From £15,6208

Engine options, top speed, acceleration and refinement

The likes of Honda and Mazda may have brought welcome punch and a smattering of pace to low-CO2 diesel hatchbacks in the past few years, but most of them still smack of compromise on outright acceleration. This Astra doesn’t.

Its 1.6 CDTi engine trumps most of its rivals by around 20% on maximum power and torque, while still being competitive on fuel economy and emissions – and that’s one of the car’s main selling points.

The manual gearbox’s less than satisfying shift action isn’t helped by a big gearknob, which, if your hands are as modestly sized as mine, leaves you feeling a little like a toddler holding a cooking apple

Against our timing gear, the difference is plain. The Vauxhall needs less than nine seconds to pass 60mph from rest. The equivalent Ford Focus 1.5 TDCi we reviewed took more than two seconds longer for the same sprint, and the Volkswagen Group’s 1.6 TDI offerings suffer a similar disadvantage. For in-gear pulling power, the Astra’s performance is just as impressive, its relative advantage being worth around two seconds from 30-70mph in fourth gear compared with the class norm.

The Astra’s engine isn’t the quietest of its ilk, but it’s smooth and fairly free-revving. The fact that its maximum torque allotment is available over such a slender band of revs doesn’t seem to make much of a dent in the overall impression of vigour with which the car climbs gradients and gets up to speed. Responsiveness to the accelerator pedal is more than respectable. Most of the time, you’d swear this was a modern 2.0-litre diesel.

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Braking performance is likewise strong – at least, it is on the 17in wheels and larger brakes that come with this engine. Less powerful models have smaller front discs.

But we’re taking half a star away from the Astra from what might otherwise be a perfect score on the basis that its controls could feel slicker and better matched on weight and positivity. Unlike the car’s steering, which we’ll come to, the Astra’s clutch pedal feels light and a little vague in the way it manages the driveline. The gearlever’s shift quality is likewise a bit springy and inconsistent in its action and feel, and the brake pedal has a small but noticeable dead zone at the top of its travel.

Details like this make a telling difference to an otherwise run-of-the-mill hatchback with genuine driver appeal and blunt the edge of the Astra’s dynamic allure.

Interested in buying a Vauxhall Astra? Our sister title What Car? has taken the stress out of buying one.