WE’VE written extensively in these columns in recent times about the revival of the Opel brand and how, after an asphyxiating couple of years, the European arm of General Motors has had new life breathed into it and how cars such as the Corsa, Astra, Insignia, and Adam are now in the process of re-establishing the brand as a viable, serious automotive player once again, writes Declan Colley
And now we come to the latest model from Opel, the Karl which is a new five-seat city car aimed at giving the manufacturer a sturdy, economic, roomy and practical contender in a segment it has not competed in for a while now. Even when it did, it was with cars which were effectively re-badged Suzukis.
The original Opel Agila was effectively a Suzuki Wagon R+ with the German carmaker’s branding on it, while the later version of the car was also marketed by Suzuki as the Splash. Both were fine little cars, but somewhat indicative of the general malaise which had befallen Opel’s once excellent reputation.
In the period immediately after the millennium the company’s American owners allowed the Opel brand to be rundown and trampled upon to the point where it was not far short of being a laughing stock.
But, under new management and with completely renewed vigour on the design and engineering front as well as a half decent marketing budget, it’s comeback time for the Russelsheim outfit.
Now I have to say that while I’m a big fan of the city car genre, I’ve never really been lost in admiration for Opel’s contenders in the segment.
But, with the arrival of the Fiat 500- rivalling Adam and now the Karl, the company is certainly changing my mind considerably. I really liked the former — particularly in Rocks guise — and I have completely fallen for the latter.
Now the Karl is hardly top of the pile in the cute-as-a-button looks stakes being slightly slab-sided and ever so slightly tall that it looks like someone might have gone a bit mad with the modelling clay. A couple of crease lines on the flanks do break up the boxy look, but overall the car’s appearance is certainly not of knock-me-down-with-a-feather variety.
This means that without the benefit of drop-dead good looks, the car will have to have a lot of other virtues to make it the winner Opel hope it will be. And it does — very many of them, in fact.
It is remarkably spacious on the inside for a car in this class and has a genuine capacity to accommodate five adults, even though I would be loathe to try and take such a crew on a trip to Derry, or anything like that.
The space is enough to ferry five people on short trips, but for anything longer than about 20 km, one of them would be best advised to get the bus. Otherwise they could become mutinous fairly quickly.
In the milieu for which the car is intended, however, it is a much better prospect than many in the class and that will certainly appeal to many buyers. Boot space is, by necessity tight, but will still manage to swallow a couple of rucksacks, or some such, or all the weekly shopping.
And, sticking with the interior for a moment, it is also worth pointing out that the Karl has inherited the sort of quality materials and finish which we first saw Opel apply to the Corsa and that’s no bad thing. The result is something which is not only pleasing to the eye and the touch, but which also appears to be durable as well as smart.
We tried the upper level SE Titanium model which adds stuff like a leather steering wheel, trip computer, Bluetooth music streaming and mobile portal, electronic climate control and other bits and bobs without driving the price completely mad. Options such as an electric sunroof and rear parking sensors add further sophistication to the package.
Of course, certain things are de rigeur these days and the infotainment touchscreen is a must for the younger buyer. Unfortunately the tester was not equipped with one, but Opel says the Intellink multimedia system will be available shortly.
One thing that really riles me, however, is that Opel — amongst many other companies, it has to be said — only offer a space-saver tyre as an option. The standard Karl only has one of those completely useless emergency inflation kits which are absolutely worthless in Irish driving conditions and I think that charging an extra €150 for the bicycle tyre space-saver is an abomination.
Getting back to the good stuff though, the whole driving experience offered by the Karl is nothing short of brilliant. The combination of a wonderful one litre three cylinder engine, a stiff but light chassis and a decent suspension layout, makes for a great little car to drive.
The three pot engine is a cracker. Although only outputting some 55kW (75 bhp), it is a hearty free-revver and goes like stink. The 0-100 kph time is just 13.5 seconds and the top speed 170 kph, but while the former might seem slack and the latter decent enough, the fact is that this is a brisk little beast and while you might have to thrash it a little to extract the max. from it, you will thoroughly enjoy the experience.
Certainly you won’t do your fuel economy any favours by flogging the Karl, but if you are easy of foot, then you should be seeing well in excess of 50 mpg. The official figure is 4.5 l/100 km (62.2 mpg).
I am also pleased to report that Opel eschewed any ideas it might have had about building any artificial sportiness into the handling department and the result is that this is a car which will cope with pretty much anything without that awful crashiness which spoils so many cars with such false pretensions.
I had a little longer with the Karl than is normally the case with testers and that added time really did allow me appreciate the character and the merits of this excellent little car. The truth is though that even if I only had it for ten minutes, I would have loved it as much.
It is a sterling addition to the Opel range and at the cost — with a few minor reservations — it has placed the company in very good stead to make a big dent in the segment.