Corsa dynasty; after five generations, Vauxhall gets it right



When the first 1993 Vauxhall Corsa was landed in the UK, reports Iain Robertson, it was based on the Opel Corsa and marked a pan-European model change from a sub-compact favourite that was known as Nova, Ford’s Fiesta nemesis.

While all of the attention seems to be drawn by the SUV/crossover sector of the new car market these days, followed closely by insistent EV protagonists, who love their roles as much as members of ASH, or ‘mumsnet’, in their relevant arenas (let’s face it, if there is a cause to pursue, or support, however tenuous, minority groups have a tendency to achieve it in a millennial society), the compact car scene is still not just vital but produces huge sales results.

It is hectically busy. Yet, in the UK at least, it has been predominated by both Ford and Vauxhall for much of the past 40 years, with occasional snapping at the heels from Nissan (Micra), PSA (Peugeot 207/8 and Citroen C3), VW (Polo), Renault (Clio), Toyota (Yaris) and the ‘new boys’ from South Korea (Hyundai/Kia). It is a market segment that is heavily dependent on price entry-point, which has caused innumerable profitability issues for the players involved; it stands to reason that a £40,000 car is going to return at least £7,500 profit, whereas a £12,000 example is going to struggle at a lot less than £1,000 per unit.

Neither Ford nor Vauxhall has been able to rely on domestic production to help their situations, as Spain (lower wage expectations) became the manufacturing haven for both marques…although early quality issues were an unexpected demerit that was put down to the ‘manana’ attitude that used to prevail at Spanish factories. Original Fiestas and Corsas were flimsy things that warranted a lower price tag.

A decade prior to Corsa, the Nova model had succeeded in changing the face of small cars in the UK. It was known as Corsa in left-hand drive markets. With only 36 examples still registered for road use in the UK, you have to presume that many Novas were snaffled-up during the ‘scrappage programme’, which would have gifted them a monetary value that none would have achieved otherwise. The balance will have had their fates delivered by countless backward baseball cap-wearers, of a pimply type that would populate fast-food eatery car parks nationwide. To be frank, like most of their impoverished, live-at-home owners, it was a fairly dire motorcar.

Corsa (B) arrived 26 years ago. The egg was its design inspiration. Significantly re-engineered over the Nova (it needed to be), it was styled to maximise appeal and became a near overnight success, causing Ford to rush back to the Fiesta drawing-board to reconsider its options. A hot GSi model teased the performance sector, while its diesel variant gained a turbocharger. It was a much tougher wee thing and owners benefited from antilock brakes, side impact protection and airbags. Its handling envelope still needed work but Vauxhall’s engineers were waking up to that responsibility.

Corsa (C) of 2000 was not so much a radical departure from the previous generation but it was roomier, while its track and wheelbase grew as a means to improve its on-road handling performance. As Vauxhall’s first new car of the New Millennium, it had a lot to prove but it remained a popular choice of both fleet and private market sectors, despite its ‘mumsy’ appearance, helped by keen pricing, a wide range of trim options and a range of efficient Ecotec engines. Many examples are now failing their MOTs, beset by the dreaded tin worm and other mechanical maladies.

Corsa (D) arrived in 2006. Unusually for a large volume small car, Vauxhall decided to differentiate between both three and five-door variants, with a series of pertinent styling alterations. The five-door became an impractical family car, while the three-door lent its talents to a run of sportier models, as long as carrying passengers in the cramped back seat was not a priority. Careful chassis management gifted the Corsa a dynamic package that was now well up to the class average and, while Vauxhall still struggled to defeat the might of Ford Motor Company, by not indulging in market share enhancing pre-registrations, the Corsa became regarded as a ‘retail champion’ in the UK. Every ‘hotshoe’ and his dog just had to have the keys to a Corsa VXR, or a GSi at very least, and model theft rates leapt accordingly.

Corsa (E), which is the outgoing model, went on sale in 2014. For the first time, its body length exceeded the notional 4.0 million limit for the class, at 4.02 million. It also introduced a zippy 1.0-litre turbo-triple to a much-improved engine line-up. Easily the best Corsa that had been produced in the model line’s history, the nation’s motoring media professed an open admiration of the various models and sales went through the roof. For the first time ever, Vauxhall was seen as a proper, on-par, head-to-head rival to Ford and its Fiesta. It was a very good car, possessing fine handling traits, excellent performance and low operational costs among its long list of consumer-pleasing attributes.

Now, to the future. The all-new Corsa (F) will soon introduce the first all-electric car to Vauxhall’s PSA-owned range. We have already outlined many of the details of this enticing new line-up in previous reports, if you care to trawl back through our archive. However, the all-new Corsa could become one of PSA Group’s biggest sellers overall, probably tipping its 208 (even the latest, prettiest and dynamically improved versions) into an also-ran classification. While the Corsa e will not be available until the New Year, orders are being taken from consumers determined to make their EV impression and the rest of the largely conventional range should be reaching customers very soon.

It is important to reflect on the history of the Vauxhall Corsa, not least as a popular choice of the company car market, which has made an indelible mark on the UK Motor Industry, with 2.1 million registrations since 1993, having recorded no less than 13.5 million registrations across the European new car scene.