We head to Midvaal Raceway to drive two hot hatch icons of the '90s. Coming from old foes Volkswagen and Opel, you'd expect these 2 machines to be quite similar, but they're not...
Things were tough in the early '90s for hot hatch enthusiasts in South Africa. The iconic Opel Superboss had just passed on, and Volkswagen replaced its highly acclaimed Mk2 GTI with a real let-down, a Mk3 car that could only muster 85kW from its 8-valve engine and take a leisurely stroll to 100kph in... 11.4 seconds. This was simply not acceptable for a car wearing the GTI badge. Something had to be done.
Over in the Opel camp things didn't look much better. Delta Motor Corporation (the then custodians of the brand), had just spent the best part of a decade rebuilding the marque on South Africa's racing circuits and built a loyal, hardcore following.
But in Europe the trend was towards more eco-friendly, efficient cars, loaded with big car luxuries and safety features. And so the new Kadett/Astra line-up lacked an obvious replacement for the iconic Supie... What to do...?
Volkswagen goes V6
Volkswagen arguably had the easier fix - you see, a high-torque V6 engine was part of the Golf III project plan from the start. It would be a new flagship, one that could even take the battle to the likes of the BMW 3 Series and other premium contenders.
The engine itself was quite something, with both cylinder banks using a common cylinder head, and a single overhead camshaft per bank actuating the 12 valves through bucket tappets. The engine features a long stroke (typical for VW engines) and to keep the engine compact, the cylinders are mounted high-up and very long con-rods are used.
The result? Well 128kW and 235Nm of torque doesn't sound like much these days, but the VR6 performed well, with a top speed of 225kph and a 0-100kph time of just under 8 seconds, as tested by CAR Magazine in 1993.
Opel counters with Turbo
Delta Motor Corporation faced a stiffer challenge. Opel in Germany never envisioned a very high-performance variant of the new Astra/Kadett, so in typical South African fashion, a local plan was devised. Opel in Germany was, at the time, selling its sexy Calibra coupe fitted a turbocharged version of the famous red-top 2.0L 16-valve. "We'd like some of those," said the Delta Motor execs.
A challenge, however, was that in the Calibra, the engine was accompanied by an all-wheel drive system, but in South Africa, the Kadett (and Astra) would be front-wheel drive only. This didn't deter the folks at Delta. Along with the engines, they acquired the Calibra's heavier-duty front wheel hubs, steering knuckles and wheelbearings. It also gained the Calibra's striking five-stud 16-inch alloy wheels, not for vanity's sake, but to cope with the extra power.
And power it had aplenty. Initial models packed no less than 160kW and 280Nm of torque, and unlike the Golf (which used a 5-speed gearbox), the Opel had a 6-speeder from Getrag and a modified version of that trick limited slip differential by Andre Verwey, used in the Superboss. It was claimed to blast to 100kph in 7 seconds and on to a top speed of 240kph. So, it would easily see off the VR6.
I hop into the metallic green Vura (as the VR6 is affectionately known in South Africa) first. In the early 90s its facia plastics were a revelation in this category of car, but it's a pretty sombre place, with no satin silver finishes, or contrast stitching to brighten things up, as is the norm these days. Still, the leather-wrapped steering wheel is nice to grip and it's a car you get comfortable in quickly.
Fire up that iconic engine and there's a nice thrum immediately, followed by a rorty but crisp exhaust note when pulling away. The engine impresses with its flexibility, because the torque is spread nicely and the gearing spot-on. This is a pretty easy car to drive fast because its very forgiving to an incorrect gear selection, for example.
The example I'm driving shows over 200 000km on the odo but has obviously been well-looked after, so besides a slight synchromesh issue on third gear, makes a good impression on Midvaal, with crisp steering responses and well-damped suspension (on the smooth track). Compared with the fluffy Mk3 GTI, the VR6 gained recalibrated steering, stiffer damping and springs, and a reworked front axle configuration. That said, it's not rock-hard, and I can see it stand up comfortably to a period E36 325i as an "executive express" used on the daily drive. As the day progresses and I become more comfortable with the car, and the speeds rise, with the lovely, pure sound from the exhaust as a soundtrack, I begin to understand why this car is so coveted in South Africa. It's a charmer.
Into the Blitz
It took us about a year to find a neat-enough 200t S, but boy did we find a good one. This red 200t S looks factory fresh inside and out. The cabin of the Kadett still looks surprisingly modern in some respects, and definitely possesses more flair than the Golf, with soft curves and a particularly neat instrument cluster with the lettering 16v Turbo to remind you that this is something special.
As I head down the straight at Midvaal and push down on the throttle pedal for the first time, tentatively, I can immediately sense that the iconic red-top has lost none of its verve, but my word, when the boost arrives (and it comes on song surprisingly soon) it does so by squishing you into your seat. This car is very, very fast.
So few of these survive because so many were crashed by inexperienced or reckless drivers. I discover quickly that it's a car that demands respect and smoothness. A precise, respectful driver will get incredible pace out of this car, because grip and stability are actually both excellent. The steering is vastly superior to the Superboss's, for example, but you can't just boot it in the corner and not expect torque steer.
Unlike the Golf, in which it will be easy for most drivers to extract 90% of its performance very quickly, the Kadett demands some familiarization (and respect). the 6-speed 'box helps a lot, but you have to use it to make sure you're in the right power "zone". Get it right and it's a car that leaves a big grin on the face, with the only part of the theatrics that's missing being a memorable exhaust note.
The kind owners of these two cars were very trusting in letting us drive their pride and joys on a racing circuit, and so drag racing (or timed laps) were never on the cards, but away from the slow-motion tracking work and stills, I had ample opportunity to stretch these cars' legs. The Golf is a fast GT, refined and handles safely and confidently while making a lovely noise. The Opel would destroy it around a racing circuit, however, but its driver would have to be a good one.
So, then... two very different cars with distinct personalities. Buy both, because both are worth having (and preserving).
* A special thank you to the owners of these 2 great cars who took the time to share their machines with us.