Not long before its launch, plans had been laid for the closure of the Ellesmere Port plant, near Liverpool, that today builds about 30 new-generation Astras an hour and has been making General Motors’ small cars since the original Vauxhall Viva back in 1962.
The presumption that Astra production would move to Germany was turned on its head by an exceptional co-operative effort by Ellesmere Port’s staff and management, and the Astra’s status as Britain’s one locally built hatchback was preserved.
All of which is partly why we decided to run an Astra on our long-term fleet. The other reason is that early road tests have proved that the Astra is now right up there with the best cars in its hard-fought class.
But which Astra to run? Our tests had shown that the car was particularly strong in its lower-spec, lower-priced versions — and we might still run one of those — but the current wrong-headed move away from clean modern diesels plus the arrival in the Astra line-up of some very interesting gadgetry (especially Intellilux matrix headlights) made us decide on a semi-sporting SRi model with a 134bhp 1.6-litre fourcylinder diesel, a six-speed manual transmission, a built-in nav system and, of course, those lights.
The miracle of Ellesmere Port also made us want to collect the car directly from where it was manufactured, which is why, on a recent bright but extremely cold day, I pitched up at the factory’s visitors’ centre, first to meet plant director Stefan Fesser, then to tour the extensively modernised facility — which is getting ready to make Astra Sports Tourers (estates) — and finally to drive away in our brand-new red Astra SRi diesel, kitted with a modest but important collection of options that increased its standard price from the basic £21,480 to a drive-away total of £23,800.
Fesser is one of Vauxhall-Opel’s young stars. He came to Liverpool to prepare for the Astra, having previously run the Opel Adam plant, a particularly challenging job because that car has an unprecedentedly large range of options, yet the relatively low price means that it needs to be produced with industryleading efficiency.
For a bloke with several key launches packed into a relatively short career, Fesser looked remarkably unconcerned when we met in the plant’s boardroom, especially given that the company has just spent £140 million getting the place ready for its new purpose. “We were looking for a seamless launch for the Astra D2,” he said, using the internal model codename, “although launches are still the most complex things we do. But I think we have mainly pulled it off.
“This job has special challenges because the car is more complex to build than the outgoing car and we want to increase the line speed from 28 cars an hour now to more like 38 in a couple of months.”We toured the factory, which was unmistakably modern but to the untrained eye quite a lot like other plants — except that we kept encountering evidence of the pride people have in the place where they work. TEAM, we were told, stands for Together Everyone Achieves More.
Steve Jebbs, Ellesmere Port’s hugely experienced rectification manager, explained how much he hates occasional gaps on the production line, which indicate that a new car has needed a fault to be fixed. “I say to my people: don’t give me gaps,” he said. “We can’t sell those. Every gap goes to another manufacturer so we try our hardest to avoid them.” My overall impression was that this place is about as dissimilar as it is possible to get from a British plant from the much overpublicised ‘bad old days’.
When the tour finished, we walked back to the plant entrance where our new Astra stood, ready for its journey back to the Soft South.
First impressions: the quietness of the engine (Vauxhall makes a particular issue of this with its diesels), the perceived quality of the piano-black flashes across its fascia and the comfort of the Driver’s Ergonomic Sport Seat Pack, which amounts (at £250 extra) to handily adjustable under-thigh cushions, very good lumbar support and much better side support in corners. Oh, yes, and the slick action of the typically Vauxhall gearlever. The prospect of the impending journey was much better than that in the train that had brought me.
In the first miles, it became clear that matters needing investigation would be the ride comfort (which seemed composed and strongly damped but quite firm if not actually too firm), the steering (accurate but perhaps too light), the functions of the Sport setting (it sharpens the throttle response) and that £995 intelligent headlight option, because there was little opportunity to investigate them on the motorway trip home.
At the suggestion of Vauxhall, I have a night navigation rally organised for that purpose. More soon. I can hardly wait — and the car, so far, feels very promising.
The car: Vauxhall Astra
Run by Autocar since: March 2016
Needs to be: Frugal and fun, and a serious competitor for the Ford Focus.
Vauxhall Astra 1.6 CDTi 136PS SRi Nav
Price £21,480; Price as tested £23,800; Options Intellilux LED matrix headlights £995, parking sensors all round £450, Winter Pack (inc heated seats) £345, Driver’s Ergonomic Sport Seat Pack £250, PowerFlex Barphone charger £45, smartphone holder £40, LED tail-lights £19 Economy 54.4mpg; Faults None; Expenses None