For fans of older European vehicles, the Opel Ascona isn’t exactly special per se but there’s more to it than you might think. The third and final generation of the model, produced between 1981 and 1988, helped the German brand with the transition to the 1990s when cars generally became more sophisticated, comfortable, and loaded with tech. The Ascona C was Opel's first effort for a relatively affordable yet large, well-equipped, and practical car driven by its front wheels. While it was never sold in the United States, it had the same bones – GM’s J platform – as the Chevrolet Cavalier CL, Pontiac J2000 LE, Oldsmobile Firenza LX, Buick Skyhawk Limited, and Cadillac Cimarron sold at this side of the big pond.

Welcome to Timeless European Treasures, our weekly look back at cars from the European market that defined a motoring generation.

Why do we love it?

The Opel Ascona has earned its reputation as a beloved classic for several reasons. Its elegant and timeless design, comfortable ride, and excellent handling are among the primary factors that endear it to enthusiasts. The Ascona's practicality, fuel efficiency, and solid build quality made it an ideal choice for both daily commuting and long road trips. The model proved that GM could design, develop, and build inexpensive mid-sized cars with FWD - something it kept doing during the next decades on a global scale.

Additionally, its sportier variants, such as the Ascona 400, have become legendary among rally racing fans, thanks to their impressive performance on the tracks. This version was part of the second-gen Ascona lineup, though, with which Walter Röhrl won the 1982 World Rally Championship drivers' title.

When was the car launched?

The third generation of the Opel Ascona made its debut in 1981, replacing the second-generation Ascona that had been in production since 1975. This new iteration brought several modern updates to the table, including improved aerodynamics, enhanced safety features, and a more refined interior. It was the only Ascona from all three generations to be powered by its front wheels.

Gallery: Opel Ascona C

Where did it sit in the brand's lineup?

The Ascona occupied an essential position in the company’s lineup as a mid-sized family car. Sitting between the smaller Kadett and the larger Rekord and Senator models, the Ascona catered to consumers seeking a balance of size, practicality, and performance. This strategic placement allowed the Ascona to address the needs of a wide range of customers, from families to individuals looking for a stylish and comfortable daily driver.

In 1982, the Ascona was narrowly beaten to the European Car of the Year accolade by the Renault 9. At the time, the model set the standards for performance in its segment with a top speed of 105 miles per hour when equipped with a 1.6-litre engine. That was well beyond the 101 mph top speed of the 2.0-litre Ford Cortina, one of the Ascona's main rivals.

What engines did it have?

The third-generation model offered a variety of engine options, ranging from fuel-efficient four-cylinder units to more potent powerplants suitable for the sportier Ascona models. Some of the available motors included 1.3-litre, 1.6-litre, and 2.0-litre inline-four engines. The Ascona also became one of Opel’s first mass-production vehicles to feature a diesel engine, a 1.6-litre naturally aspirated compression ignition mill with 55 bhp. Four- and five-speed manual transmissions, as well as a three-speed automatic, were available depending on the engine. The range-topping mill had 130 bhp from a 2.0-litre engine.

Opel Ascona C

Did it sell well?

With around 1.7 million sales, the third-generation Ascona was one of Opel’s best-sellers at the time. In 1988, the automaker discontinued the model and replaced it with the Vectra. Through three generations, the Ascona sold more than 3.9 million units. A version of the car remained in production in Brazil until 1996 with a major facelift in 1990 for both the two- and four-door models. 

In Britain, the Ascona was known as the Vauxhall Cavalier and was quite popular becoming the best-selling car in 1984 and 1985. Across a seven-year production run, it registered more than 700,000 deliveries in the UK. The Cavalier was also sold as an estate.