x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Opel's comeback in the UAE

A look at the resurgence of Opel in the UAE.

The Opel Astra GTC. Courtesy Opel
The Opel Astra GTC. Courtesy Opel

One of the oldest names in motoring has, for some time now, been missing from the UAE. Nobody will say exactly why Opel, the German giant and division of General Motors, has been absent from the region, but anyone involved with the company will happily point out that it's back, and back for good.

Should you be even remotely interested? I reckon so, because this company is building what is easily its best-ever range of cars. When I lived in the UK, Vauxhall (the British version of the same company) had really upped its game and was winning plaudits from all corners, after what had been a fairly disastrous state of affairs during the 1990s and early 2000s. The cars morphed into really lovely looking, well built and nice-to-drive machines that made the past seem like it had never happened.

In order to convince some hard-to-impress motoring hacks, Liberty Automobiles, Opel's importer and dealer here, decided to take a small group of us to the factory in Germany, so we could see firsthand just how these cars are built, test out some of the latest models and, perhaps more interestingly, immerse ourselves in a bit of Opel's extremely long history. After all, the company was building motorcars as far back as 1899.

Landing in Frankfurt after one of the most arduous journeys of my life, winter has retaken its grip on Europe. This part of Germany is normally quite temperate at this time of year but we land in blizzard conditions, after 15 centimetres of snow was dumped on the country overnight. Result? Severe delays, motorway gridlock and a real threat that we won't be able to drive the next day.

Still, we resist the temptation to simply turn around and head for home, and the following morning, while bitterly cold, it's at least dry. The snow has stopped falling but it's still hanging onto the ground for dear life and, when we arrive at Opel's proving ground facility an hour outside Frankfurt, it's obvious that this could be a write-off. But this is Germany and, if the country is known for anything, it's ruthless efficiency. So we continue into the whiteout, still not knowing what lies ahead.

What does lie ahead is a group of new Opel models, from the really cute new Adam, to the Corsa OPC, Astra GTC, Insignia estate and the Mokka crossover, all sitting at the outer edge of an enormous, snow covered area of normally high-grip tarmac.

It's the first time I've clapped eyes on the new Adam and boy, is it a funky looking little thing. At once retro and futuristic, the sense of fun in the way it's styled, both inside and out, is exemplary. The Corsa is boy racer heaven for many drivers in Europe, and this performance-oriented OPC version wouldn't disappoint them. Visually it isn't my thing but the Astra definitely is. I can't stop staring at it, so harmonious are its lines, so well resolved is its appearance. I can't think of another small hatchback that looks this good, and I find it difficult to reconcile this new model with the Astras that I grew up around in the UK. The Insignia I'm already familiar with but the Mokka is new to me and, while it seems nice enough (if you like that sort of thing), the red Astra is the star of the show.

A course, such as it is, has been marked out with cones and it's our job to negotiate it at the highest possible speed for the conditions. This is supposed to show the way these "normal" vehicles can be kept under control in extremis. We swap cars every few minutes, so we can compare the different models in the same conditions, and it rapidly becomes apparent that the Adam and the Corsa are the most fun, the most chuckable - at least when driving on thick snow.

The Adam is easy to fall in love with. Such a cheeky little thing, it's like a puppy dog eager to please its new owner, and its style is unquestionable - Opel's people say that tens of thousands have been pre-ordered and it's easy to see why. If all I did was city driving, I'd probably buy one myself. The Corsa, while a bit too flashy for my palette (it is due to be replaced by a new model soon), exhibits superb levels of control on the snow and ice, and its throaty exhaust note actively encourages an eager driving style. Its bigger brother, the Astra, does not disappoint on any level and, when it comes to trading in my own car, I'll be seriously considering one of these as its replacement.

Once at the enormous, sprawling factory - much of which is many decades old - we're shown the facility where the Insignia saloons, hatchbacks and estates come to life. And it all starts with coils of steel - of various thickness - which are pressed in scary looking machinery bigger than most houses, to produce pretty much every component needed to produce the cars' physical structure. I've been around so many factories where the body shells are made elsewhere and shipped in for final assembly, that seeing the process as a whole, in one facility, is quite refreshing.

The assembly line is methodical and brisk, with each workstation having a minimum of two workers who have exactly two minutes to perform their individual tasks, whether that be attaching wiring looms, seat assemblies or front and rear bumpers. If there's a fault discovered anywhere, a musical melody sounds over the PA system, and it's immediately dealt with. "Our ratio of fault-free production is extremely high," says our guide. "Higher than most of the brands you might consider prestige."

It's something of a culture shock to later step inside the Opel Museum, a collection of the firm's past models and its various concept cars. It will be expanded and soon open to the public but, for now, the rather ramshackle collection is housed within an old warehouse. The cars here are often used and the place reeks of fuel fumes, oily rags and old materials - a heady mix that takes me back to my childhood. It's wonderful.

Wolfgang Scholz, head of Opel Classic, is on hand to talk us through a potted history. "The company was founded in 1862 by Adam Opel," he says, while standing in front of some of the very earliest products to carry the Opel name. "He started making sewing machines in his father's workshop here in Russelheim and, four years later, he expanded into bicycle manufacture. And even after Opel became known everywhere for its cars, by the 1920s it was Germany's biggest bicycle company.

"But the car story," he continues, "began in 1899, which makes Opel Germany's second-oldest automobile manufacturer [after Daimler-Benz]. By 1914, we were Germany's largest car producer and then, as it is now, Opel was known for quality and affordability."

With a few sewing machines, bicycles, motorbikes and an enormous variety of cars, from exotic concepts from the early 1970s, to rally and race cars, through to the mass-produced old timers that kept the company afloat in the postwar years, the collection is sizeable and, in the basement, includes most of the daring prototype cars of Opel's past four decades.

I ask Scholz about the General Motors partnership and he says that, during the world economic crisis of the 1920s, Opel was facing inevitable difficulties and decided the best way to ensure survival was to partner with another giant carmaker. "It worked, too," says Scholz, "because by 1935 Opel was building more than 100,000 cars a year and now, more than ever, the two companies benefit by being under the same umbrella."

In 1971, the ten millionth Opel rolled off the line and, four decades before it launched the electric Ampera (essentially what Chevrolet markets as the Volt), the company was investing in battery propulsion, breaking the world speed record for an electric car with an Opel GT, hitting a speed of 188kph. "A year later and we were once again Germany's most successful car company."

Scanning the collection, it's obvious to see where the company's slide into blandness started. After the shock-and-awe motor show concepts of the late 1960s and early 1970s that showed Opel could have taken on the Italians in the supercar realm, and the almost Ferrari Dino-like GT, the styling started to nosedive and ordinariness set in. But it's found its mojo again, that much is obvious, and build quality has massively increased.

This company's illustrious and often patchy past, is part and parcel of its future and, on the basis of what we've seen here today, the UAE should welcome Opel with open arms. Liberty Automobiles is currently selling selected models in the UAE and has big expansion plans in the pipeline. It has showrooms in six emirates, where it has been successfully representing brands like Cadillac, Chevrolet and Kawasaki for many years and Opel now has its own, dedicated facilities, too. You owe it to yourself to try them out before coming to any firm decision on a new car and, judging by the lengths to which Liberty has gone, it means it when it says Opel is here to stay.

But why bring the marque here at all? It would appear the timing is right and, with products on offer these days, that combine style, quality and drivability, I hope it succeeds, because when choice in the marketplace is expanded, it's refreshing when you don't have to compromise when it comes to the things that matter to most of us. Opels might be priced more keenly than other German brands but you'd never guess that by looking at or driving them.