What is it?
We like the new Astra. It’s the first in GM’s stable to use the all-new D2XX chassis, which has moved it on hugely from the previous generation car. There's a lot more room inside, and the use of high-strength steel has helped it shed weight and in doing so improved its handling and ride.
Until now we’ve tested more mainstream diesels and efficient petrol versions, so the 1.6i Turbo 200 is something a little different. For now, it’s the fastest model in the range, using a new 1.6-litre turbocharged petrol engine with 197bhp and 221lb ft of torque to give proper pace: 0-60mph flashes past in 6.6sec, and its top speed is close to 150mph.
The 1.6i Turbo 200 costs a very reasonable £21,855 in top-spec Elite Nav trim - it offers ballpark Ford Focus ST and Skoda Octavia vRS levels of performance, but for considerably less money. It comes with luxury trinkets, such as an 8.0in touchscreen, a sat-nav, Bluetooth, DAB, leather, heated seats front and rear and a heated steering wheel as standard.
What's it like?
The new motor is a fine thing. There’s a touch of lag while you wait for the turbo to start filling its pipes and helping it breathe, but from 1500rpm it picks up willingly. It’s a little staged thereafter, feeling livelier still at 2500rpm before getting fully into its stride at 4000rpm. Rather than being a negative, this just encourages you to rev it out.
As we know, it’s quick, but it’s also pretty smooth. You can stretch it to the red line and release all the performance with no fear of bursting an eardrum, even if there is a little extra boom past 5000rpm.
Elsewhere the refinement is similarly good, with wind and road noise evident but not earsplitting at 70mph. The only issue is the suspension, which can get a bit boisterous on really bumpy sections of road.
Previously we’ve commented that Astras ride on the firm side, but this is easily the smoothest of the current model I've driven. Whether that’s down to the lighter petrol engine – I’ve spent more time in diesels – or it's a consequence of a particularly flattering stretch of French road, I can’t be absolutely sure. We’ll have to wait until we try one over some familiar UK roads to be definitive on that.
What we can say is that it handles tight, twisty, Alpine roads with ease. The steering is a bit numb, but other than that the body stays well controlled through turns, even when a mid-bend bump tries to catch it out.
Astras seem to have a fair degree of variance when it comes to the way the brake pedal feels, although they always stop effectively. This one had less unwanted travel, then built pressure more progressively as you pressed harder, making it much easier to judge your braking. We quizzed Vauxhall about reasons for this, and the answer was that how they've been bled could cause it to differ.
Beyond the new engine, the Astra still works as a proper family hack. There’s loads of space front and rear, and the boot is large enough to rival all but the class-leading Skoda Octavia when it comes to carrying pushchairs and shopping.
The driving position is also fine, with lots of adjustment to cater for most body shapes; having driven from Monte Carlo to Geneva in various versions, I can tell you it’s a pretty comfortable cross-country tourer.
It’s nicely finished inside, too, and compared with the old car much better thought through in terms of ergonomics. Even the infotainment system – the downfall of many a car without a BMW badge – is perfectly usable, if you excuse the odd menu foible here and there.
Should I buy one?
What a difference a year makes; the Astra has gone from way off the pace to a real contender in the last 12 months. While there have been plenty of engine options for those that want to keep running costs low, until now there’s been nothing for those who want to live in the fast lane a little.
This Astra 1.6i Turbo 200 has sorted that anomaly, and that’s before Vauxhall has wheeled out the VXR branding. By the way, we have reason to believe those letters will be appearing on an Astra model soon too.
The only criticism is that it doesn’t stand out from the rest of the range, particularly the SRi model; you’ll certainly stand out more in a Focus ST or Octavia vRS. However, if you prefer to leave the flashiness to others, pop along to a Vauxhall dealer and try one.
Vauxhall Astra 1.6i Turbo 200 Elite Nav
Location France; Price £21,855; Engine 4 cyls, 1598cc, turbo, petrol; Power 197bhp at 4700-5500rpm; Torque 221lb ft at 1700-4700rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Kerb weight 1350kg; Top speed 146mph; 0-60mph 6.6sec; Economy 46.3mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 141g/km, 25%