Corsa can’t keep a low profile in that colour
Hillclimbing was once a stern test of a vehicle, but for new cars such as the Vauxhall Corsa GSi it is a breeze, as we discover on a drive to three hills with history
The Vauxhall Corsa GSi drags itself up Star and Garter Hill in south-west London without breaking sweat.
With 162lb ft to call on, you can approach the bottom of the incline in fourth gear, apply a brief stab of throttle, shift into fifth and the car will merrily ascend to the top of the hill 325 yards further along. Well, of course it will. You will not be at all surprised to learn that a modern hatchback has no trouble whatsoever scaling a moderate slope on the fringes of Richmond Park.
But had Charles Stewart Rolls been present to witness this confidently yellow hatchback scamper up Star and Garter Hill as though it was no hill at all, he would have been astonished. For it was Rolls – several years before he started an engineering firm with business partner Henry Royce – who once drove a Panhard et Levassor 6hp from the bottom of Star and Garter Hill to the top, then back down to the bottom again, at an average of 8.75mph. It was a speed so breathtaking that Rolls was sent home with a trophy marked ‘winner’. That was 119 years ago; things have rather changed since then.
In the very early days of the motor car, when horsepower outputs were yet to reach double figures and Henry Ford’s pioneering assembly line was not much more than a vague idea in a bright man’s mind, hillclimbing was very different to the adrenaline-soaked sport we think of today. It was on these often very short inclines that car makers set out to demonstrate the climbing ability of their vehicles. It was aregarded as the ultimate test of a powered machine. If a car could inch its way up this slope or that one, it was clearly a very capable vehicle indeed.
The origins of hillclimbing in this country can be traced back to three particular courses, all of which are still in use today as public roads. We’ll be bouncing from one to the next by way of the Corsa GSi, simply because it is new and we are keen to try it out.
But hang on: doesn’t Vauxhall already have a performance brand in VXR? It did, but if you walk into a dealership today and enquire about buying one, you’ll be offered a sincere apology. The entire VXR range was killed off last year, apparently due to emissions legislation, although Vauxhall promises the badge will eventually make a comeback in some more fuel-efficient form.
You can still buy a fast Vauxhall, though. Earlier this year, the Luton marque revived its once-famous GSi moniker as a sub-VXR performance brand. The Insignia GSi was launched at the start of the year and now it is the turn of the little hatchback. It would be best not to think of the resulting Corsa GSi as a direct replacement for the departed Corsa VXR, not least because the new model is less powerful to the tune of 57bhp. If the full-fat Corsa VXR was still in production, this GSi version would be the sugar-free alternative.
The first of our three hillclimb courses is that short burst up Star and Garter Hill. Back in 1899, when the competition was first held and Rolls became its inaugural champion, the course started outside The Dysart public house, which is still there now.
It carried on up the hill, sweeping to the left halfway along and reaching its summit a few moments later. At its peak is a very grand building that is now apartments, but before that was a place where sick and injured servicemen would convalesce. In 1899, though, Rolls and his fellow competitors would have ended up outside of the Star and Garter Hotel, a different but similarly grand building that was later demolished. The hillclimb course actually turned around on itself at that point and carried on down to the Dysart.
It’s staggering to think there was ever a time that a motor vehicle would struggle to climb to the top of the hill, so effortlessly does the Corsa GSi manage it today. Its 1.4-litre engine is down on power compared with some other junior hot hatches’ powerplants, but as long as you have 4000rpm on the dial it has plenty of pull. A pity, though, that is it a touch short on character.
This car’s most notable weakness, however, is its almost unbearably stiff ride. Hot Corsas have always been jiggly and bouncy, and this GSi is no exception. The problem is, it also happens to be firmer and more uncomfortable than any Corsa VXR you care to mention. That does at least mean the GSi is a hoot to punt along a B-road, the sort that we stumble upon in Buckinghamshire on our way to the second of our three hillclimbs.
On Michelin Pilot Sport 4 rubber, the Vauxhall has masses of grip and agility. The very busy ride becomes less of an issue when you’re really cracking on and you get wrapped up in the car’s sense of fun. Within a few miles, you even grow accustomed to its very quick steering response.
Dashwood Hill near High Wycombe was first used as a motorsport venue in 1899, only a few months after Star and Garter Hill hosted its maiden event. From a starting point on today’s A40 outside the Dashwood Arms, it flicks right onto a narrow lane, now with a thick canopy of trees hanging over most of its length. Much like Star and Garter Hill, Dashwood isn’t especially steep, but it does seem to go on and on. John Scott Montagu – later Second Baron Montagu of Beaulieu – was the first winner here in a Daimler.
The last of our hillclimb courses is 92 miles …read more