The industry’s most competitive segment: that’s how we’ve often described the family hatchback class. It receives massive investment, deals in colossal volume, is filled with household names and populates more driveways than dandelions.
However, for the past few years, critically speaking, the market has been about as competitive as the Scottish Premiership. There are plenty of also-rans, for sure, but our advice, based on fitness for purpose and driving pleasure, has monotonously circled the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus.
Overweight and developmentally undernourished would be more accurate. Had it been built by another manufacturer, it might have sunk further from view, but Vauxhall, as it enjoys reminding us, is still plugged intravenously into the public’s buying cortex, and the Astra shifted even in the face of superior competition.
Now, though – as confirmed by last week’s road test – the Astra is suddenly back in the reckoning. Underpinned by a new platform, the model has been transformed from company car booby prize to a contender worthy of challenging its rivals’ virtual hegemony of our affections. Previously, we reviewed the 1.6 CDTi version, but as diesels are decidedly out of fashion this month, we’re focusing on the petrol motor here: the 148bhp 1.4-litre Ecotec unit, itself all new and lightened for the job.
Because price is one of the Astra’s strongest suits, we’ve ejected the reassuringly expensive Golf from proceedings and selected instead its cheaper sibling, the Seat Leon, which is based on the same MQB platform as the VW. In FR trim, even this proves almost a grand more expensive than our similarly high-spec Astra SRi Nav. It is a match for its running costs, though. Seat claims an impressive CO2 output of 110g/km and 60.1mpg combined from its 148bhp 1.4 EcoTSI, compared with 128g/km and 51.4mpg for the Astra.
That leaves it all for the 148bhp 1.5-litre Ecoboost Focus to do. Lumbered with a six-speed automatic gearbox in this instance, the Ford lags behind on 140g/km and 46.3mpg. It’s expensive, too. This Titanium model is nearly £1500 more than the Astra even without the auto ’box – and before you’ve added the sat-nav and 17in wheels already found on board the Vauxhall.
The static test
In accordance with its slightly sporty bent, the Leon gets the biggest alloy wheels and the prettiest body, a cut ’n’ shut of thigh-high creases that make the Focus look old and the Astra plain. An upshift in desirability has been a long time coming for Seat, and the handsomeness of its best-known model plays no small part.
The Focus’s raptor-ish front end still appears pretty if you get down in the dirt with a prone photographer, but at head height it seems squashed by ubiquity and general prudence. That’ll eventually come to the new Astra, too, of course, but for now it looks as tasteful as everything else that Luton gets a preview of ahead of the rest of the country. The advantages of its new dimensions have been widely acknowledged. Externally, this is a slightly smaller Astra, and where its predecessor sometimes appeared to be blowing out its cheeks in self-deprecation, the new car looks as though the 5:2 diet and a weekly spin class have contributed to its leaner presence.
It’s less the look that impresses than the spatial cleverness it conceals, though. Even with subjective kneecaps replacing the road test tape measure, it’s clear that the Astra is out in front for leg room – and that’s despite the modest shrinkage that has occurred in its wheelbase.
The Focus seems stuffy in comparison, affording your femur enough space but somehow hemming in elbows and shoulders. The Leon is better, thanks to marginally superior packaging and the presence of a contrasting, light-coloured headlining to relieve some of the typical matt grey dinginess.
Ergonomically, it triumphs, too, plotted, as it is, on the Volkswagen Group’s masterly blueprint for such things. Just as the seats are perfectly pert and its dials as legible as the BBC’s homepage, so the switchgear is uncannily well proportioned and positioned as if magnetised to the end of your fingertips.
The Focus, better now in this regard than in its Enigma machine-aping pre-facelift guise, still falls well short of this high bar. The air-con and ventilation controls are unnecessarily large, the dashboard plastic unnecessarily bulky, the door pulls too small and their use coupled with the irksome clackety-clack of Ford’s optional door paint protectors blathering into action.
The Astra, by virtue of having a slightly lower stack that doesn’t bulge needlessly towards you, feels much less oppressive. From a distance, it’s better looking, too, although on closer inspection you’re more likely to reflect on the smudged mirror image of your own face than its aesthetic. There’s way too much shiny polymer posing as expensive piano black trim for the tastes of any tester let near it, and the lack of a phone-swallowing cubbyhole in the dash drove at least one staffer to distraction.
If that’s evidence (again) of the legendary ability of Vauxhall parent firm General Motors to trim a corner or two from costs, the infotainment system is at least testimony of money well spent. The Astra signals the arrival of the manufacturer’s Onstar system, made manifest by a few small buttons above your head.
The one linking you to a concierge-type service will be only as useful as you make it, but the wi-fi 4G hotspot one next to it will probably be worn faint with use. Providing an (initially free) internet connection to tablet-toting offspring is an unmistakable advantage, and although the Ford and Seat’s touchscreens actually prove more intuitive than Vauxhall’s latest display, one suspects that a family buyer would readily trade a slither of usability at the front for the ability to seamlessly stream Dora the Explorer in the back.
On the road
Enhanced connectivity is certainly not the limit of the Astra’s new-found convenience. The car’s discernible compactness and substantial weight loss are appreciable from the get-go and feed directly into its relative ease of use. Formerly, a petrol-powered Astra like this could be counted on to pull away with a vapid, hollow groan of unwanted strain. Now it bustles away from the line like a filly relieved of a fat and onerous jockey.
The feeling of liberation is infectious and encouraged by the spirited performance of the new Ecotec motor, which, once it has cleared its throat of any low-rev hesitancy, churns along very merrily indeed.
The four-pot develops 173lb ft of torque between 2000rpm and 4000rpm, slightly less and later than the equally accelerative Leon, but it seems like there’s a dash more reward to be had from revving it longer.
Both claim to encounter 60mph in less than 8.0sec, and each feels that enjoyably brisk in the real world. They’re predictably quicker than the Ford, which is forced to toil through the smooth-shifting mediocrity of its bandy ’box. The Ecoboost’s own 177lb ft of overboost twist prevents it from ever feeling underpowered, but it’s unfairly smothered in this company nevertheless.
Ironically, it’s the transmission and other control surfaces that slightly undo the Astra. The quibbles picked out in the road test resurface in this comparison. There’s a slight sponginess to the pedal feel, a hint of unwarranted weight to the clutch and the throw on the six-speed manual gearbox’s lever is overly long and unreasonably fusty – not to mention set too far back for this short-legged tester to get comfortable with.
Nitpicking, perhaps, but they’re all issues utterly eliminated in the more harmonious Seat, which engages gear ratios and biting points as though they were lightweight levers of your thought process.
The Leon – like the Golf and, indeed, practically every MQB-based car – transfers this functional buoyancy into a handling character by now so familiar that it practically qualifies as old. It is, by turns, alert, precise, straightforward and highly accomplished.
Think of it as the Dermot O’Leary of cars: comfortably likeable, if for no nailed-on reason other than the complete absence of disagreeableness. It works gamely and proficiently at every speed and will move between variations without coaxing much energy from its driver. Push on and there’s stability in abundance, bordered by near idiot-proof predicability.
On optional 18in wheels and the firmer springs of Seat’s sports suspension, it rides primly but well. Its steering is accurate, too, although the boniness of its slightly ramped-up power assistance is made plain by the more satisfying heft of the Focus’s rack.
Once upon a time, the model’s wheel was the font from which the Blue Oval’s ‘Feel the Difference’ vitality flowed. That is no more. It has been replaced by the kind of self-centring, oily assurance that you might expect from a machine twice its weight and three times the cost.
The hatchback attached barely lets that impression slip, either. The agility it once traded on has been absorbed into a more deliberate dynamic, but your connection to the front axle, the coddling secondary ride and the roundedness of its response to bumps, corners, camber and crests remains largely beyond question.
Back to back, the best and most obvious thing to say about the Astra is that it is a revelation in several ways. At speed, the funk of disappointment that clung to the old model like a damp greatcoat has been cast off and an apparently impish, enthused car beneath has emerged. The lightened verve is aided by Vauxhall’s decision to keep the chassis settings firm and the steering quick. Thus, it changes direction well, with warm-hatch poise and a keen sense of midriff rotation.
There is ultimately less stability than is provided by the Leon and less certainty in the steering inputs than the Focus manages – but it resists totally the staidness that used to settle on the Astra like tree sap.
Being suddenly agreeable to pedal is, for a goodly length of B-road, easily sufficient to paper over the new model’s shortcomings. They surface, though, when you slow down or enter a town; the taut ride quality is susceptible to a twitchiness not found in the Focus or Leon and subsequently downgrades to brittle should you hit a big deflection with the suspension already loaded. The Leon can be similarly irascible, but it is better damped. The Focus is simply better all round at lower speeds – softer, quieter and more composed.
The final reckoning
By the standards Vauxhall will have set itself, the Astra triumphs in this test. It is, at the very least, the most practical and best value of the three. It’s also thoroughly decent to drive, painless to operate, okay to look at and competitively cheap to run. As we suspected, it richly deserves its place among the class leaders.
But not, by the standards we apply, on a podium place atop them. Happily, though, the dividing gap – previously a gulf – is now subjectively slender. That the Astra does not isolate, cosset or satisfy its driver to quite the same high standard as its rivals is understandable yet, for us, still a compelling reason to place it narrowly third.
The Focus and Leon are ahead of it for differing reasons that make them troublesome to split.
Truthfully, on the day, the Leon nabs it – mostly because we wouldn’t recommend the Ford’s slusher to anyone reading this magazine. Even looking beyond that, it is now difficult to see why Ford thinks its hatchback is worth more than Seat’s better-looking, quicker, cleaner and better-appointed alternative.
Ford’s continuing investment in the way the Focus drives is admirable and it evokes a level of polish we’d hope to see the Astra reach later in its lifecycle. But Vauxhall’s investment in technology, equipment, space and platform cleverness is torn from the VW Group playbook, and the Leon is undeniable evidence of its virtues.
Seat Leon 1.4 EcoTSI 150 FR
Price £20,525; 0-62mph 8.0sec; Top speed 134mph; Economy 60.1mpg; CO2 110g/km; Kerb weight 1241kg; Engine 4 cyls, 1395cc, turbo, petrol; Power 148bhp at 5000rpm; Torque 184lb ft at 1500-3500rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual
Ford Focus 1.5T Titanium auto
Price £22,345; 0-62mph 9.2sec; Top speed 129mph; Economy 46.3mpg; CO2 140g/km; Kerb weight 1364kg; Engine 4 cyls, 1499cc, turbo, petrol; Power 148bhp at 6000rpm; Torque 177b ft at 1600rpm; Gearbox 6-spd auto
Vauxhall Astra 1.4i Turbo SRi Nav
Price £19,595; 0-60mph 7.8sec; Top speed 134mph; Economy 51.4mpg; CO2 128g/km; Kerb weight 1278kg; Engine 4 cyls, 1399cc, turbo, petrol; Power 148bhp at 5000rpm; Torque 173b ft at 2000-4000rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual
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