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We drive the fastest Opels around

2005-11-09 07:14

The Opel Astra GTC OPC pictured in the hills above Palermo

John Oxley

Nuvolari, Moss, Von Trips, Bonnier, Siffert. Famous names, winners of a famous race, the Targa Florio, 100 years old next year.

Jo Winkelhock. Winner of another famous race, Le Mans, and a former Formula 1 and saloon car racer.

Opel. German car company, steeped in motor sport history.

OPC. Opel Performance Centre, home of the hottest Opels you can get today.

All of these merged together for me in the past few days as I had the pleasure - and the privilege - of testing the latest Opel OPC models in Sicily, home of the Targa Florio, and indeed, of travelling the same roads on which these racing greats had created motor sport records.

World launch

The occasion was the world launch of four brand-new Opel OPC models - the 2-litre four-cylinder turbocharged GTC Coupe and the seven seater Zafira MPV, plus two V6 turbo flagships, the Vectra sedan and station wagon.

The base, Palermo in Sicily, that small island situated just off the southernmost tip of Italy, better known to many as the home of the Mafia.

The highlight - being driven by Winkelhock on a short stretch of the Targa Florio route, 10 km of tight, tight corners, the road rolling through the mountainous countryside like the convoluted coils of a giant snake, outlined by ancient stone walls, deep ditches, and the occasional roadside dwelling or barn.

The ancient surface, though tarred, is pitted and repaired, sometimes with neck-crunching bumps in the middle of a bend, or with edges worn and riven by the passing of cars, trucks and buses.

Not a place to drive quickly, let alone flat out.

Yet Winkelhock - "Jockel" as he is known to his friends - flicked the car through those corners with the consummate ease of a master, dancing from bend to bend like a butterfly in a flower garden, the car sliding, powering, straightening and at times flying.

All the time Jockel was talking, explaining, and at times exclaiming, his hands working the wheel, his feet leaping from pedal to pedal.

Keep the ESP switched on

And one thing stands out so clearly from all he said:

"There's no point in turning off the ESP on this car. I don?t think I could drive any faster with it off".

With that a message to all you "boy racers" out there.

Not only is electronic stability programme - ESP - here to stay. It's here to stay ON.

Of course, the Opel OPC models have got the latest development of ESP, suitably tweaked to allow the driver to give of his best, and for the car to be pushed to the limits without the unnecessary and frustrating interference that has marked and marred ESP until now.

The system is always there in the background, waiting like a fairy godmother for that moment when you bite off more than you can chew. But it doesn't interfere while YOU?RE controlling things.

The beginning

But, as so often happens when you're excited - and I am by these new cars, especially the GTC, and to a lesser, but different degree, by the Zafira - I digress. Let's go back to the beginning.

Opel in South Africa introduced an OPC version of the previous generation Astra, in three-door hatchback form, late in 2004, with the intention of showing the South African public what OPC is all about.

It quickly sold out.

Then, last year, an OPC version of the Zafira was also introduced here. All were pre-sold before they got to this country.

And what is OPC about?

Essentially it's a division of Opel that concentrates on turning some of the company's production cars into super-quick versions, concentrating not just on all-out power but superb handling, great all-round driveability, plus extra-special looks.

Right: Joachim Winkelhock on his way to winning Le Mans in 1999

And that's all been taken to a new level with the latest OPC versions, plus an enlargement of the OPC range that might one day see most of the various product lines available with OPC enhancements.

Imagine the little Tigra sports car with an OPC pack. Or your friendly little Corsa runabout tricked out and power-boosted!

Four models

But for now we have four models on offer - the 2-litre 177 kW Astra GTC, one of the most handsome cars Opel has ever made, a new Zafira OPC people-carrier, and upmarket 188 kW Vectra saloons and station wagons.

Of the four only the Astra GTC and the Zafira are planned for our shores - but it was still interesting to drive the Vectra models.

The Opel Astra GTC is a handsome three-door fastback coupe based on the 5-door Astra GSi sedan, and in standard trim, like the GSi, it pushes out 147 kW from its four-cylinder 16-valve DOHC turbo-charged engine.

The GSi has superb handling, aided by its state-of-the-art chassis technology, the adaptive IDS Plus suspension system, and electronic Continuous Damping Control (CDC).

What this means is that the cars systems work together to interpret road conditions and the way the car is being driven, and constantly adapt the chassis to suit.

Additionally, the driver can select a "Sport" mode for even more sporty handling - the sort of firmness you'd want on a racetrack, for instance - though this would be tooth-jarring on most public roads!

And ESPcan be deactivated in special circumstances - for instance, driving in sand, mud or snow, where you might need a bit of wheel spin to keep going.

What a lot it gets

The Astra GTC OPC gets all this, and more.

Firstly, the steering, springs rates, anti-roll bars and shock absorbers have all been uprated, and the car lowered by 15 mm to give it a lower centre of gravity.

Then it gets 18 inch wheels as standard in an exclusive OPC six-spoke design, shod with 225/40 R18Y tyres (with 19 inch optional).

And it has BIG brakes, 321 mm ventilated up front and 278 mm solid rear, with ABS and brake assist.

Naturally the engine has been re-worked, with lots of internal changes, including modifications to the variable camshafts, plus the deletion of the balance shafts found in the GSi cut power losses.

The turbo has been changed, too, and there's a different intercooler.

But it's not just about power, although the extra grunt is significant.

Massive torque

The Astra GTC OPC gets a massive torque hike, with 320 Nm available from as low as 2 400 r/min and right through to 5 000 r/min, while maximum power is achieved at a low (for a sports coupe) 5 600 r/min.

Left: An Opel GT in the Targa Florio

It's all fed through the front wheels via a close-ratio 6-speed gearbox, with the power steering modified for quicker response.

The net result, Opel claims, is 0 to 100 km/h in 6.4 seconds and top speed of 244 km/h.

But, says Ulli Hochmuth, the man who led the design team for the inside and outside of the car, there's no point in having all this extra get-up-and-go if the car doesn't look the part.

Ulli told me he was faced with real problems trying to improve on the already-handsome GTC, but after 1 1/2 years of working on the project - and the other OPC cars - I'm convinced he's got it JUST right.

It starts at the front, where there's a deep front spoiler with a large, central air intake under the number plate, flanked by projector fog lamps.

And unlike the vane design used in the Astra GTC, the OPC has honeycomb openings and intakes in the front spoiler and radiator grille.

The rear of the Astra OPC is also unmistakable, defined by a distinctive rear spoiler and centrally located trapezoidal tailpipe, with the under-body given a "diffuser" look.

The most striking features of the side view are the door sills, which are more prominent than those of the GTC.

And rounding it all off, those special wheels through which you can see the blue-painted brake calipers, an OPC trademark.

Four body colours are available - arden blue, star silver, sapphire black and magma red.

Hot interior design

The cockpit has also come in for quite a few changes.

It starts with matt chrome rings on the instruments, with special graphics, plus a three-spoke, leather-covered sport steering wheel, leather-covered gearshift lever, door sill trims in OPC design and drilled aluminum pedals.

There are special Recaro sport seats which fit like a pair of second pants (after you've climbed over the high bolsters) and give immense support both sideways and longitudinally, especially useful when you're driving quickly.

There are two standard fabric/leather colour combinations to choose from (blue/black and silver/black), and a complete leather variant (black) is available as an option.

Left: The Opel Zafira OPC

Customers can also choose carbon fibre-look décor strips in anthracite, silver or blue.

The interior is beautifully finished, with lots of hand stitching and super quality - the sort of finishes you expect from a really expensive Italian or British sports car.

Standard equipment includes a climate control aircon system, a sound system with MP3-compatible CD player and six speakers, electronically adjustable and heated exterior mirrors, electrically operated windows, a reach and tilt steering column, rear seat backs that fold forward in a 60:40 split and a central locking system with remote control.

Mum's road rocket

The Zafira - which is a completely new design not yet seen in South Africa - gets similar suspension and engine enhancements to the GTC, but the exterior treatment is slightly different, though following the same theme.

Thus we see the same deep front spoiler and fog lights, but there's a hint of an arrowhead at the bottom of the grille.

The side view emphasises the lowered suspension, and it, too, gets prominent door sills.

At the rear the highlight is a prominent spoiler, a double flow exhaust system with trapezoidal tail pipes, and an aerodynamic "wing" on the roof edge.

It features a similar interior to the GTC, but retains the famous Opel Flex7 seating system which allows effortless seating variations from two to seven seats without having to remove any.

The two Vectras are also new. Both are big cars, powered by a turbo-charged 2.8-litre V6 engine pushing out 188 kW at 5 500 r/min and maximum torque of 355 Nm available between 1 800 and 4 500 r/min.

Again, they have received their own unique OPC treatment, both inside and outside.

On the road

You've already had a taste of what I think about the Astra GTC OPC.

It's quick, superbly responsive, and it really can be chucked around with alacrity. There was one point where "Smokin' Joe" Winkelhock had the GTC on two wheels - maybe just one - prior to launching it hard into a left-hand corner flanked by a solid-looking wall.

Right: The Opel Vectra OPC sedan

The car responded as if it had been programmed to, and we slid through easily and cleanly.

Later I went through the same corner - though with more circumspection - and found I could go through very quickly too.

The car seemed to know what I wanted to do all the time, and, once I got used to the strong torque steer as I planted 177 kW through the front wheels, it was easy to keep a brisk pace, the car at times sliding with the tail out like a rear-wheel-drive car.

And those brakes!

Fantastic braking

Huge, huge stopping power, never a sign of fade, and not even the slightest judder even though they had been vastly abused.

Yet it wasn't all high speed Targa Florio stuff.

There were little villages where we slowed down to walking pace, there was Palermo itself, a frenetic race-track of a city, where you needed your eyes in the back of your head, plus country lanes perched high above the city, allowing views to eternity, where we just chilled and enjoyed the sights.

Always the car was right for the job, absorbing the bumps, easy to drive, a many-faceted vehicle.

Left: The Opel Vectra OPC Estate

The same applies to the Zafira.

Though not quite as responsive as the GTC - it's longer, higher, and heavier - it's GOT to be the answer for those who have family commitments that require a bigger and more spacious vehicle.

Though it's fast you'd have no problems leaving it at home with mom and the kids.

And when you wanted to go for a burn on your own to get rid of the week's frustrations, you'll find it a lot quicker than your average hot hatch, with 0-100 km/h acceleration in 7.8 seconds and a maximum speed of 231 km/h.

I'm not going to dwell on the Vectras. They are extremely comfortable, they are very fast, with power that is almost linear in its delivery. And they're big and spacious.

But it's unlikely they'll come to South Africa - if they do, I'll tell you more!


Opel has for some time been suffering from a lacklustre image in South Africa, with sales, particularly in the C-segment, slower than average.

It's a well-known phenomenon in motoring marketing that if you have a strong "halo" car - the sort of car most of your buyers aspire to, even though they might not be able to afford it - this will rub off lower down the range, and people will buy the "cooking" cars they CAN afford.

The Astra GTC OPC and Zafira OPC are perfect examples of the type of halo cars Opel needs.

Not only are they superb in every way - and undoubtedly will sell - but they show the sort of engineering that goes into the rest of the cars in the Opel range.

Add in keen pricing, and you'll be looking at a pair of winners!

They're coming here next year...

  • Astra OPC gallery
  • Zafira OPC gallery
  • Vectra OPC gallery

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