Something was wrong. I wasn't supposed to be airborne, not in a Vauxhal. But, somehow, I had definitely momentarily defied gravity. Still, not to worry, I was only hurtling along a dirt track on top of a mountain. No need to panic. As my eyes met those of the startled olive picker standing by the road, I just about had time to curse myself for the way I'd handled that last corner, then I touched the road and sped away, and do you know what? I didn't even feel the landing.
A lot's changed in Croatia. Since the War of Independence ended almost twenty years ago the country has become the 18th most popular tourist destination in the world. With Croatian's new status as the 28th member of the European Union, this tourism will only continue to grow. Driving along the Dalmatian Coast, staring out at unseasonal turquoise waters, it's easy to see why it's such a popular destination.
There's a strange contrast at work along the Dalmatian Coast, as you head from the airport towards Split. The roadside is littered with half finished buildings and signs for discount supermarkets, while the bays are full of all manner of yachts. Small yachts that would only cost ten lifetimes worth of wages and huge, don't-even-dream-about-it yachts that sigh and shake their heads whenever you glance at them for too long. But, the biggest contrast of them all has to be what i'm doing: driving a Vauxhall Cascada, with the roof down, in November.
I'd been told, you see, that the 'Very Berry' coloured model was a 'Four-Season-Convertible'. I can now safely say that no such thing exists. Ok, so it might come equipped with heated seats, a heated steering wheel and a small removable wind shield for the back seat, but, when the sky is an ugly shade of grey and purple lightning is rolling across the mountains in the distance, you don't want to be cruising along with your hair getting scrapped back and your cheeks wobbling like an astronauts during take off. Still, I did manage to get quite warm by huddling down behind the windshield. The only problem then was visibility. Hmm. Yes, the Cascada is a great convertible, but I'd thoroughly recommend leaving the top up unless you can actually see the sun.
To give the Cascada its dues, it is a quiet car, even with the roof down. So quiet, in fact that I could even hear the axes of the men chopping wood by the side of the road. It's also an extremely capable car with its 2 litre engine offering more than enough power to enable us to glide in and our of Croatian rush-hour traffic (it is called the BiTurbo after all).
It also looks rather nice for a Vauxhall. While the German company know they might not be everyone's first choice when it comes to convertibles, they are hoping the Cascada will become known as a good-looking reliable model that's as comfortable functioning as a family car as it is tearing along costal roads with the top down. Judging by our windswept test drive, they might just be right. Our night drive through beautiful bays and steep hills is certainly one we won't forget in a hurry.
On the second day of the trip I left behind the beautiful Split, Croatia's city within-a-palace and headed out to tackle some off-roading in the Vauxhall Insignia Tourer. I could almost have predicted the olive grove clash with death by the way I left the hotel in a cloud of smoke and burning clutch. Thankfully, the car took this punishment in its stride and once I'd mastered the sensitive clutch I was away.
Due to some 'creative interpretation' of the Sat Nav, I found myself crawling down a few winding one way streets, while baffled locals ducked out of the way, shouting encouragement after the car. Thankfully, the sensitive steering meant those last minute jerks to a cry of 'a little to the left! The left!' were not a problem.
Once I was free of the city (and back on the main road) I settled back into the heated seat and began to enjoy the drive. The seats, I was informed, were the second most expensive part of the car. In tan leather, and more comfortable than should be allowed, I can certainly see why, and with 5 seats rather than 4, you're allowed that little bit of extra room that makes all the difference on those long journeys. The tan and black leather interiors also added a touch of luxury to the car with an 8 inch colour touch screen adding functionality. Whereas the Cascada has gone for a sport interior, the Insignia keeps it classic, with dials rather than digital displays. While both look fantastic, there was a sense that the Cascada's displays were easier to interact with.
Then came the near-death experience. As I wound up a dusty mountain path towards the olive groves we decided to put all six gears to use and see what the car could do in 'Sport' mode. I wasn't disappointed. One thing you should know about Croatia is that their mud looks delicious. Our watery, miserable British mud pales in comparison. No, Croatian mud is something entirely different; it's rich and velvety and the colour of toffee milkshake. To watch it fall through the air is a delight. To watch it splatter across the bonnet is a rare treat. However, you should always remember not to get too carried away when shooting along a potholed road, bordered by dusty olive trees, no matter how good the local mud.
Heading back down the mountain towards Split, I found myself surprised at the experience I'd had. Not just by how beautiful this area of Croatia is, but by the two Vauxhall cars I'd had the pleasure to drive. Vauxhalls shouldn't look this good, they shouldn't handle this well, but somehow they do. These two models are exciting, and affordable additions to Vauxhall's catalogue and they're also a great deal of fun to drive. So impressed was I that when I found myself heading down a narrow mountain road, tailing a tanker marked 'flammable' with a savage head wind coming my way, I felt entirely confident putting our lives in the hands of the Insignia. Well, I did hang back a little bit, one near-death experience is enough for one trip.
Pictures courtesy of Vauxhall