Sunday, 8 July 2012

Realworld Rides: '97 Vauxhall Omega 2.5i CD

I was thirteen years old in 1994, the year the Vauxhall Omega was released. It felt like kind of a big deal, having grown up with the Vauxhall Carlton in all its various iterations (which, streamlined shape and advanced aerodynamics apart, were no more exciting than The Antiques Roadshow with a double shot of Horlicks, followed by a nice cosy nap on the settee).

Seen through my disturbingly geeky pubescent eyes, this event truly represented the dawning of a new age. Top Gear magazine presented the new car with some fanfare; and the fact that there was a new name, Omega, seemed strangely exotic for boring old Vauxhall. And now, eighteen years later, nobody really gives a shit.

I do, of course.

Omega wasn't a new name in Europe, of course. The Omega badge had been plying autobahns since the death of the Rekord in the 80s. But for us Englishers, that name was more associated with the wristwear of choice for a certain secret agent. Or the science fiction fable starring Charlton Heston. Or fish-oil.

Certainly, the death of the Carlton was long overdue. Of course, the profile of the range was lifted somewhat by the Lotus variant, and the GSI models were always terrific performance bargains. But the world had moved on beyond what the cooking L and GL models could offer. You may laugh now, uproariously in fact,  but such luminaries as the Peugeot 605, Alfa 164 and Citroen XM showed Europe just how far the large car had come.

Vauxhall and Ford were, at that point, fed up with just being Vauxhall and Ford. Ford were still celebrating the launch of the genuinely world-beating Mondeo (yes, in '93 it really was...), and before its rival Vectra arrived, Vauxhall was rather back-footed having just facelifted the fleet-favourite Cavalier. "Chin up", they thought; "If we can do something genuinely clever in the Executive sector, we can perhaps grab a few headlines for ourselves".

They nearly did. The Omega was a major leap forward from the Carlton.  For the first time, Vauxhall brochures trumpeted new technologies like traction control, electronically calibrated transmissions with Sports and Winter modes, and it all felt like, well, that this was somehow more than just a Vauxhall.

The initial reviews were generally extremely positive, although a few belly-achers bemoaned General Motors trying too hard. Given the circumstances, that seemed akin to somebody being given a million pounds in used notes and then complaining that it was all in fifties rather than tens.

Today I'm lucky enough to revisit the Omega at the opposite end of its lifespan; cue another opportunity for my colleagues to chronically mock me for showing so much interest in the oldest, most valueless car to land on our premises for some months. Seriously; this was parked two cars away from an AMG, but, hey, that was just another AMG. I haven't driven one of these things for years.

Forget about familiarity breeding contempt and imagine that you've not seen Omegas regularly for the last seventeen years. Now, I dare you to tell me that the Omega isn't a seriously good looking saloon car. From the front three quarters at least, there was a lot of thought put into the design of this thing; not least the execution of the front grille (which, admittedly, looks about nine million times better with the Opel lightning bolt in place of the Vauxhall Griffon).

Those squinty headlamps are notably sleeker than they had been on the Carlton, and the integration of the inboard foglamps with the cooling grilles was, well, artful. For something from The General, anyway. Side on the proportions are tight and dynamic, the swage line that runs from the bow to just before the stern, is a well handled graphic that breaks up what could have been rather bluff, slabby flanks. 

There is a strong case for the argument that the estate car model was still better looking, the longroof features vertically stacked light clusters that run above and below the rear bumper, in place of the slightly blobby units used on the four-door. Indeed, it was this aspect that led to one of the less complementary remarks at the launch of Omega; that it looked like a Big Hyundai.

Inside was also pretty special, but here again the caveat is for a Vauxhall. GM fully embraced the notion of swoopiness, which was nice in that it was fresh and different, but, in truth, a bit of a stylistic cul-de-sac. Notable was the big horizontal hood over the half-moon, bezel-free instrumentation; the sound system with its remote display; the wide centre stack with its four rotary dials, and that absolute signature feature of the Omega dashboard; waterfall air-vents. It was built well, too. Creaks and rattles were notably absent. But, sadly, so was one other thing:

Class. It's a very subjective thing, of course; but for all its imaginative design the driving environment of the Omega simply didn't come over as premium.  It wasn't driver focussed like the BMW 5-Series; it wasn't coolly simplistic like the E-Class, nor charismatic like the (flawed) Alfa 164. It was very pleasant, in a friendly, middle of the road, primetime viewing kind of a way. Far from what the assertive executive car battlegrounds were all about.

The Omega I find myself in today is the CD (Corps Diplomat) model, that designation having, in the Senator days, marked the flagship bells, whistles, toys 'n trinkets offering, but which had gradually been demoted. By Omega time it had been overtaken by the CDX and Elite and ended up as the lowest model to be granted wood-veneer as standard. 

I'm hardly wanting for spec', though; all the generic luxobarge features are present and correct but are all of the manually-operated variety. Costlier models won memory adjustment, climate control in place of mere air-conditioning, more and more acres of woodwork and fanatically ruched leather trim. But if you go for the leather you lose another of the Omega CDs most characteristic features: Chunky-knit velour.

It's terrific! Contact with the material used on the upper areas of these seats is like having a cuddle from a favourite granddad. The stuff looks weird but feels wonderful, and it excels in the comfort stakes, with plenty of air trapped in the pockets 'twixt fabric and flesh, to cool in the summer or warm in the winter. Where this stuff disappeared to, and when its renaissance is due, I can only wonder.

I turn the key and the fifteen year old V6 fires up after the briefest provocation. It settles into an easy, confident idle as I slide the linear automatic gear selector into reverse. The selector reminds me of BMW shifters from before the move to Steptronic; it works well in a remote, sensation-free kind of way. After a few attempts at extricating Omega and I from the gap between expensive neighbours, coming inches away from thousands of quids worth of scrapes, we were finally free and - with three weeks worth of road tax remaining - able to proceed.

The memory floodgates were open. I silenced the stereo and eased gently onto the road with the windows down. Then, in drive, I opened the taps. I didn't step on it; just firmly toed it; and was rewarded with a familiar sound that had somehow gone mute in my databanks.

The engine note belongs in that grouping with all the other medium-capacity V6s, with their sonorous, charismatic sound effects. The tune it plays also brings back older recollections of Ford Granadas that, when auto equipped, would accelerate from rest to sixty with a constant two to two-and-a-half thousand revs registering and an exhaust note that stayed almost constant throughout. With today's six and seven speed automatics, this sound is fast disappearing from the high street. For now, though, it briefly felt like the last twenty years never happened.

The engine itself is still impressive today and was favourably regarded when Britpop 'n Jungle were pumping on nightclub sound systems. It's the 2.5 v6 X25, a development of the C25XE that lent the Calibra V6 its 150mph performance and contributed to the Cavalier V6 very briefly being the King of rep-mobiles during the pre-premium era. Today, it's still enough to make hustle the Omega along, although the midrange is more impressive than the slight hesitation as the car heaves its bulk off the line. Anyway; making the engine work hard is just further opportunity to hear the engine note transition to an Alfa-style howl after four thousand RPM.

At one point during the drive, a dark cloud of temptation hung over me, the temptation to disengage the traction control, click sports mode into action and channel my inner hooligan. I wanted to light up the rear wheels on this venerable old cruiser and swing its arse out in a lurid powerslide at my favourite tame roundabout, Hankooks billowing white smoke in a valiant display of powerful old-car-tomfoolery.

Tragically, it wasn't to be. The power was there, I'm sure of it. But old age had withered the Omegas ability to deal with rapid direction changes. Winding a load of lock on in a roundabout had the tyres squealing in protest, at the very edge of releasing their grip on the tarmac and surely on the brink of delivering a delicious slide. 

But then, when I unloaded to counter-steer and launch us off of the roundabout in a bout of oversteer histrionics, the old barge suddenly came over all barge-like. The weight of the car suddenly transferred to the right hand side and that rear-right wheel that would be spinning free suddenly had the full mass of the car bearing down on it, with the left front wheel making only gossamer-light contact with the road. From what felt like easily achievable tail-out joy; suddenly I found myself quelling a tide of understeer.

Settling down and disheartenedly re-engaging the traction control, I repeatedly wound the steering from left to right in F1 tyre-warming style, to confirm that this Omega, 75k-in, had lost any sense of poise and was subscribed to the teachings of the wet halibut school of body control.  And not only was there not really any handling left, the effect of the tired suspension was two-fold. The Omega, as I remember it, was always a fine riding motor car, but today small bumps, which would formerly have been ironed out with Tefal efficiency, were now registering on my spine with some clarity.

I forgive it these crimes, though. Looking over the rest of the car, aside from datedness (because it's, well, old), and  headlamps that have yellowed so much that the car looks like a refugee from early '80s France, there's not really much wrong with the old bus. Oh, apart from the electric seat height adjust which whirrs away obediently but doesn't seem to actually rise or fall, and the volume control on the Phillips Cassette (!) stereo which only goes up and crackles alarmingly as it does so;  all of this stuff is liveable with. 

Especially when I reveal that the trade-in value awarded for this six-cylinder, 24-valve machine, was fifty quid. That's, as near as dammit when talking about money on a global scale, no money at all. This car, by virtue of age, image, thirst and complexity, is worthless. Aside from your fevered apologist for big old unloved cars (that'll be me, then) nobody really wants them.

The Omega will go to auction, where it'll be either bought by somebody sympathetic to the cause who will tend to its ailments and keep it on the road, or it'll be bought for its metal content and ground into easily molten pieces. No more chunky-knit velour or waterfall air-vents. No more exquisitely handled front foglights. Farewell, my friend, and good luck.