2001 Opel Corsa

It's General Motors' most popular and most important car outside the U.S. with sales in the millions worldwide. Every 38 seconds, one rolls off the assembly line. Costs around $10,000 and has more sophisticated active and passive safety features than any competitor currently on our roads.

Fuel economy? Better than 38 miles to the gallon. Engine choices?

Several. And, the Big Question, cupholders? Definitely.

If you lived in France, or Turkey, or Thailand, you could buy GM's brand-new, redesigned grown-up 2001 Opel Corsa. If you lived in Italy, Brazil or Africa, you could choose to add on the most advanced automated manual transmission option in the world that is not available in the U.S. for any amount of money, not even on a $128,000 Mercedes-Benz SL500. Navigation system? Option. GPS? Option. Hands-free phone capability? Naturally, since it is illegal to talk on a hand-held phone while driving in Europe.

Internet access? Infotainment system? Of course. Airbags? Front and side for both driver and passenger. Anti-lock brakes? Standard. A slot for your drippy ice scraper in the rocker panel? Got it. All exquisitely packaged into the small car called Corsa.

Now, the 2001 Corsa is not to be confused with a compact-sized car. It is, in fact, a subcompact although this ignominious term is not used by Opel. They prefer the designation small car. (Well, it does have a better ring to it.) So if GM Europe's three- and five-door subcompacts contain such excellent equipment, plus new styling (the high-mounted rear lights hug the rear window like bookends) that is expected to help Opel exceed previous sales records, why can't we buy these economical pocket rockets here in America?

Good question. And GM has no answer. More than eighty countries are selling the Corsa. In Germany alone, over half a million units leave the dealerships each year. Are we missing something here?

Opel corsa 2001

Yup. While we can shop for a Honda Civic, a Dodge Neon, or a Toyota Echo, few of these cars and their ilk come close to the high quality, elegance, and thought that has gone into designing, engineering and equipping the 2001 Corsa. Okay, so it's just another little car but the top available horsepower is a respectable 125, and the state-of-the-art headrests are active head restraints on pendulums similar to those on far pricier Saabs. The point is, Corsa buyers are receiving the kind of equipment, albeit some costing extra, that you'd find on many near-luxury coupes and sedans here in the States.

Take the EasyTronic transmission, for example. Astonishingly, this combination of a manual and automatic transmission gets better mileage than a manual alone. That's because instead of adding a manual transmission to an automatic, as is the case with other systems, Opel engineers designed a system that does the reverse, adding an automatic transmission to its manual system and employing three small electric motors. Automated shift times were decreased so that gears are engaged lightning fast, faster than a driver could shift a manual with a foot clutch. Unlike sequential transmissions, gears can be skipped by moving the shifter several times in succession. An automatic transmission with a torque converter takes 25 percent longer to shift down by two gears and a sequential-shift gearbox takes twice the time than the new EasyTronic.

Another benefit: less weight. The new system weighs only around eight pounds more than a manual gearbox, while a typical automatic transmission weighs an additional 50 pounds.

To speed up and optimize shifting, the EasyTronic clutch only closes when it can transfer the power of the engine without slip. This decreases release travel and speeds up the process. In the same way, pre-tensioned springs in the actuating mechanism make gear shifting practically supersonic. The control unit improves synchronization and optimizes downshift action still more by automatically raising your engine speed during the first few milliseconds in which the previous gear has been disengaged but the next one is not yet engaged. Thus, this "robot" under the hood does its shifting quicker than a human can. Unless you're Michael Schumacher, maybe.

The big letdown

With such an economic, fuel-saving transmission, one wonders why on earth GM has no plans to bring it to the U.S. for modification to its vehicles here. This is all the more puzzling in light of the fact that GM USA is the only one of the Big Three without an automatic/clutchless manual gearbox, while several German and Asian imports here have their own system. (The Lincoln LS has SelectShift, Chrysler equips the Sebring and Dodge Stratus with AutoStick, Acura provides SportShift on the CL and TL, Audi offers Tiptronic on the A4, A6 and A8 and Porsche has the same system on the Boxster. BMW has developed StepTronic, Mercedes-Benz buyers can get TouchShift, and Lexus has a special shift button on its steering wheel. Even Hyundai's new Santa Fe has ShiftTronic, and yet another version called SportTronic is on Mitsubishi's Eclipse, Galant and Montero.)

GM Europe insists that none of the Corsa's components are transferable to the company's U.S. vehicles, and indeed the new cars' engines are built by Isuzu. But I'd be willing to bet in a couple of years down the road we'll see a modified version of EasyTronic in a variety of GM's cars, if not the entire Corsa itself. Here's the kicker, though. GM Europe manufactures and supplies the GearTronic for the Volvo (now owned by Ford) V70 and GearTronic is a huge moneymaker for GM there, but GM America's marketing people are said to discount the system's appeal here in the U.S. Hello?

I'm not quite sure why GM invited a group of American automotive journalists to Europe to test-drive Opel's Corsa through parts of Spain and the Netherlands, where we spun across terrain identical to the cornfields of Kansas and the red clay and buttes of New Mexico. Maybe it was to make us envious. Most of us loved the car and its handling and performance. It's zippy, spacious, highly maneuverable and terrific fun to drive. The interior is minimally and beautifully organized, and there is a certain elegance inside and out despite its stature as a small car.

Maybe we were invited because GM wanted to prove the company is no slouch in Europe, that Ford's Focus and Dodge's Neon are no threat to GM's reach overseas. Or maybe GM just wanted to show off - the variety of engines is almost breathtaking ranging from a 1.0-liter three-cylinder with 58 horsepower, a 1.2-liter four-cylinder with 75 horsepower, a 1.4-liter with 90 horsepower, a 1.7-liter turbodiesel with 65 horsepower, and a 1.8-liter with 125 horsepower. The EasyTronic system is on the 1.2-liter at present.

Whatever the reason, the test drive and visit to one of Opel's eleven assembly plants was an eye-opener, a chance to recognize that we don't lead in everything, that we often follow, and that we are smart enough to jump on a bandwagon, such as a barrel-load of European-designed safety equipment, when we see one.

The bottom line is, we are definitely Corsa-challenged here in the U.S.

What about it, GM, especially in view of skyrocketing gas prices?

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