Opinion : Anything we can do… they can do worse? – Vauxhall Signum

Keith Adams ruminates about some of the not-so-great cars sold by British Leyland’s competitors – and wonders why it’s still so fashionable to knock our once-great nationalised carmaker even though its mistakes were echoed across the wider industry.

Here, in the fourth article of this occasional series, we take a look at the Vauxhall Signum – a weird hatchback/estate crossover that appealed to all too few people. Makes the Rover 75 Tourer look like a roaring success…

Vauxhall Signum: Few things to few men…

Vauxhall Signum

In 2021, the best-selling car in the UK was the Vauxhall Corsa. The plucky little griffin-badged supermini has broken Ford’s 40-year occupation of the top spot in the UK Top 10, which for anyone who cheers on Vauxhall, really is a cause for celebration. But it’s easy for forget that Vauxhall has produced quite a number of forgettable cars with nameplates that have faded away into obscurity.

Can you visualise these cars? Adam, Agila, Antara, Cascada, Monterey, Sintra or Viceroy? I’ll forgive you if you can’t. Then there’s the Signum. A car that answered a question that very few people asked, and which I found myself seriously considering on more than one occasion. It was one of those cars that extended the 1990s craze for MPVs, offering bags of rear leg and headroom in a more executive-focused package.

Previewed by a pair of Opel-badged concept cars which failed to excite or inspire, the production Signum staggered on to the automotive price lists in 2003. Based on the GM Epsilon I platform, a descendent of which underpinned the Saab 9-5 I recently waxed lyrical about, it was an interesting mashup that crossed hatchback and estate to create one of the most rational Vauxhalls ever built – being well-equipped supremely practical, and surprisingly rapid (and expensive to tax) in 3.0-litre V6 form.

Road testers at the time didn’t get it, and buyers couldn’t quite understand what it was about either. If you wanted a roomy Vauxhall, it was hard to think of a single advantage over the Vectra Estate (which shared its long-wheelbase platform), other than its individually-adjustable business class-style rear seats – just the thing for a market dominated by cars pitched at keen drivers…

The fact that the Signum had so few direct rivals should tell you all you need to know about its fortunes on the market. Can’t think of any significant rivals? How about the Fiat Croma II or the Renault Vel Satis? And you know what, I love those two cars as well…

These days, the Signum is proper bargain basement fodder, with seemingly most of the diesel models on sale riddled with engine faults and warning lights. The petrols are much, much better on that score, but far rarer as they were sold at the height of the dash for diesel. The 2.2-litre model is the rational choice offering bags of torque, motorway cruising ability and reasonable economy. However, the V6 petrol’s the one for me… as long as the tax is paid monthly.

Dealers weren’t keen on Signums either. I hope my mate Mike Humble won’t mind me paraphrasing one of his anecdotes, but it always made me chuckle. In the showroom he worked in, one had taken root so comprehensively that it had become a landmark. Whenever punters came in looking for directions for the loos, the sales guys would chime, ‘head straight down along the back wall, and turn left at the blue Signum.’

So, Vauxhall Signum or Rover 75 Tourer?

With just 2600 Signums left, it’s already becoming a rare beast. But just because it’s rare, does that mean it’s desirable? As I said at the top, I love the concept, but it’s one that’s a tough sell. See a Signum on the road, and it looks like an inflated Astra and doesn’t really have much in the way of road presence – so it’s going to be a bit of a challenge making the jump to classic car status.

The Rover 75 Tourer on the other hand is already a classic, blessed with fabulous styling, wonderful details and an enthusiastic following with great parts supply. The prospects for the Signum’s future are less rosy – GM’s parts supply isn’t great, and the new Stellantis-controlled Vauxhall is uninterested in its past, and will be highly unlikely to want to support this outlier from its back catalogue.

Anyway, coming back to the question raised at the beginning of the article, is the Signum a worse car than the Rover 75 Tourer? In rational terms, absolutely yes – and even more so when it comes to matters of the heart. But that’s not to say that the Signum doesn’t have a degree of quirky off-beat appeal, reminding one of this evolutionary dead end that’s been passed over in favour of today’s oh-so-on-point SUVs.

Still, I think I’d take a Vel Satis over both…

Vauxhall Signum

Keith Adams
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  1. Strange really as its natural predecessor was a winner in my book. That being the in-between sized executive known as the Carlton.

    • Strangely this is exactly the sort of thing manufacturers are coming up now as the trend for SUVs expands and traditional saloons and estates are dying off. Look at GM’s Chevrolet Equinox concept or the Chrysler Airflow (both confirmed for production) or even the already in production Ford Evos, they might have a bit of “crossover” styling but the shape and size is spot on for the “Giant Hatchback” market the Signum failed to make work

    • GM really messed up their strategy here. They had so many options.

      They could have put Opel diesels into the zeta based commodore and shipped that over as a roomier 5 series competitor, maybe use south africa as a low cost assembly hub. Or they could have for servings with saab and made it the go to GM premium brand across the board. Instead they just fiddled.

  2. I always fancied one and almost bought one but I thought that it only had 4 seats so I passed it by in favour of a Toyota Camry. Now, though, having experienced how good the last of the line Vectras were I would definitely buy a Signum if one came up.

  3. Haha, the reason you are attracted to these cars like the Signum Keith, is because they are in some semnse successors to … the Austin Maxi! room 5 door hatchback that stretches to give more interior legroom than its conventional 5 door hatch competitors, yet having a standard hatch boot instead of the more voluminous estate boot.
    Had I been lured into a Vauxhall showroom (unlikely), I would have tried talking the salepeople into equipping a Vectra estate with the Signums very nice rear seats and trim spec. 😉

  4. Oh, but you are spot on about the BL bashing. Prime culprit – one Jeremy Clarkson. In fact, apart from the well known management and product planning failures that are also heavily responsible for BL/MG/Rover’s death, I would rate Contemptible Clarkson (and the wider British motoring media) as one of the major factors killing MG Rover.

    Their love of Brit car bashing is astounding. Even old Top Gear episodes where they (try to) find fault with BL vehicles like the Maxi, Allegro, Princess, Dolomite etc still end up quietly acknowledging how good they are. Think of that episode where they filled BL cars (an SD1, Princess, Dolomite) with water, yet the Princess still made it round the track! (series 10, episode 6) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gKv_RvZ6OGk

    Think too of the glee with which the Brit bashers in the motoring press lambasted poor Bernd Pichestreider when he launched the Rover 75 with a speech about how little support Blairs government gave local manufacturers like MG Rover – the negative coverage sank public confidence in Rover’s future and hence sales, whereas the comments by Bernd were actually quite unremarkable given Blair’s destruction of UK manufacturing (while rival nations openly subsidised their firms – think Japan’s Midi and Korea’s chaebols).

    Real shame, as these quirky cars like the Signum, or Maxi, etc are the signs of designers exploring what works (and what doesn’t!) and shouldn’t kill a car maker dead. Think of how Fiat thankfully survived the dreadful Multipla 😉

    P.S. My Peugeot 307sw estate is similar to the Signum – an MPV/estate crossover as Pug didn’t have a proper SUV to offer the market. Prefer my Rover 200vi though – a vastly underrated hot hatch that in factory standard form embarasses Subaru’s and Nissan’s regularly.

    • Same here in France the press is French bashing (I think the most read is Autoplus which is the French version of Autobild, maybe the reason why).

    • Sad to say if the bl and later cars were actually any good it would not have mattered how hard Top Gear stuck the knife in the cars would have sold. The reality is that the cars usually came to the market without proper development and then proved horribly unreliable. There are countless reasons BL/Austin Rover etc failed, I don’t think TG helped but equally I don’t think they had a substantial effect in sales.

    • @ sb Not sure about that. The 307 SW wasn’t aimed at people who wanted an SUV, that was around a fair amount of time before the SUV trend, it was when mini MPVs were getting popular like the Megane Scenic & the Xsara Picasso.

    • Exactly what Nissan does your 200Vi embarass Qashqai 1.5DCi? .. never mind about the Subaru!

  5. My girlfriend had an Agila before we met. She’d changed to a Yaris by then, which she really loved, and when she next changed, got another one that she still has today. However, while she recognised that the Agila was an ugly looking box, she did point out that it was very practical and that she could fit virtually anything in it.

    • The Agila is (was) a motorized pogo stick. It should never be driven with a dodgy battery – like my Rover 216, the ignition and injection need about 10 amps. So a bump start down anything less steep than a cliff leads to interesting whirring noises, but no start. Two new batteries in 3 years so far.

  6. The Signum, like so many other Executive Vauxhall models, was blighted by a high list price and heavy depreciation thereafter. Consequently it had very few new retail sale opportunities. However, as a Vauxhall retailer we continually sourced numerous 6-12 month old Signums from the Manufacturers used stock inventory of management cars. These all with low mileage and a good spec became excellent value and sold well, indeed we often sold more used Signums per month than Astras!
    In those days a 1.9 150ps Design model with the ‘right wheels” or espcially a Black Elite with full leather trim were the models to have. I have to disagree with the authors opinion of the 2.2 petrol however, in those days it was viewed as thirsty and less punchy than the more torquey diesel unit.
    Definitely an underrated car, well finished, comfortable ride and vast interior but like so many Diesrl cars, if correct useage and servicing was ignored problems arose as the car got older.

  7. Nice comfy cars, but when you put one up against a Mondeo or the Passat at the time, it was behind the rivals, and with the original front end made it look like it was permanently surprised. The facelift was a better car, no only looking but better built with the early niggles solved. My old mate Dave who is no longer with us swore by Vectras, though the first of this shape was a pig. He replaced it with a 2.2 facelift which was quick and well sorted. His last car was an Insignia, which was a luverly motor too.

  8. Even as a Vauxhall fan, I always disliked the Signum, mainly because it was in no way the ‘replacement’ for the Carlton and Senator, that it was marketed as.

    Ironically, though, in these modern days of bloated and pointless crossover SUV things, it seems quite ahead of its time!

  9. Who styled the Signum? it has, to my eyes, a hint of French Renault Vel Satis, as we are aware, Vauxhall are now part of Stellantis the Peugeot umbrella comprised of arou8nd 10 brands

      • At a car show sometime in the early 90s I recall seeing a concept model very much like a Signum ,was this the Opel you mentioned.do you have any info ? ,I have a 2.2 04 Elegence bought 2005 from a Luton “hack” stock,now 53000 on the clock.

  10. From what I remember working at GM Europe when the Signum was coming up to launch – it’s main “raison d’etre” was to try and compensate for the Opel/Vauxhall Omega being dropped at the same time – leaving no car in the range above Vectra. It filled that box on the product chart without costing much to develop …
    Signum was already in the product programme before he arrived . But Carl-Peter Forster who joined Opel as chairman and managing director in April 2001 from BMW – just before the related Vectra was launched – was of the opinion the design of the 4 door/5 door Vectra was much too banal/vanilla – and something needed to be done to retain some kind of premium sedan presence …. and not cede ground to competitors in Germany.
    Vauxhall and the UK market were – it’s fair to say – somewhat secondary considerations.

    • While it makes sense to base the Signum on an extended Vectra C platform, were other options looked at by GM Europe in place of the Signum to directly replace the Omega? Be it more mundane Commodore versions of the Vauxhall VXR8 or something more along the lines of the 2004 Holden Torana TT36 concept, assuming of course the RWD platform of the latter was basically a pre-Alpha RWD development of the FWD/AWD Epsilon platform (that would also possibly allow for Coupe successor to the Monaro as well as a more suitable RWD basis for a Cadillac BLS)?

      Do rather like the Isuzu V6 diesel that powered the Signum (along with the Vectra, Saab 9-5, Renault Vel Satis and Espace), did wonder if there were plans to further develop it for future models.

  11. Opel/Vauxhall lost their soul when starting cross-badging Isuzus, Suzukis, Daewoos or whatever.
    In the sixties there were not too many Vauxhalls in France but driving an Opel or a Vauxhall was a kind of social status, something more than a Ford or a Renault. Downgrading from the Senator/Monza to a cross-badged Suzuki just does not work.
    Moreover even though the Signum was a good car it did not have the same high-end look as an Omega or Senator.
    And now they just will cross badge with Peugeot-Citroën.
    The super-successfull 3008/4008 is a Peugeot-styled, Peugeot-engined full Rüsselsheim development.
    They just had time to complete the Granland X before being fired !

  12. Spiritually, there is a bit of Maxi and Landcrab thinking about the Signum, in that it’s designed to be really roomy, but completely lacks prestige and desirability.

    Of modern vehicles, the Skoda Superb seems to be the only successful big European “saloon” car around which sells because it’s big and roomy for the money.

  13. I can remember when Vauxhall was the best of the British big four. Had this blog been around in 1982, we’d be raving about how good the Cavalier was, how the Astra was as good as a Golf, and singing the praises of the Chevette for being basic, honest transport. A few of us might also have aspired to a Royale Coupe, far better than a Capri and rarer, and praising the original Carlton for being a better bet than a 2 litre Granada or Rover 2000.

  14. What you call a Royale is, I guess, a Monza down here and a Carlton is a Senator. When comparing to a British-designed Capri or Rover, it looks like British-bashing !
    The current Vauxhall range with the Granland and Crossland (respectively German and French developed) is as good as VW’s Tiguan/T-Roc.

    • @ Philippe, until the Vauxhall Opel range was rationalised in 1982, a Royale was a Vauxhall badged Monza or Senator. Interestingly you could buy more or less the same car at an Opel dealer. Maybe the reasoning was people would see a Vauxhall Royale and assume due to the badge it would be a British car, when such things mattered, and also as both models were highly desirable to look at and to drive, people would opt for the Vauxhall over the Opel. Thankfully this duplication ended when the dealerships were merged and the Royale Coupe became an Opel Monza and the Royale saloon the Vauxhall Senator.

  15. Given that plenty of people come on this site and complain that modern cars all look the same it seems odd that this piece should have a pop at a car which was deliberately a bit different. Signum being a platform share rather than a complete new vehicle in its own right meant its relatively low sales volumes could be tolerated while Corsa, Astra, Vectra and Zafira racked up the serious numbers.
    And as for the 75, that was a fundamentally good car hobbled by a bad launch as well as looking like something designed for the more mature motorist. The later ZT showed how good it could be. Not sure I have read too many openly negative reviews of them. Nowadays they are well respected, for example I’ve recently seen a few of those ‘top 20’ web reviews of cars from the early 2000s etc which rate them very favourably.

  16. And I don’t buy the notion that Signum is somehow a spiritual successor to Maxi. Signum was an offshoot of the Vectra platform and as such could ‘afford’ to be a bit of a low volume niche product. Maxi and its running mate Allegro were meant to be Leyland’s FWD volume cars for the 1970s. In the end they couldn’t outsell the much maligned Marina between them and the only reason they lasted through the decade was because Leyland got nationalised first.

    • Nobody is saying it’s in the same class, or as important to the manufacturer at the time, but both are to an extent “inside out cars”, majoring on room, but suffering a lack of desirability in comparison with the competition (or indeed the Omega)

  17. I Never saw many Signum’s around but did quite like the design (a fastback version of the Vectra?). However it seemed to me the normal 5 door Vectra or Estate was just as practical in the load carrying dept. I think all Signums I saw had the original Vectra square style headlamps.

    While on the subject of Vauxhall, I noticed the Bristol Street dealership in Sunderland now also has Peugeot signage outside… I have been expecting this would occur.

    • For sure, as maybe they will keep Jeep, Alfa-Romeo and Lancia apart, but for the rest Stellantis is to be distributed and maintained thru a single network.
      Much larger dealer stores, in term of employement not sure it will have a big impact.

    • Dobies in Cumbria has been selling Peugeots alongside Vauxhalls for the last 25 years and since the Fiat dealership over the road went bankrupt three years ago, I wonder if they could consider taking this on.

  18. Unsurprisingly, I would take a Signum over 75 Estate any day, the Vel Satis I wouldn’t be seen dead in. I agree generally about the Signum, it was endemic of what was wrong with GM Europe at the time, investment was being drained away to Detroit although Vauxhall in the UK was the only bright spot for GM in Europe. My only gripe is your list of Vauxhall nameplates that have disappeared into obscurity! Agila [YES] Antara [OH YES] Cascada,[YES] Monterey [OH YES] Sintra [OMG YES] or Viceroy [YES] but the ADAM? NO WAY! Brilliant little car which during its production run had the highest owner satisfaction of any Vauxhall, still has the highest MOT pass rate for any Vauxhall now, and low mileage S/H examples still fetch very good prices and there loads of them on the road. IMHO it was the best design to come from Mark Adam’s design team. The only naff ADAM was the Rocks [Air] which like the Viva Rocks just look daft a definite case of so-called style over function.
    Btw. Just in case you hadn’t guessed I own a 1.4 S Turbo

  19. @Mat, I’ve ever been schocked by these surname and name coupling Adam Vauxhall.
    Maybe Alex was on hold by the Chinese who purchased the Borgward rights because of the Lloyd Alexander ?
    Maybe now they could call the next Vauxhall/Opel “Carlos” ?

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