Vauxhall's seventh-generation Astra has joined our fleet; has it got what it takes to take on the latest Ford Focus?
21 March 2016

Even before it started appearing in British showrooms six months ago, the new British-built Vauxhall Astra had already staged one remarkable fightback.

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

The seventh-generation Vauxhall Astra is put through its paces on the UK roads

Our Verdict

Seventh generation Vauxhall Astra
The seventh-generation Vauxhall Astra seems to be a collection of General Motors' latest and greatest technology

Is it seventh time lucky for Vauxhall’s British-built Focus fighter?

Join the debate

Comments
17

21 March 2016

Almost exactly the same price as a new 5 litre Mustang in the States. Vauxhall mugging off the British public with the most boring car in the world. Mind you, Steve's hit a new car and it hasn't cost him a bean. Wouldn't be surprised if he likes it - I'm assuming of course it's not been paid for by Autocar.


21 March 2016

Improved or not, I bet GM will continue to loose money in each car sold. It's so bad they have to PAY people to take them away. I would also bet in a years time there will be loads of pre registered examples of this car for £15,000 on the forecourts. I'm not sure why Vauxhall even bother with their fantasy pricing? Didn't the previous Vauxhall / GM UK CEO get booted out for suggesting that they price their cars realistically and not offer discounts?

21 March 2016

Agree, its the best direction left to GM, budget brand, forget the pricey toys, no nonsense cars, cheap list prices with no discounts. Long term it will give better residual percentages and lower tax bills to company drivers. Many budget brands like Daewoo failed only because the cars were a bit too crap, GM are different in that they can make decent enough cars.

21 March 2016
winniethewoo wrote:

... It's so bad they have to PAY people to take them away. ....?

Bit early on a Monday for you to spout so much rubbish.

 

Hydrogen cars just went POP

21 March 2016

How is the Cascada doing?

21 March 2016

I see all the keyboard warriors are out winniethewooser and "I have no idea about tax" Winston... But hey ho...

I personally think Vauxhall have turned a corner. Having actually driven a Corsa E and sat in the latest Astra, they are producing decent cars. New Corsa with its excellent Intellink system improved ride and handling is actually a very good little car. Tardy 1.2 has now been dropped in favour of a detuned 1.4 75. Just sort out the confusing and far too numerous trim levels. Oh the Limited Edition is not exactly limited!! Hopefully the new Astra won't follow suit...

List prices have come down but with smaller discounts. But, makes sense. Astra looks nice and is quite well made inside - it actually has some desirability inside and outside. It is Ford, outside of its performance cars which is slipping slightly. Seeing as the Astra is UK made good luck to them...

21 March 2016

When you need a puff piece, turn to Mr Cropley. The new Astra, then: 'Britain's one locally sourced hatchback' (makes no sense at all), defiantly fitted with a diesel because the move against them is wrong headed (it says here on the SMMT press release). The car itself is wonderful of course (dynamic failings mentioned but glossed over, let's just say it's amongst the class leaders). Done!

21 March 2016
scrap wrote:

... The car itself is wonderful of course .... Done!

Sorry where does it say the car is wonderful??? or was that an attempt at sarcasm to get a point across.

 

Hydrogen cars just went POP

21 March 2016

Erm... "and the Astra’s status as Britain’s one locally built hatchback was preserved." Eh?! So what exactly is the Toyota Auris then? Which in case you didn't realise, is also UK built.

21 March 2016
NeufNeuf wrote:

Erm... "and the Astra’s status as Britain’s one locally built hatchback was preserved." Eh?! So what exactly is the Toyota Auris then? Which in case you didn't realise, is also UK built.

And of course the Honda Civic is also built in Swindon UK.

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