Much improved, but so is the competition in this toughest of tough classes.

Once upon a time, performance versions of family hatches were the hottest ticket in town. Ford, Nissan, Peugeot, Vauxhall all vied to outdo each other with GT’s, SRi’s, GSi’s and other alphabet-soup variations. But these days the number of hot variants has dwindled to next to nothing. Ford has the sole volume-badged hot family car, the Mondeo ST220, Peugeot has gone the luxury route with its V6 version of the 407, Nissan’s once dominant hot-Primera is no more, and Vauxhall’s performance flagship, the Vectra VXR is still some months from launch.

In the meantime, the 173bhp Vectra 2.0T SRi is Vauxhall’s hottest petrol offering, and like all Vectras it’s under the knife for a mid-life facelift ahead of an all-new model around 2008. 

Deeper than the usual rejig, all Vectras get a new nose with replacement sheetmetal for wings and bonnet, a new grille with a semi-egg-crate pattern and attractive new projector headlamps. Completists will revel in the knowledge that the SRi is distinguished by a dark background inside the lamps, other models by a high-gloss chrome-type finish.

Because the Vectra’s chassis tune has been its Achilles heel since launch, the major technical surgery has focused on handling, ride and steering. In fact, the changes to the SRi sports chassis, in particular, are so significant as to significantly change the car’s character.

The tweaks, by Briton Simon Johnson based at GM’s Millbrook technical centre in Bedfordshire, are centred on a 25 per cent hike in damper rates, stiffer bushes for the front suspension control arms and remapped electric-power steering pump. “We wanted to improve the smooth road ride, transform composure on uneven British roads and make the car fun to drive,” he says.

Even at low speeds, the SRi’s steering now feels a whole lot more connected to the front wheels. This might just be a re-weighting of the power-assistance, but it’s the first sign of more fundamental improvements. Point the SRi along a typical broken-surface B-road and it now feels like a competently set-up sports hatch, soaking up bumps and feeding back irregularities giving the driver confidence at speed. Tackle dips and crests and there’s body control like never before on the old SRi, again giving the driver confidence to press on. Gone is that nasty, under-damped, floaty feeling that made the Vectra uncomfortable in this type of driving.

There’s more outright grip, too. The SRi now comes with standard 17in wheels and 245/50 rubber and the new chassis puts them to much better use.

It would be churlish to denigrate the SRi’s steering, because it’s much better than before, partly thanks to Saab, whose stiffer suspension bush was lifted out of the GM parts bin by Vauxhall. Now the driver can place the car more accurately and adjust mid-corner, but there still feels like a mass of rubber lurking deep in the mechanism. This is not Ford Mondeo steering by a long chalk. Chassis engineer Johnson says that one of his set-ups “out-Mondeo’ed, the Mondeo”, but GM’s high-ups didn’t want to slavishly copy the Ford. Not sure what to make of that, but it seem like a mild mis-calculation from here.

Anyway, powertrains are unaltered across the range, so the 2.0T SRi continues with the 173bhp soft-turbo two-litre. Effective, yet lacking in charisma, the 2.0T gives its best in the midrange, easing overtaking and pulling effortlessly through medium speed corners. Its only drawback is an embarrassing lack of punch off-boost.

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Still, the SRi sports chassis is available with seven different engines, including the 150bhp 1.9-litre CDTi, now the best-seller in the Vectra. With an extra 41lb ft over the 2.0T and performance figures only a shade behind, it’s easy to see why its 49mpg and 157g/km sway the bulk of drivers, particularly since 80 per cent of Vectra sales are to fleets.

Cross-country the CDTi might be a shade slower than a 2.OT, but that’ll be immaterial to most owners while fuel hovers around the £1 a litre mark and company car tax focuses on global warming. It’s the pick of the engines.

The 120bhp version of the 1.9CDTi used to be the best-seller and it’s still a good unit, quiet and with just enough performance. Wearing Exclusiv, Life, Club or Design badges, the Vectra also has an improved standard chassis. Again, damper rates are up by 25 per cent and the steering is a little meatier in feel, but the body control isn’t in the same class as the SRi sports set-up. Improved it definitely is, but there’s still a trace of the floaty feeling that blighted the old Vectra.

It does however, have one big advantage, and that’s low speed ride quality. Vauxhall’s customers apparently tell its engineers that they don’t mind a firm low-speed ride, but anyone regularly carrying a family in their Vectra ought to drive both set-ups before committing to the SRi.

Mated to the new entry-level £14,750 Exclusiv trim level is a minor technical breakthrough that might just leave a permanent mark on the global car industry – a remarkable new steel wheel whose plastic cover design is virtually indistinguishable from an alloy, the finish is that good. And instead of clipping on, it bolts on. The future for steel wheels without a doubt.

There’s also a new fascia inside all Vectras, which ditches the technical-look pattern inspired by a basketball’s surface in favour of a more traditional hide look. It’s less distracting — and a change apparently demanded by customers — but it seems like a conservative step backwards in design terms. New air vents and an aluminium-coloured trim finisher — sadly available only on the SRi — complete the interior tweaks.

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Judged as a basket of mid-life improvements, the new Vectra is sufficiently tweaked to give it a burst of added interest in its remaining three years of production. The SRi adds some teeth and desirability to the range and while it still won’t set the world on fire, the Vectra is now a more balanced and competent car and ought to sell in future just as well as it has in the past.

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