A Fast Trip in a Slow Machine: 2009 Opel Vectra 2.2 Wagon
By Roger Boylan
I knew we were in trouble when, after flooring the accelerator to pass a lagging eighteen-wheeler on an uphill grade, I glanced into the rear-view mirror and saw a Toyota Yaris on my tail. After a micro-eternity I managed to pass the truck and pull into the slow lane. The impatient Yaris hurtled past, itself being bullied by a diminutive VW Polo. Both must have been making 80 m.p.h. easily, and either would have been an improvement over the automotive slug I was driving: an Opel Vectra wagon with all the get-up-and-go of a tractor mower.
I was driving it in the Swiss and French hinterland of Geneva. Having spent several years of my youth in that lovely city, I took my 16-year-old daughter there on a recon to meet old friends and lay the cultural and social groundwork for her, should she some day be interested in studying there, or working at the U.N., or both.
I’d requested a medium-sized car from Hertz at Geneva airport, and expected a Ford Mondeo. But there I was with a Vectra wagon. It was a handsome enough vehicle, silver and streamlined (closely related to its Saturn Aura/Astra cousins), with gobs of room inside and comfortable cloth-clad seats; but as soon as we drove off, we noticed (and this was through a haze of jet lag) that the car creaked and groaned like a clipper ship rounding Cape Horn. Creaks came from the seatbacks, from the seatbelt buckles, and from the dashboard; suspension groans accompanied us over every speed bump; mysterious cracking and snorting noises could be heard at times when we were sitting in traffic, or parked. Of course, it was a rental car, and it did have 10K kms. on the odometer, but I would have expected a German car to be better built.
But, not wanting the boring hassle of exchanging one mediocre car for another, we set off on road trips within Switzerland to Gruyeres, Lausanne, Montreux, and Begnins, and across the border in France to the high Jura, Annecy, and toward the Alps to Chamonix and nearly as far as the Italian border.
Only when it was cranked up on the autoroute did the Opel prove itself a true German car, running effortlessly and creak-free at speeds up to and, I’m afraid, over, the official limits of 120 k.p.h. (70 m.p.h.) in Switzerland and 130 (80) in France. (The manufacturer claims a top speed of 131 m.p.h.) But when we needed a touch more oomph for passing, as described above, we were suddenly back in an underpowered ’50s slowpoke, albeit with a smoother ride and more sophisticated gearbox: The Vectra had a fairly effortless six-speed tranny, but with its 2.2-liter, 154-h.p. engine lugging a full-size wagon’s curb weight, no amount of driver input could goose it into getting out of its own way if it didn’t want to. And it didn’t want to, except on downward grades.
Still, this gave us all the more opportunity to admire the spectacular Alpine scenery, and I had constantly to remind myself that we were in no hurry. At least the brakes worked well, and steering and cornering were excellent, as we discovered in the many switchbacks on our Jura climb; this bespoke a German heritage. The accessories, too, were good: satellite radio, GPS, CD player, and MP3 hookup were all present and accounted for, and easy enough to use after an intensive exploratory session, and the A/C blew cold when needed–which, fortunately, was only about half the time. On the other hand, I never could find a comfortable driving position, and the Vectra had a most annoying little rubbery turn-signal stalk that never seemed capable of holding the signal for more than three clicks either way. And whenever our speed dropped below about 40, there were those creaks and groans again. I swear my old ’82 Datsun B210 ran quieter.
All in all, driving in France and Switzerland is a pleasure that most drivers should experience (but preferably at the wheel of something other than an Opel Vectra). We were struck, for example, by the immaculate condition of the expressways on both sides of the border. In France most autoroutes are privately constructed toll roads, a boon for maintenance costs. In Switzerland, a hefty road tax, levied via an annual window sticker, or “vignette,” helps keep the thoroughfares well-paved and clear of debris. Getting lost on your way to major destinations is almost impossible, so clear and meticulous is the signposting. And there are plenty of laybys and roadside eateries to sustain the long-distance driver.
So don’t waste any more time: go, and happy driving. But make sure your car rental agency doesn’t slip you an Opel Vectra on the sly. Insist on something really sleek and powerful, like a Toyota Yaris.
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