Words & photos - Daniel Bevis
Two years ago, I fell in love with a Vauxhall Firenza. And not just any Firenza, but the concours-restored droop-snoot HP that resides within the marque's Heritage collection in Luton. Its robust combination of peppy twin-cam thrills, stupendous gearbox, waggy tail, and oh-so-seventies styling entirely won my heart. I've driven many cars since, but nothing's quite matched the utter, utter joy of that drive.
But you know what? This thing comes pretty close.
Returning to Vauxhall recently to grab a few more treats from their dreamy toybox, I found myself enveloped in the tartan splendour of the Chevette HS, and it was an unexpected revelation; some canny character in the late-1970s thought it'd be a good idea to take all of the evocative elements of the Firenza HP and stuff them into an unsuspecting family hatchback. And by jingo, they were on to something.
All of the ingredients are present and correct: the 2,279cc slant-four twink, the feisty rear-wheel drive chassis, the gorgeous dogleg gearbox, the mile-deep silver paintwork, the deep-dish steering wheel... hell, it's even got the same wheels. And to drive? Oh - sublime! The figures may seem humble on paper when you view them in a modern context - 135bhp, 0-60mph in 8.8s, 117mph - but the nerdy tedium of bare figures is an insulting measure by which to judge the Chevette HS. It's all about feel, and emotion, and feedback. And smells - mostly petrol, a little aged cloth, some scorched rubber. A visceral assault on all of the senses. (Yes, even taste, there's quite a lot of unburnt fuel wafting about on the breeze.)
The rally-inspired aero body addenda and retro side-stripes promise much, and the experience delivers with gusto. The Shove-it leaps greyhound-like from a standstill, the rear squirming just slightly before the relatively broad rubber digs in, and the engine's bizarre sound - a fusion of wail, roar, and crashing cymbals - infuses the whole accelerative experience with the feeling that you should be sporting whopping sideburns and a rally jacket. That beautifully old-school steering wheel represents only half of the effort required to turn the car, with the other half coming from the rear wheels; it's not quite as tail-happy as the Firenza, but it's still extremely easy to take every corner at some degree of sideways-ness. This doesn't necessarily have to mark you out as a hooligan either, as it'll happily oversteer at 20mph on a dry roundabout, such is its willingness to please. The larger Cavalier brakes and heavily revised suspension give you the confidence to barrel the thing about with juvenile abandon, before it's time to open the taps again and grrrrrrowl onward to the next corner for some more tyre-smokin' sideways mischief.
What's most charming about the 2300HS is that it doesn't even pretend to be a sensible hatchback. The tartan seat fabric allies it with some other naughty whippersnappers trimmed in similar style - the MkI Golf GTI, the MkIII Capri 3.0S - and it fuses this boy-racer reputation with genuine rally-stage excess. It's utterly bonkers, and thoroughly addictive.
So, as good as the Firenza? Ah, almost... but good enough is more than enough here. A little piece of my heart remains wedged inside the Chevette. (Hanging on for dear life, probably.)