General Motors Corp.'s biggest success or failure is about to hit the open road, at least in Europe. Housed in the newly constructed assembly plant in Russelsheim, Germany, is Opel's new Vectra, a vehicle that marks the most significant global launch in GM's recent history.

Vectra's significance to its parent company isn't its Passat-esque skin or its world-class interior. The true jewel of the Vectra is what's underneath: its platform. Dubbed Epsilon, this new platform could account for upwards of 1.4 million vehicles for GM globally on an annual basis.

Epsilon will grace the shores of North America as the underpinning for the next-generation '03 Chevrolet Malibu and Malibu extended, as well as Pontiac Grand Am sedan and coupe. There's also a Saab model based on Epsilon, as well as a convertible.

In all, GM has billions banked on Epsilon, and if the Vectra is any indication of what's headed for the shores of North America, GM's gamble could have big paybacks.

Vectra production will begin in January with the sedan and GTS models. The sedan is expected to appeal to long-standing Vectra clients, while the GTS offers a more sporty flare designed to bring new buyers into the Vectra family. “The GTS will appeal to younger buyers and win new customers for Opel,” says Opel Chairman and Managing Director Carl-Peter Forster.

The sedan and GTS are just the beginning of what Opel has in the pipeline for the Vectra line. Within the next 18 months, Opel plans to launch two more versions of the Vectra to appeal to European consumers.

In 2003, Opel will launch the new Vectra Signum, based off the Signum2 concept that debuted at the Frankfurt Motor Show. The Signum is expected to be as successful as the Zafira, while also helping to boost Opel's image.

“The Vectra Signum overcomes traditional preconceptions with its elegant design and innovative interior flexibility.” Forester says. “The basis for this variability and spaciousness is the wheelbase, which is considerably longer than the Vectra sedan's. I am convinced — and market research confirms — that the Signum will repeat the effect of the Zafira, and impact the whole segment.”

The Vectra station wagon will debut in the fall of 2003 and will feature a longer wheelbase than the sedan and load capacity that exceeds the current Omega station wagon.