Vauxhall Calibra 4x4 Turbo
Why the Calibra is dripping with calibre…
Words Emma Woodcock Photography Adam Shorrock
The ’90s was the era of the mass-market coupé, when every Tomcat, Dick and Harry had a sloping roofline and optional leather upholstery. Cars like the Rover 220, Toyota Celica GT-Four, Volkswagen Corrado VR6 and Honda Prelude 2.3 turned car parks into catwalks. Yet it was the Calibra catching all the stares, thanks to the sharp-edged minimalism imparted by long-time GM stylist Erhard Schnell.
A competitive market was great for consumers but less good for manufacturers: it resulted in modest sales figures for the Calibra, Vauxhall shifting just 6500 units in 1992. Of those, 500 were Turbo models.
Now, there are just 65 turbocharged Calibras registered for UK road use today. Nine of those cars are from limited-run special editions – two DTM Turbos and seven Limited Editions. Our car is one of the latter.
Pulling into the car park on a bleary Wednesday morning, Richard Gibson’s Calibra still strikes a pose: its lines acid sharp among a hundred confused crossovers. Step closer and the slim headlights and barely-there grille grab your attention, drawing your eyes down the strong shoulderline to an airy glasshouse.
On this car – one of 51 Limited Editions produced in 1996 to commemorate the end of production – the aesthetic is further bolstered by 16-inch BBS ‘Champagne’ alloys, an Irmscher rear spoiler and suspension that sits 30mm lower than standard. It’s not a conventionally handsome car, by any means, but the Turbo’s high cheekboned look is one that’s aged gracefully.
Open a sleek, frameless door and drop down into the interior, parking yourself on a sumptuously squishy, fully-adjustable seat. They’re finished in cream leather, as are the door tops. The result is more old-skool than cool but the Calibra’s relaxed vibe can carry it off. The steering wheel and dashboard are less visually vivacious. There’s a small plaque ahead of the gearlever, telling you that this particular LE was the fourth produced, and the steering wheel is trimmed in leather. Yet, overall, the view is bland and black. On the move in urban environments, the Calibra impresses with road manners akin to a modern coupé: most minor functions are electrically-powered, the major controls are light enough to be unobtrusive and noise is well suppressed. There’s a lot to praise but little to love. So far, so what?
Pass a white circle with a diagonal stripe and any cynicism is swiftly blown away. Drop into second, snap the accelerator to the floor and this Turbo knows how to go – Vauxhall advertised a 6.4 second sprint to 60mph. Unlike the Cosworth YB, there’s no girding of loins or drawing of breath: the Calibra pulls convincingly from 2500rpm to the redline. Acceleration swells again as you pass 5000rpm and the exhaust note shouts a heady, high-pitched rasp as you close in on the 6500rpm redline. It’s intoxicating.
Even better, the top of second gear coincides almost perfectly with the national speed limit, allowing you to put all 204 horsepower to good use time and time again. Should you get bored of that – and I strongly doubt any good petrolhead would – you can try the same pull in third, luxuriating in the 207lb-ft of torque the Calibra delivers between 2400 and 4500rpm.
Your confidence in throwing down that power at every opportunity can be attributed to the Calibra Turbo’s excellent traction, a result of the model’s variable four-wheel drive system. Designed jointly by General Motors and Austrian firm Steyr-Daimler-Puch, this is set to deliver torque from a transfer box to the front and rear axles in a 75:25 ratio under normal driving conditions but can instantaneously adapt to wheelspin, thanks to a viscous coupling.
It’s smart but it can also create catastrophic issues. The main problem occurs when the inner and outer coupling rings spin at different speeds for an extended period, often due to uneven tyre wear front and rear, creating a pervasive build up of heat. Over time, this can destroy nearby drivetrain clutch rings and gasket seals, resulting in a transfer box full of power steering fluid and a four-figure repair bill. Ouch. Club Calibra members suggest rotating front and rear tyres every 3000 miles.
Despite the class-leading drive system, period reviews routinely criticised the Turbo for its driving manners, reporting on numb steering and persistent understeer. Their scathing verdicts have since passed into internet folklore, giving the Turbo an undeserved reputation as a blunt, boring driving tool. With 20 years’ perspective, it’s hard to see these comments as well-founded.
By modern standards, the steering bubbles with broad slabs of feedback that make the car a pleasure to place, while the long throw of the gearlever is amply compensated by a light, positive action that always produces a smooth change.
As we climb into the Peak District, over roads that twist, buck and weave, the Bilstein shock absorbers, Irmscher springs and stiffer camber bushes of the LE compliment standard independent rear suspension to create satisfying neutrality in all but the tightest corners.
The only time the Turbo feels ruffled is over a tight, hairpin-strewn pass. Your natural reaction is to take each well-sighted curve with verve and vigour, yet the front end responds to quick steering inputs with little more than indifference.
It’s hard not to feel disappointed by the car’s reaction to tighter roads. It takes a couple of miles to recalibrate, to step back and realise your disappointment is bizarre: this is a 1406kg four-seater laden with luxury and it needs a measured approach.
Tread harder on the brake pedal, swing slowly to a late apex and the Turbo makes far more sense. Steadier inputs give the chassis time to find its feet. With that comes the confidence to use more power and enjoy that gem of an engine. Then when the road opens up again, it’s natural to pop
into sixth and lope through mile after mile, enjoying the pliant ride and controlled damping.
Very few cars have a skillset as wide as the Calibra Turbo’s and, with the model almost extinct, it’s time to protect the survivors.
The Modern Classics view
Poor period reputation and the diminishing cachet of the Vauxhall brand have historically reduced the market value of the Calibra Turbo.
Used prices swiftly collapsed in the ’00s and the Calibra was soon home to big wheels, bigger dump valves and neon lighting. A ‘chav chariot’ image did nothing to help and even the best cars were struggling to command more than £2500 a decade ago.
That quickly made the Turbo one of the cheapest ways to big power, with a correspondingly deleterious impact on the number of presentable survivors. Most have now been thrashed, crashed or cannibalised for their modification-friendly engines and gearboxes, the darlings of the performance Vauxhall community.
But much like the Subaru Impreza Turbo or VW Corrado VR6, attentive owners are improving the mechanical condition of survivors and values are now on the rise. Over the past 12 months, prices have rocketed as far as £8000 and show no sign of slowing down. Combine that driveline with still-fresh styling and it’s easy to see why the Turbo is finally getting its due. Coupés are all about style, and the Calibra is right on trend.