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GM rises to the Ford challenge



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Over the last few years Ford has been given a pretty good press in the UK. From the fish-faced Fiesta to the Ka, Focus and Mondeo, Blue Oval cars have been widely praised for their driving dynamics.

Vauxhall, by stark contrast has been pilloried for turning out dynamically and visually dull machinery. The Corsa, Astra and Vectra have all taken a critical beating. On the continent it's a different story. Ford doesn't have a decisive market lead over GM's brands - particularly in the German market.

Behind the big noise Ford is making, GM is quietly building on the success of the Zafira seven-seat MPV. Its innovative interior flexibility will also be seen on the clever Meriva baby MPV and the Signum - a hatchbacked Vectra spin-off based on a long wheelbase version of the Epsilon platform. The LWB chassis will also equip the 2004 Vectra estate with a truly colossal loadbay while the Meriva makes a mockery of the Fiesta-based Fusion and the Mondeo family will have nothing to match the Signum.

GM has other market niches in its sights. The new Tigra - to be launched at the 2003 Frankfurt show - has a folding roof coupe similar to the Peugeot 206CC. It will also get firmer suspension and more direct steering. But challenging Ford's Focus is a much more important task for Opel as the current Astra trails in important areas: it's smaller inside, odd looking and has GM's clunky manual box.

But the Astra's chassis was a near match for the agile Focus, despite what you may have read. Which is a good job, as the new Astra (GM3300) appears next autumn based on the existing platform. Kicking off with the five-door, the Astra gets an edgy, slick new shell and an all-new interior. An even sportier three-door Astra appears in mid-2004.

Later the same year there'll be a long wheelbase version of the platform, which will underpin the Astra estate and late-2005 Zafira Mk2. There'll also be a folding-roof Astra CC launched in the spring of 2005. A big range and much-improved styling could finally be enough to meet the Focus and Golf Mk5 head-on.

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