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Shower Thoughts: What if there was an American Opel Vectra?

Antti Kautonen December 13, 2016 Cars You Should Know, Finnish Line 22 Comments


This past weekend I noticed a first generation Opel Vectra parked on a side street. Their numbers are dwindling, as is the fate of a long-unremarkable car that doesn’t really have an enthusiast following. Sure, there have been Vectra hobbyists, but that has often been a result of an everyday hand-me-down car receiving sound systems and fiberglass add-ons and a dodgy paint job; after a Vectra has lost its new-car value, it hasn’t been anything for anyone to really pine for, as a dream car. The Calibra coupe versions are more exciting looking, and have a future as enthusiast cars; Vectras will slowly continue to disappear, like Asconas have.

But that’s past the point I was going to make. What if the Vectra had been available in the USA? In 1988, it was a hot offering after the C-generation Ascona bowed; that car, a J-body was available in the States in numerous guises from the Cavalier to the Cimarron. Ford tried to market its German/UK-derived Vectra competitors in the States with little success; the Sierra was rebranded as the Merkur XR4ti which was too weird and pseudo-posh to succeed, especially with the 2.3 turbo unit. The Mondeo was reborn as the Contour and the Mystique, which were too cramped in the back to catch buyers. Would the Vectra have fared similarly?


So, I’m imagining a Chevrolet Vectra – which did exist as a South American model. But the USA version would have sturdier bumpers and amber indicators and a narrower rear plate plinth; the smallest 1,6-litre and 1,8-litre engines would not have made it across the pond. The Vectra would have started with the trusty, eight-valve 2.0 engine that produced 115hp in Euro guise, so perhaps 100-105hp in the States? There would have been a corresponding 150-horsepower 16-valve version as in Europe, as the hot version. If the Vectra would have survived until the 2.5-litre Ellesmere Port V6 debuted in 1993, it would have served American buyers well. Opel didn’t offer a 2.3-litre four-banger in the Vectra, and it would have been a little weird to transplant the Saab 2.3-litre into it.

Would there have been a Buick version of the Vectra? Maybe the Calibra would have been sold as a Buick Calibra by Opel; the smaller Opel, the Kadett was offered as a Pontiac Le Mans. In addition to the saloon, there was a hatchback, but would GM have found buyers for the hatch? There wasn’t a wagon offered until the second generation Vectra.

It is highly likely GM at least considered the Vectra’s stateside chances, and the platform found use in the Saturn L-series, as well as the GM reinterpretation of the Saab 900. But the Saturn L appeared in 1999/2000, and by that time the Vectra and its dynamics were not groundbreaking; the Vectra B of 1995 was a largely uninteresting derivative of the car that had been very credible in 1988, seriously battling the Peugeot 405 for thrills on the European market; in the States the 405 barely caused a ripple. In 1996, the 405 was put out to pasture and its 406 replacement was better than the Vectra B in every way. Rear axle problems have prematurely killed 405:s in droves, but the 406 didn’t suffer from the same issues and have proved to be very durable cars. Vectras have been far more disposable, as they were never painted quite right, and the B-generation cars have suffered from sub-standard supplier components right off the bat. Freshly built cars have had their steering racks cause grief, and snapping cambelts have ruined Vectras faster than they had time to have rust pepper their flanks and arches.

Judging by local Vectras and how few and far between they are, the late ’80s, early ’90s USA Vectras would have lived a short, beaten life, and not many of them would have survived ’til present day. Shorn with automatic seatbelts, their interiors baked in the sun, they would pop up in Murilee’s Junkyard Find posts with an advertisement in the bottom. They would have been a bit more expensive than Saturns and a lot cheaper than the equivalent Saab 900, and the GM-built 900s haven’t necessarily fared well compared to the earlier generation cars. Would they have ended up being a single-generation appearance for the Vectra, like the Saturn Aura?

[Image: Chevrolet, post idea caused by Jack Baruth’s comment on my Instagram]

  • CraigSu

    Ahem, America did get an Opel Vectra from 1994-98. It was called the Saab 900, thus no need for another version from GM, cheaper or not.

    • Sjalabais

      You know, that perception killed Saab. If only the GM executives that discovered how Saab had departed a lot from the shoddy Vectra base had communicated that loud enough, the contrarian vibe of Saab could actually have been strengthened.

      But, yeah, a mediocre Opel in the US would probably not have done much for GM. Wasn’t this developed when Lopez came into the picture, forever derided as the cost-cutting, quality-smashing incarnation of Satan?

      • CraigSu

        I think it took the 9-7x (Trollblazer) to finally make GM understand that the Swedes weren’t going to be content with simple badge engineering of other GM products. GM then took their toys and left the room, so to speak.

        • Sjalabais

          I never understood the 9-7 or 9-2. Super odd death seizures of product planners, I guess, and sort of collectible today. But people who didn’t understand right away that this is not going to work should be banned from the auto industry permanently.

  • Alff

    What, GM didn’t declare bankruptcy soon enough for you?

    • Billy Durant’s first mistake was renaming the Flint Road Cart Company in 1895. After that it was just a matter of time.

      • Lokki

        The Flint Road Cart Company: Ask the man who owns one… and if anybody that man would be mdharrell…

      • Vairship

        Does RockAuto carry parts for the Flint Road Cart?

  • I always rather liked that Chevrolet and Vauxhall’s pre-Vectra J-bodies were both named Cavalier.

    Also, there are much better things to think about in the shower.

  • Tomsk

    We actually almost got the Calibra as a Saab (and I seem to remember reading, years after the fact, that it was considered for Oldsmobile as well).

  • Maymar

    I think the best bet for even remote success for an American Vectra, it’d have to be a Pontiac or Oldsmobile. Chevy still sold on cheap, and Buick was a bit broad-shouldered and corn-fed for something Euro. If they’d chosen to field it in place of the Grand Am or Calais, it might make a bit of sense (similar size, and priced to allow a bit of exchange rate breathing room). The onky question (that someone older than I would have to answer) is if even ’88-90 would have been too late to redeem GM’s reputation.

    Of course, given how their other Euro stuff has fared (offhand, Saturn LS and Cadillac Catera, Buick Regal looks to be following this trend), it’d still have poor resale, with the added bonus of lackluster parts availability.

  • duurtlang

    The Vectra was a very mediocre car, at best. In Europe, the continent it was designed for. I doubt it would have fit in on a continent it was not designed for. Non-luxury Euro cars tend to do horribly in the US, just like US cars tend to do horribly in Europe.

    Of the other only slightly Americanized rebadges of Opels; Cadillac Catera, Saturn Astra, Buick Regal/Verano/Encore/Cascada only one has been doing decently if I’m informed correctly, and that’s the Buick Encore small crossover. That car is a pioneer in a new market segment. The Vectra was nothing but an also ran.

  • A faceless car, but after reading driventowrite I like the details of the design. Lacking my own criteria for good design I simply rely on their opinion.

  • crank_case

    Seriously battling the 405 for thrills? Nah, the Vectras always been regarded as dull company car fodder. The Nissan Primera on the other hand was the closest to matching the 405s chassis, which made it over to the US as the Infiniti G20, and sold in modest numbers. So perhaps the secret to cracking the US with a car like this at all was.

    1. Make a Peugeot 405
    2. Soften the edges
    3. Make it actually work.
    4. Slap a premium badge on it.
    5. ?
    6. Profit!

    • Toaster

      405 do work, quite well in fact. Not sure why you’d want one though.

      • crank_case

        All I can say is that living in a market where the 405 and Primera both sold in big numbers, the Primera survival rate is much higher. Peugeots are mechanically tough, but it’s small niggles and often maintenance unfriendly design (having run a 205 GTi as a daily for over 2 years) that tends to let them down. Why would you want a 405? They’re class, a practical 4 door saloon with great ride that handles too, and one of Pininfarinas neatest designs.

        • Rover 1

          And they have a Citroen sister car with funny suspension.

  • Desmo

    Forget about the Vectra. Its crap as any Opel. Nope. History was even worse:
    In the 1970s Opel received a brilliant Chevy V8 for half price (due to dollar exchange rate), and they screwed it super-absolutissimo. They could have made it into the ranks of MB/BMW/AUDI. But they didn´t. Because Opel.

    There was one derivative that survived. The much idolized Bitter CD.
    But at the price of a Porsche one can even make an Opel bodyshell rustproof and sheer.

    • Toaster

      That “brilliant” Chevy V8 is one of the first signs of Opel going downhill.

      They were actually well ahead of Audi and BMW, they sold tons of SIxes back when Audi made rubbish little two strokes and BMW was saved by a painfully conventional compact four banger sedan.

      But stock SBCs don’t like to sit at redline for prolonged times, which is exactly what happens if you sell a fast car in Germany. So they blew their head gaskets going flat-out Frankfurt to Cologne and warped heads and whatnot, only to be fixed by a dealer network unfamilar with non-metric V8s.

      Now, the Number of Opel V8s was actually miniscule compared to the solid “vollgasfest” CIB I6s, but the fact that their halo-car with the american V8 and transmission failed, coupled with the whole range looking so American, with the fuel crisis looming and Detroit going into full malaise mode, hurt the reputation of the whole Brand significantly simply by association.

      Now, the Death Knell was Jose Ignazio Lopez lowballing the lowest bidding supplier and making quality truly tank in the late 80s/early 90s. Which is why you don’t see MKI Vectras anymore. They are crap. So crap are Opels from that era, their bad reputation is applied retroactively to all Opels ever made, even though a 50/60/70s Opel is as solid as any other 50/60/70s car that isn’t Swedish or from Stuttgart.

      Guess where Lopez afterwards? Thats right, VW. The wiring issues on you Mk III Jetta VR6 come courtesy of the same guy who almost killed the Generals european presence.

    • crank_case

      Shame, those things are kinda cool in isolation, the second gen Opel Omega (basis of the unfairly maligned Caddilac Catera) was pretty decent, but the market for non-premium “executive cars” like it and the Granada in Europe is pretty much dead, if it’s not got a BMW/Mercedes/Audi badge, no-ones interested.

  • Rover 1

    Both the first and the second, facelifted model were sold as the Chevrolet Vectra in Brazi, replacing the Monza based on the previous model Opel/Vauxhall but with some different body styles. They got a Chevrolet Calibra as well

  • fumi

    There was an American Vectra. The Saturn L-Series between 2000-2005 was largely based on the Vectra, without the funky rear view mirrors and with some body panels made in plastic.

    We had a L200. It was quite nice. Just wish we had opted for the L300 instead, especially since the price difference was not that big.



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