Vauxhall's all-new Astra arrives, in what might well be the most important new car launch this year

What is it?

It’s the new Vauxhall Astra, which means it’s quite important. Small family cars are writ so large into the fortunes of mainstream car companies that none of them dares to be without one.

Even Nissan, which successfully hung its fortunes on crossovers and SUVs, was told by fleets it needed a conventional hatch and therefore ponied up the Pulsar. If you want to sell lots of cars in Europe – as Vauxhall/Opel already does – you have to offer a small family car, which is why now even Mercedes-Benz, Audi and BMW sell them, as if the mid-market wasn’t having a hard enough time already. 

There is probably no more important car to be launched this year, then, than the new Astra. And here it is, tested near Vauxhall’s Luton HQ, cars with right-sided steering wheels adorned with Griffin badges, rather than as Opel-badged left-hookers driven in the south of France or Spain.

For why? Because Britons buy Astras in greater numbers than anybody else, because it is ‘Brit-built’, says Vauxhall like a red-top headline, and because we get an Astra whose driving characteristics are tuned specifically for our roads. Vauxhall and Opel have, no question, put the hours in on this one.

First, then, the oily parts. The Astra sits on a new platform that is lighter than the one that preceded it, partly because it’s shorter (by 5cm), but mostly because it is more cleverly designed.

The Astra’s body-in-white now weighs 280kg, down from 357kg. It’s only one part of a weight loss regime that means the Astra – like for like, not some kind of fudge where you swap a 2.0 for a 1.6 and a torque converter for a dual-clutch automatic gearbox – is at least 120kg lighter than it was before. Fudge things through downsizing and so on and you can make a new Astra appear 200kg lighter than the old one.

It’s one of those virtuous circles; a lighter body and suspension means wheel sizes are smaller (18in is now the biggest), as are the brakes that sit within them.

There’s still MacPherson struts at the front and a torsion beam with Watt's linkage at the rear, but the front suspension cannot accept the ‘HiPerStrut’, as used by powerful versions such as the previous VXR, and the platform isn’t being asked to underpin a crossover too. It’s leaner and cheaper - shorn of fripperies. In political speak, Vauxhall would have made ‘efficiencies’. From that point of view, it’s a car of our time.

My hunch is that the Astra is significant not just as a new Vauxhall but as the most notable among a new generation of family cars, which will place weight reduction at the top of the agenda. We’ve had the fat early 2000s - the 2008 Audi RS6 that weighed 2145kg and averaged 16mpg in our hands – until it all got a bit silly and now motoring is as austere as the rest of the world.

The Astra has no flat underfloor tray, because it would be too expensive and too heavy. Instead, the underbody itself is flattened and suspension parts are hidden in the kind of thinking that will let a 1.6 Ecoflex diesel emit just 82g/km of CO2 when it arrives.

It hasn’t arrived yet, though. For the moment, we’ve tried a 1.6-litre diesel (to be road tested soon) and a 1.4-litre turbo petrol, which I’m majoring on here. As with the latest Ford Focus, there’s a 1.0 petrol triple, too.

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What's it like?

Step inside the Astra and you'll find that interior hasn't suffered with the new attitude.

Materials and their finish are largely good. To my mind, the Astra has the measure of a Focus but not a Volkswagen Golf in terms of perceived material quality. Ditto ergonomically, although Vauxhall’s new central multimedia screen is quite slick. You can also have OnStar, which offers lots of things your smartphone already does and a few it doesn’t.

The driving position is generally good, although a couple of test cars had a rather spongy brake pedal and a vague clutch. And while exterior dimensions have shrunk, inside it hasn’t; rear leg room is up by 3.5cm and the boot is large.

If the Astra is smaller outside and bigger inside and weighs less than before, though, does that mean something has to give? Presumably, yes; there’s reduced material use in general, including soundproofing ones, so the focus has switched to reducing noise at source.

That’s no bad thing; the drag coefficient is just 0.285 (it was 0.325 before), while the new 1.4 turbo petrol engine has been designed with resonance and weight reduction front of mind. Its block alone is 10kg lighter than the old 1.4 Turbo’s.

It’s quiet, then, so road noise, rather than wind or engine noise, is the major source of cabin NVH. More than before? Probably, but it’s hard to tell without a back-to-back test, and a reduction in other noise means the Astra is refined enough.

There’s little point in asking the engine to be noisy anyway. Although this feels like the 7.8sec-to-60mph car it’s claimed to be, peak torque (180lb ft) arrives at 2000rpm and peak power from 5000rpm, so it pays to stroke it along - the gearshift is sweet – in the mid-range. Precisely what buyers will do, I imagine. The 104bhp 1.0 sounds thrummier than I remember it in a Corsa, but it’s appealing and pulls the Astra around strongly enough (0-60mph is a claimed 10.5sec), given its output.

In the ride and body control trade-off, body control wins out by a whisker. Our test car rode on 225/45 R17 tyres and the ride occasionally thumped if already loaded when a bump arrived. But over crests and dips it’s good, and agility is – unsurprisingly – very strong. It’s that which makes the Astra enjoyable to drive rather than any particular engagement through the controls. To my mind, a Focus feels more adjustable, while a Golf is more sophisticated and solid.

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Should I buy one?

There’s no serious reason not to. This is a light, spacious, refined car with a pretty good grasp of the segment’s priorities.

Okay, put it and its two key rivals in front of me and ask which I’d rather drive, and I’d tell you it was the Ford or the Volkswagen, but those aside I’m fairly confident the Astra is the third-best car in the class. And, if your priorities are a bit more diverse than those of a typical enthusiast, it could even be higher again.

Vauxhall Astra SRi Nav 1.4 150 Turbo; 

Price £19, 995; Engine 4 cyls, 1399cc, turbo, petrol; Power 148bhp at 5000-5600rpm; Torque 180lb ft at 2000-3500rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Kerb weight 1278kg; Top speed 134mph; 0-60mph 7.8sec; Economy 51.4mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 128g/km, 20%

Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

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TurtleGerald 23 September 2015

Why so much hate?

It never ceases to amaze me how people can hate a car when all they've done is read about it. If you despise the Astra so much, go enjoy your diesel Volkswagens instead. Oh, wait a minute.
winniethewoo 24 September 2015

Well, I've driven a lot of

Well, I've driven a lot of the Astras before this and found them all to be miserable. I went through a couple of years where I tried to go carless (unsuccessfully) and by far the most miserable cars I got were Vauxhalls and Fiats. I've pretty much driven a couple of generations worth of the entire Vauxhall range over extended periods. Towards the end, I started requesting non Vauxhall cars, but seeing how prevalent they were in car hire firms, it got to the stage where I decided it was more pain than it was worth and I brought a car to use in Central London. This car just sits there outside my house on 9 out of 10 days. I hate Vauxhalls that much. You wouldn't expect a company that produces turds to suddenly produce something worthy. You would however expect them to polish the turd a little bit for new generations. I would be v.v.v.v.v.v.v.v.v. surprised if this wasn't the case with this Astra. A polished turd is still a turd.
Citytiger 23 September 2015

The paintwork

is shocking, on the picture with the SRI badge, I havent seen orange peel effect that bad for years.. If this is a press car, that will have been well scrutinised and prepared accordingly, I would hate to see what standard a normal one is, however apart from that, its certainly seems to be just as good as the class average, and better than some so called "premium" badges efforts.
xxxx 23 September 2015

Winnie answer to GM going bust

Alot of British jobs would be lost, especially in Ellesmere Port, still Dacia, Skoda could take up the slack. Happy now.