The 2.2-litre Holden Vectra is an understated car, a subtle car. Unlike the powerhouse V6, it's not a car with an immediate wow factor - quiet and smooth, yes. Blow-you-away dynamite, no. But the more that you drive it, the more that you appreciate the level of engineering and its sheer competency. It may be a mite more expensive than you'd expect a Holden Vectra to be, but the end result is so good that the dollars can probably be justified.
Having been enormously impressed by the hatchback CDXi V6 Vectra that we drove some months ago ["New Car Test - Holden Vectra CDXi"], in a way we were expecting to be disappointed by the much lower powered, (108kW versus 155kW) CD sedan version which also lacks some equipment (and doesn't get the sports suspension!). But it is indicative of the quality of the breed that after a week behind the wheel, we were again impressed.
The Vectra is a car with enormous stability, an unflappable chassis, top body engineering (although in the test car the driver's door shut with a slight rattle), a practical and roomy interior and a good performance/economy compromise. Designed and built in Europe, it feels almost more Audi than Audi, what with its high waistline and solid presence. The steering is also - and a tad unfortunately - a little like an Audi as well: rather slow around centre and without crisp feedback. However, after some lock has been wound on, the Vectra is easy to place accurately. And with familiarity the steering is soon forgotten, and then the full proficiency of the suspension can be explored.
The Vectra uses a fully-independent design front and rear suspension (no 'semi independent' torsion bar rear axle here!) and wears 215/55 Bridgestone Turanzas on 16 x 6½ alloy rims. The suspension is firmish but supremely competent. Bump absorption is excellent. (One day we fell into an enormous pothole on a freeway and aghast, I stopped the car and inspected the alloys for the dents I was sure would be there. No damage at all.) While the Vectra never feels fast when it is being wound down a challenging country road, the speedo reading belies that sensation. Bumps encountered while cornering are handled masterfully, and on smooth roads the car handles with progressive understeer, very well controlled by the standard traction control system. Unlike some Holdens, the traction control (working with electronic throttle) is smooth and progressive - just as well, since you can't switch it off.
The 2.2-litre engine uses twin balance shafts - which can be heard faintly whirring when it is revved out. The long-stroke design uses a variable intake manifold but its specification is overall fairly humble. There's no variable valve timing, for example. But despite its on-paper spec being nothing startling, the engine is an efficient worker, with a broad spread of usable torque. Helping substantially in its on-road application is the 5-speed Tipronic-style automatic. The ratios are well-chosen and the transmission logic excellent: it is nearly impossible to find a situation where the trans selects the wrong gear. Climbing hills, slowing for an urban corner and then accelerating away, desiring some lane-changing performance: in all these situations the trans is a step ahead.
However - and these are observations rather than criticisms - there are two aspects of the trans that are unusual. The first it that the lock-up torque converter can be felt (and in engine revs, sometimes heard) locking and unlocking a great deal. The second is that the car selects neutral when stationary with the brake on; the result is that there is a slight jerk as the trans shifts back into drive when you lift the brake pedal to move off.
Performance is competent: 0-100 km/h comes up in about 10.4 seconds and the fuel economy on test was 9.8 litres of normal unleaded per 100 km. Near enough to a ten plus ten - which are both fine.
The equipment level is good without being startling. There is a wide range of seat adjustments (for example both front seats can have the rear and leading edges separately raised or lowered) and the steering wheel is height- and reach-adjustable. Importantly, four airbags and excellent brake control safety systems (ABS, cornering brake control and brake assist) are standard. Cruise control, headlight height adjustment and rear ventilation outlets are provided, but you won't find a trip computer or fuel consumption readout.
The interior space shows clearly that the Vectra has moved up a class in size: there is plenty of room everywhere, with the only even borderline dimension being rear headroom. The boot is huge and the rear seat folds forward on a 60/40 split, although unfortunately leaving a stepped floor.
So what don't we like? The way the indicator and wiper stalks operate - they electronically self-cancel with the stalks physically not staying in their incremental positions - is an unnecessary complexity. It adds nothing to the functionality and can cause confusion. The steering wheel controls for the radio also have a poor feel - there's no distinct tactile feedback to let you know when you've successfully pressed the buttons. Oh yes, and the wipers tend to leave a blind spot close to the driver's-side A-pillar - the blade doesn't sweep close enough (and sufficiently parallel) to the pillar.
Other criticisms? Hmmm - well, the price. Stacked up against the performance, handling, practicality, comfort and composure, there's nothing much wrong with $36,990. But for that same money you can have a range of other cars with more power and a similar feature level. We don't think that those competitors - amongst others, Camry 4 and 6 cylinder, Magna, and Mazda 6 - are as good an all-rounder as the Vectra, but it does depend on what your priorities actually are.
For our money the Vectra is a highly competent and practical car with enormous on-road poise.
Why you would...
- Brilliant on-road composure
- Practical and roomy
- Good performance/economy
Why you wouldn't...
- Higher price reduces its competitiveness
The Vectra CD was supplied for this test by Holden.