that Vauxhall needed to address with the Vectra was the whole driver environment. Times had changed. Smithers from Field Sales no longer automatically received a new Vectra every three years whether he liked it or not. Company car taxation schemes have moved on and fleet users are increasingly choosing their own cars. In order to compete, medium range models like this need showroom appeal. They have to feel special as soon as you slip behind the wheel. Towards the end of its days, the previous Vectra felt pretty ancient. The latest model, in contrast, has an interior with the sort of minimalist, clean lines you'd expect in a Hoxton trendy's loft conversion, all backed up by controls so simple it's easy to underestimate the amount of thought that has gone into their conception - a sure indicator of smart design. Only the fiddly redesigned indicator stalk will infuriate: why couldn't they leave it alone?
The width of the platform allows a number of features to be built into the chunky centre console. It also means that the buttons don't need to be the size of pinheads, something you'll appreciate when trying to adjust the controls. Vauxhall have helped by mounting a number of controls on the steering wheel, itself infinitely adjustable. Rain sensitive wipers, parking radars front and rear, tyre pressure monitors and an electronic child seat detector that disables the airbag are features which were often previously the preserve of upmarket executive offerings. The Vectra has now followed many of its rivals in appropriating these refinements for the mainstream market.
Opinions may be divided on the latest look: still recognisably a Vectra, it takes the best aspects of the chamfered Renault Laguna and combines them with bluff, industrial planes and bold styling that is distinctly Germanic. Probably more important is what lies beneath the bodywork - a structure that is 60% stiffer. You'll feel the result in terms of sharper handling, lower levels of body roll and fewer squeaks and rattles. Equally vital of course is the space inside that shape, which is 100mm longer, 50mm wider and 50mm higher. In order to create a more airy feeling inside, the rear seat passengers sit 20mm higher than those at the front.
The reliability of the Vectra is thus far unquestioned but that's hardly surprising given the fact that its mechanicals are all well known and proven. General Motors spent an enormous amount of money developing the Vectra and the thoroughness of its effort shows. So far no significant faults have yet to be reported.
(Based on a 2002 Vectra 1.8 Club ex. VAT) Spares are priced very reasonably which is what you'd expect from Vauxhall. A full exhaust will be around ££275. A full clutch assembly will be in the region of £80, while brake pad sets will be just under £20. A replacement alternator should be about £90, a radiator around £140 and a starter motor will cost about £75.
Vauxhall identified three areas that needed emergency remedial action when it was faced with a blank sheet of paper. To start with, ride and handling had to be addressed, in order to match standards like those set by cars like Citroen's C5. The engineers had tried - and failed - to do that with the old Vectra's mid-term revisions back in 1999: this time, they had to do much better. And they have: this is still no Mondeo, but it gets surprisingly close.
Lessons have clearly been learnt, with unsprung weight having been taken out of the suspension setup through the use of aluminium componentry. The track has been made wider to aid stability and a whole raft of electronic back-ups have been developed in the event of the driver running out of talent. Principal amongst these is the clever ESP+ stability control system: rather than just cutting the power and adding braking when you get into trouble, it senses that more gradual remedial action may be required and acts accordingly. The electro-hydraulic power steering is also a big improvement - though could still do with more feel. Where this Vectra really can't be bettered however, is in terms of ride and refinement: it's the sort of car you feel you could drive all day in.
If you want a real dollop of power, check out the 3.2-litre V6 GSi version. This car has that same languid, expensively damped feel as a decent BMW, the steering promising great things. It feels premium, expensive and ineffably competent. You'll feel the impish delight that comes when you've suddenly been granted huge and wholly inconspicuous power. With 208bhp and a rippling 221lb/ft of torque to rely upon, the Vectra GSi is rarely caught without big reserves of shove on tap. Vauxhall claim a sprint to 60mph in 7.0 seconds but it's the sheer effortlessness of the power delivery that impresses. Best not to ask about the CO2 emissions.
Taken in isolation, the Vectra is a very good car, ideally suited to its key activity, namely pounding the UK motorway network with a bootful of samples. Unfortunately it arrived just in time to run headlong into talented all-rounders like the facelifted Ford Mondeo, the Mazda6, the Honda Accord and the Toyota Avensis. As far as desirability goes, the Vectra struggles against this sort of opposition but on more quantitative measures it's in there with a shout. It's mass-market badge and so-so image will doubtless mean there are some bargains to be had for the canny used buyer who isn't concerned with petty golf club car park rivalry.