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.