THERE follows a list of cars Autocar expects never to turn up in our First Drives section: the Chrysler Grand Voyager SRT-8, the Citroen Xsara Picasso VTS, the Mitsubishi Space Star Evolution, the Fiat Doblo Abarth, and just for the record, the Honda Jazz Type-R, the Renaultsport Modus and the Ford Fusion RS.
Here’s why; as hot versions of tall-sided people-movers designed to maximise interior space and usually more given to scraping their doorhandles on the pavement than rewarding the enthusiast driver, we suspect they’d be, for want of a better word, rubbish.
Vauxhall, however, does not. Five years ago it challenged conventional thinking – not to mention physics – with the 197bhp Zafira GSi, and at the end of 2005 suceeded it with the even more powerful Zafira VXR. Now it’s at it again with the newest addition to the VXR family – a performance derivative so unlikely you may need to recover your socks after being introduced to it. The Meriva VXR is here – a four-metre monobox school-run specialist with sliding rear seats, a completely flat maximum cargo area and 178bhp. No, really.
What’s it like?
The very idea of a performance-orientated Meriva ranks highly in the comedy stakes, but its maker assures that it’s ‘a fun car about which we are very serious’. Vauxhall’s stylists haven’t gone mad with the body addenda in pursuit of a visual aspect that might compensate for this car’s rather unaerodynamic profile though. There are deeper front and rear valances with sharper-edged air ducts, chunky side sills, a mesh grille behind both bonnet and bumper air intakes, and at the rear an understated roof spoiler and VXR’s signature trapezoidal tailpipe.
On paper, this car looks a lot more serious. Under its stubby bonnet is an all-new 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder engine producing the aforementioned 178bhp and, even dafter, a momentarily overboosted 196 ft lbs of torque.
This finds its way to the road, as in all Merivas, through the front wheels but, unlike other models in the range, it goes via a close-ratio six-speed manual gearbox. Vauxhall claims you can get this car to 60mph in 7.9secs, and that it won’t stop accelerating until you hit 137mph. And those are figures you’d do well to match in a Volkswagen Golf VR6, a Renault Clio Williams or a BMW ‘E30’ M3.
However, there are also some spec sheet realities that count against the Meriva. Sure it’s only a smidgen longer than a modern supermini, but it weighs 1330kg; the last Renault Clio Renaultsport 182, still Autocar’s favourite hot mini hatch, was 250kg lighter, and a 2.0-litre Audi A4 weighs only 95kg more.
Boding even worse for this driver’s deliverer is that it towers above 1.6-metres in height. Vauxhall’s European chassis development colleages at the Opel Performance Centre have done their best to counteract this disadvantage by lowering the Meriva’s normal ride height by 10mm at the front wheels and 15mm at the rear, by increasing its spring rates by 30- and 25 per cent respectively, and by adapting its twist beam rear axle to resist body roll and to minimise understeer.
And so to the drive. The conditions in which we sampled Vauxhall new hot offering dictated smaller-than-standard 16in alloy wheels and higher profile winter tires; our definitve verdict on this car’s dynamics, therefore, will have to wait until we can drive it in the UK. Even so, however, on a give-and-take continental B-road, at moderate to high speeds, this car does a fairly convincing impression of a credible hot supermini. Its mid-range turbo punch is plentiful through the intermiediate gears, and OPC has done a decent job of balancing the demands of upright handling and an acceptable quality of ride. However, you can prompt alarming degrees of body roll simply by turning into a corner more vigourously than you normally would, and it’s easy to exceed the limits of grip, both at the front and rear wheels, by overcomitting to a tight bend – far easier than it would be, say, in a Ford Fiesta ST.
It’s not just the Meriva’s high-sidedness that causes the problem; it’s that the car’s electrically-assisted steering system, allbeit made more direct in this application, still fails to provide precise enough control of the front wheels. Driving this car above 80mph on German autobahn required plenty of concentration. Under power, it jinked left and right within the lane, reacting to changes in road surface conditions and camber, requiring frequent steering corrections. Driving it keenly was like taking a greyhound puppy for walk down a path lined with interesting-smelling distractions, and with a rather lovely Golden Labrador bitch at the end; it felt wayward, troublesome, and a little more brisk than expected.
Should I get one?
Vauxhall has tiny expectations of the Meriva VXR; 400 UK sales a year would be enough, it says, and we’ve not doubt that it’ll attract that many buyers on novelty alone. When all’s said and done though, that’s what this Meriva is – a novelty car. If you find the very idea of a turbocharged mini-MPV appealing, you probably won’t mind that it’s not as capable through the twisty bits as a real hot hatchback; you’ll be too busy racing your neighbour to playgroup. However, we can’t help but feel that this particular VXR would have been better badged a Meriva SRi, and given more of a stealthy, Q-car style appearance. It’s not a proper VXR in the Astra or Vectra sense – it’s almost impossible that a Meriva ever could have been – but we can’t help liking it all the same.