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Seldom does Autocar give plaudits at the start of an appraisal, but in the case of the new Vauxhall Corsa, we can make an exception.

When the PSA Group (owner of Peugeot, Citroën and DS) bought Opel-Vauxhall from General Motors (GM) for £1.9 billion back in 2017, the fifth-generation Corsa was already on the cusp of validation testing after years of development. In engineering terms, the project wasn't quite done and dusted but close to it.

A decision was nevertheless made to throw out GM’s underpinnings and instead start afresh with PSA’s modular CMP platform, which can also be found beneath the new Peugeot 208. Why? Because not only would PSA have had to licence the old hardware from GM at some expense but also its own equivalent is simply a more versatile bit of hardware, allowing for the implementation of sensor-based driver aids and various levels of powertrain electrification. Crucially, it's also spacious enough to accept four-cylinder engines, which the GM equivalent wasn't.

The only problem was that it left Opel with just two years to redevelop what is by far its best-selling model. And two years in automotive product development terms is akin to writing a PhD thesis during your lunch break.

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As we reported earlier this year, many of the most experienced employees at Rüsselsheim were assigned to the task, and they duly delivered. So, at the second attempt, here we have it: the actual, all-new, fifth-generation Corsa. Bravo Opel and Vauxhall.

Now that it’s here, you’ll find it an attractive supermini, if a little unassuming. There’s an air of maturity never before seen with the Corsa, and neat creases have replaced the oddly aggressive lines of the fourth-generation car. It’s also impossible not to see the connection to the 208, mainly in the silhouette. The CMP basis promotes unambiguous two-box dimensions, and so the Corsa now sports a longer bonnet, with the windscreen sitting a long way further back. To put it bluntly, the proportions are much less van-like and all the better for it.

Unsurprisingly, the dimensions of the Corsa and 208 are also almost identical, bar a few millimetres here and there, and absolutely typical of the segment today. But again, compared with the old Corsa, the differences are clear as day. The new car is 39mm longer but its roof is 48mm lower (sounds like a different class, doesn’t it?), giving improved aerodynamics and an athletic stance alien to any non-VXR Corsa thus far.

What's then surprising is that width has decreased. Only by a single millimetre, admittedly, but when it comes to superminis, the narrower the better, and perhaps this is the start of a trend. Finally, the wheelbase has grown a useful 28mm, which ought to improve occupant space (but it’s actually still pretty tight in the back).

Such are the radical changes a fresh platform can bring. However, there are other welcome developments that are less the consequence of PSA’s design and manufacturing expertise and more the result of ingenuity in Rüsselsheim.

Although larger, the Corsa’s body-in-white weighs some 40kg less than before. There are further savings for the front seats (5.5kg), rear seats (4.5kg), aluminium bonnet (2.4kg) and engines (15kg on average). It means the lightest variant – the basic Corsa SE fitted with naturally aspirated three-cylinder petrol and riding on 16in wheels – weighs less than a tonne. Not since the Corsa B of 1993 has Vauxhall’s supermini been so dainty.

You would therefore hope for considerably improved driving dynamics, which, in short, is what you get. For British owners, it’s a less bespoke proposition, though, and not just because of the PSA parts.

Vauxhall used to retune the steering of German-built Opel Corsas to trade some autobahn-centric straight-on stability for better off-centre response on twisting rat-runs. The setup is now uniform, however, the only difference being the calibration for the speed-dependent assistance in the 129bhp 1.2-litre SRi, which tops the range and is available only with an eight-speed automatic gearbox. Officially speaking, we won’t even receive this model in the UK. Unofficially, however, it’s looking ever more likely. Anybody who would like their Corsa with extra engine bay bracing and a Sport driving mode that artificially bolsters both the exhaust note and the weight of the steering should keep their fingers crossed. Today, we’re testing the 99bhp version of 1.2-litre turbocharged petrol that Vauxhall says will be its best-seller (it can also be had without forced induction and 74bhp, and there's a 1.5-litre turbodiesel with 101bhp for high-mileage drivers). You can pair it either with a six-speed manual or an eight-speed automatic. Both, just like the engines, are PSA stock, and the economy and emissions statistics are much improved over the old motors. 

By and large, this is a good, responsive motor, developing 151lb ft from 1750rpm and pulling with the lightness for which downsized triples are known. It’s certainly louder than it is in the 208, though (perhaps by design, because Opel sees itself as a more sporting brand), and you’re exposed to plenty of transmission whine with the manual. Neither element threatens to make the Corsa feel uncouth, because rolling refinement is reasonable for the class and neither sound is outright unpleasant. But it’s an indication that the new Corsa maybe still lacks some polish. It’s a theme that continues inside. We needn’t dwell on this, because more interesting is the way the Corsa drives, but there are swathes of cheaper plastics and some small irritations, such as the play in the headrest mounts of our test car. The standard digital instrument display is also installed as though it were an afterthought, and the high-quality but rock-hard plastic used for the gearknob just feels wrong.

Two strong points, though, are the driving position, with its 30mm-lower hip point and generous reach in the steering column, and the fact that Vauxhall has used plenty of intuitively grouped physical switchgear for the PSA-sourced touchscreen infotainment system and climate controls. It doesn’t take long to feel at home, which will matter to the Corsa’s largely non-enthusiast owners. And so to the driving. Opel-Vauxhall's engineers will have been constrained in their thinking, but equally it won’t have been lost on them that this Corsa represents an opportunity to help redefine the brand’s dynamic character. And there have in the past been disappointments - often ones badged VXR. Fortunately, the new car is much improved, although all the driving controls are laced with an unconvincing lightness that requires some acclimatisation before the driving experience begins to feel sufficiently natural. As with so many cars in this class, the steering is generally lacking in feel and unsurprisingly feels designed for city centres rather than open roads, which is fair cop. 

However, the same steering is accurate and decently crisp at speed and operates without the nervousness of the 208's setup. It's also paired with impressively little body roll. The sensation of stability is not unlike that in the Audi A1 Sportback, in fact, although like that car, the new Corsa doesn't really do much to entertain beyond its flat-cornering-with-very-good-grip routine.

Vauxhall also says wheel control is improved to the extent that it has been able to wind back the chassis-stability electronics considerably, and you do notice this. The Corsa moves in a quick and clean if faintly antiseptic fashion, and you can’t help but notice it's well balanced for a supermini.     As goes ride quality, the Corsa proved surprisingly good at rounding off the harder edges of the road surface on 16in wheels. Better even, perhaps, than its plush 208 cousin, though we’ll need to drive them both on British roads to know for sure. Certainly, for a relatively firm, sporting setup, it doesn’t punish its occupants, although the rear torsion beam and short wheelbase can’t perform miracles. For the class, it’s good enough.

This, then, is an encouraging debut for the new commercial lifeblood of Vauxhall, although no longer quite the value proposition it was last time around.

Any publicity campaign alluding to the new Corsa’s ability to thrill also needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, because it most definitely still resides in the shadow of the Ford Fiesta in this respect. And then there is the 208, which has much more in the way of an identifiable character, if not quite the same level of driveability. We would also struggle to look past the latest Renault Clio, which has taken the class by storm

However, the Corsa is still very much in the mix, even in this frighteningly competitive class. And given that ever so tight deadline in Rüsselsheim, this in itself is an achievement. 

What Car? New car buyer marketplace - Vauxhall Corsa

Vauxhall Corsa

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