BARCELONA, Spain — There is a cathedral here in this partying port city that the Spanish have been working on for more than a century.

When the Sagrada Familia Church is completed in about 25 years, huge amounts of money will have been spent, years of hard work logged. All for the hope that the finished product will be viewed as a benchmark throughout the world.

So it's appropriate that the church is a pit stop made while test driving the all-new Vectra from General Motors Corp.'s Adam Opel AG. Vectra is the first vehicle based on GM's global Epsilon front-drive midsize platform, which also will be used for the next-generation Saab 9-3 (due later this year), Chevy Malibu (scheduled to arrive in mid-2003) and numerous other products around the world.

Although GM didn't spend 100 years developing Epsilon, it did spend a lot of money and probably the better part of a decade. Lowell Paddock, director of portfolio planning-GM Europe, says some $1 billion ($875.5 million) was invested in the Vectra program.

Consider that money well spent. GM's imperative need to stop its worldwide slide in passenger-car market share makes the Epsilon program the auto maker's most important launch since it rolled out its GMT800 fullsize truck architecture in the late 1990s. Vectra is sold in more than 30 countries under numerous brands. If it flops, GM is in trouble.

Early indications are that GM needn't worry.

The 5-passenger people mover holds up well during runs along the Costa Brava coast and inland hills here. Vectra handling is fairly crisp in the tight turns above the mountain town of Monserrat and along the coastal highways near Castelldefels. In fact, it can bite into the curves pretty hard. The sturdy ride is made possible by the Interactive Driving System chassis. IDS fuses the advanced control and safety functions of each chassis component and is comprised of a McPherson strut front suspension, a new multi-link, independent rear axle, electro-hydraulic power steering and a 4-channel antilock brake system with Cornering Brake Control and Electronic Brake Force Distribution.

The North American iterations, promises Gene Stefanyshyn, vehicle line executive-midsize cars/crossovers, will be tweaked only slightly to compensate for the rougher road conditions found in several U.S. and Canadian markets. “We'll soften up the ride a bit,” says Stefanyshyn. “But we've got to be careful we don't make it too ‘floaty.’”

Keep your promise, Gene. It seems GM has more “boats” in the U.S. market today than Sea Ray.

Vectra offers five powerplants — a 1.8L, 122-hp DOHC I-4, a 2.2L 147-hp 4-cyl., a high-performance 3.2L 211-hp DOHC V-6 exclusive to the GTS model, and two direct-injection turbodiesels at 2L (100 hp) and 2.2L (125 hp) displacements. In Barcelona, the 2.2L gasoline and 2L diesel powerplants were put to the test. The diesel was exceptionally pleasurable at high altitudes, but it won't be offered in North American Epsilon vehicles. The 2.2L was sufficient, a typical family sedan engine with not a bad punch off the line.

Some of Vectra's most noticeable upgrades are the three available transmissions. The 5-speed manual isn't intimidating and features a new cable shift mechanism that dampens vibrations from the powertrain. The new 5-speed automatic works adaptively — adjusting to driving style and route. The Vectra 1.8L engine will be coupled with a continuously variable transmission (CVTronic) whenever GM irons out quality issues, probably sometime later this year.

Besides offering no diesel, the Epsilon's North American powertrain lineup will replace the 3.2L with a 3.5L V-6 (the new “High Value” engine family) and offer a 4-speed automatic instead of the 5-speed manual. In 2004, when Pontiac Grand Am moves onto Epsilon, it will exclusively offer a European-built 6-speed manual gearbox, Stefanyshyn says.

Styled by Canadian designer Michael Pickstone, the Epsilon-based Vectra is longer, wider and taller than the outgoing version. But its weight has increased by only 88 lbs. (40 kg). Inside, the instrument panel buttons are too small and too compact and seating is snug. The trunk's execution is top notch and the navigation system is the best in the industry. The automatic turn signals are touchy and wind noise is excessive.

A popularly equipped Vectra will start at $20,250 ($17,689). That's substantially more than the entrance fee to the Sagrada Familia Church, but Vectra offers a lifetime ownership option.