The Vauxhall Astra is one of the best-looking hatchbacks, but average dynamics and performance hamper its overall appeal
First DriveFrugal 1.6-litre diesel Astra estate has the zest to match its decent chassis and good looks
First DriveDespite a raft of tweaks aimed at achieving impressive frugality, this Vauxhall Astra 1.7 CDTi Ecoflex Exclusiv still offers an engaging driver experience
What do the words Astra and estate mean to you? Images of damp dogs and absent-minded drivers, perhaps, or a herd of photocopier salesmen charging up the M1?
No longer. This is the new, sharper Astra estate, on sale in November and containing in its lexicon for the first time a 170bhp turbocharged petrol and 150bhp turbodiesel engines and optional adaptive suspension. And not a damp mutt in sight.
The pick of the range is the powerhouse diesel from the Vectra, with its sweet shifting six-speed gearbox and Euro4 compliant combustion. A version of Fiat’s torquey JTD, it delivers the acceleration and economy we’ve come to expect from modern diesels. An 8.6sec 0-62mph dash is warm-hatch territory while 47.9mpg will keep the household budget in check. In the same package they’re a persuasive combination.
Like most diesels, this CDTi unit is at its best when running in a cross-country rhythm, whether on the motorway or a more challenging A-road. Tall gearing (35mph per 1000rpm in sixth) takes the sting out of any diesel rattle at speed and there’s just enough torque to hot up the pace without dropping a gear. Third and fourth are the gears of choice on back roads, with lots of punch for overtaking or pulling out of tight bends.
The electro-hydraulic power steering follows driver inputs faithfully, but feel is average, although pressing the sport button livens up the helm with extra weighting and sharpens throttle response. Our mid-range Design spec CDTi came with optional 17in alloys, which look great, and standard suspension that was reasonably composed, riding better than the firm SRi set-up. But the ride and refinement of the strut/torsion beam suspension still lacks the sophistication of the multi-link equipped VW Golf, and therefore probably the new Ford Focus.
But there won’t be a new Golf estate until late 2006. The new Focus wagon, on sale in March, is a more pressing threat, but the Astra has plenty to offer. The wheelbase is stretched 89mm and the rear overhang a further 177mm – extending rear legroom and luggage capacity. A handy by-product of the longer wheelbase is wider door opening, which eases access to the rear.
Unfortunately there’s a price to pay for these extended dimensions, which add weight and dilute the crisp lines of the hatch. Still, the looks are a big improvement over its stodgy predecessor’s.
The boot is now 470 litres, five litres less than the new Focus, but the Vauxhall wins with seats folded at 1550 litres. The load bay is 1122mm long and the rear bench folds flat when the base is lifted. The optional £100 fold-flat front seat back and £50 Flex Organiser, a series of nets that divide the load bay, add versatility.
Astra estates are often bought to tow, so for £350 there’s an optional Towing Pack which reprograms the stability control to sense trailer sway and includes self-levelling dampers and hill-start assist.
It’s a fact of life that three-quarters of all Astra estates are bought by fleets. So the CDTi’s fairly high £18,695 price tag is most meaningful when passed through the fleet department’s rental calculator.
Price aside (and assuming you’re not paying for it), the sharply-styled interior and Vauxhall’s dealer-in-every-town service network mean there are now more reasons to drive an Astra Estate.