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
Vauxhall’s portfolio gets sportier by the month. With a flurry of mad-max VXR models already incoming, here’s the tamer Astra SRi Turbo 200PS (197bhp). It’s come to something when you can contemplate calling a 143mph car capable of accelerating from 0-60mph in 7.7sec ‘tame’. But Vauxhall has a yet more rapid agenda in store for the Astra next summer that involves the full VXR makeover and 240bhp.But this, as the more muscular of the two SRi Turbos (the lesser 170PS version has 168bhp), is as potent as the five-door Astra gets. It exists chiefly to take on the reinvigorated doyen of hot hatches, the VW Golf GTi, which in Mk5 guise has a 2.0-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder engine developing 197bhp, as does the Vauxhall.
The front-line appeal of the Astra SRi is transparent: an £18,445 sticker (£1500 less than the Golf), sexy wheels, sharp styling, loads of standard kit (leather, sat-nav and AFL xenon headlamps are the only options). Our low-mileage test car had the lot. Without question, this Astra challenges the Golf for swagger and driver appeal as well as power and pace.Inside, the fusion of ‘snazz’ and subtlety is skillfully executed: feel-good leather steering wheel, torso-hugging seats, stubby gearlever, big sporty dials, touchy-feely plastics. What a contrast to the Vectra. There is a sunnier side to Vauxhall’s disposition, and this is it.
Dynamically, the Astra can keep the grins going, too. It was certainly entertaining on the smooth and well-engineered roads where we headed for our first punt. Traditionally, small Vauxhalls haven’t shone quite so brightly when acquainted with the bumps, ruts and less-predictable cambers of more typical British B-roads. But this testosterone-marinated member of the new Astra family unravelled the turns with such an engaging combination of grip, supple composure and crisp, well-weighted helm responses untainted by torquesteer, it’s hard to believe it wouldn’t make a good fist of bumpier B-roads.
The familiar 2.0-litre Ecotec turbo engine is impressively smooth and free from lag. It can tap into oodles of overtaking push anywhere between 2000 and 5000rpm, and delivers it without a hint of strain or fuss. What fuss there is presents itself in beautifully tuned and cultured way: top-end bite is a satisfyingly sharp, the engine note subtly guttural, the short-throw gearshift swift and positive in a well-defined gate.
It means this. Where the SRi 170PS is quick, smooth and unstrained, the 200PS is effortlessly rapid. Brisk as the claimed 0-60mph time of 7.7sec is, it gives little clue to the shove the SRi can generate out of tight bends. Or the disdain with which it overtakes slower-moving traffic in fourth and fifth. High revs are seldom necessary, but it does these with conviction, too. All that changes is the pitch of the motor’s muted growl: there’s no major increase in noise, no reduction in smoothness.
Braking always feels on top of the job, too, with a firm, progressive pedal feel that bites without any slack in the travel.
If the body kit, flash wheels and borderline-brash interior trim strips aren’t your thing, the Golf’s more demure approach and arguably finer engine might be more tempting. Otherwise, the Astra SRi should satisfy. Whether you see it as the smartest performance Astra choice – five doors and only 40bhp less than the VXR – or a sharper-looking alternative to what will undoubtedly become the ubiquitous Golf GTi, it’s a potent package at a very attractive price. As far as this brief encounter goes, it hits the spot.