As far as keen drivers are concerned, the Astra’s school report has had ‘must try harder’ written throughout most of its three-decade lifespan. There has been the odd dynamic highlight – the Mk2 GTE and outgoing three-door GTC among them. But overall, driving an Interested in buying a Astra has tended to lead you to conclude over the years, that Vauxhall cares most about comfort, isolation, security and ease of use and hardly at all about precision and driver involvement.
Dispelling that impression may end up being the most significant legacy of this car, because no one could drive the new Astra and think its handling hadn’t been carefully considered and intended to engage.
Even compared with the most driver-oriented cars in the class, such as the Focus and Mazda 3, the new Astra feels light on its feet and keen to change direction. It’s sufficiently firmly sprung to resist body roll well, sufficiently grippy at all four corners to encourage you to drive it with plenty of spirit and quick enough on the wheel to dive into corners with minimal effort.
A lack of genuine contact-patch steering feedback hardly seems a relevant criticism of a volume-selling diesel five-door now that there’s hardly a car among the current crop that provides any, but the Astra’s steering still seems oddly weighted at times. It lacks the consistency and natural feel of some of its rivals, feeling light at first and weighting up a bit belatedly as you add lock.
So too, is the new Astra’s slightly hollow and occasionally fidgeting ride a minor shortcoming. Although a certain firmness over bad surfaces may be linked to Vauxhall’s decision to go after a more involving driving experience with this car, and it’s apparent that the Astra’s directness and responsiveness come from those firm springs and fairly hard bushings – and not from the clever damper tuning and close body control that has marked out the very best-handling hatchbacks of recent times.
But the headline news is clear: interested drivers may well like this Astra and be willing to put up with its foibles. Do not adjust your sets.
Vauxhall supplied us with an Astra well prepared for Millbrook’s Alpine Hill Route. On standard 17in alloy wheels, it may have offered a little more lateral grip and slightly crisper steering than most Astra models bought in the real world. That said, there’s more to a fine-handling hatchback than a big set of wheels — and the Astra’s taut suspension and direct helm played their part, too, in what was a very agile and secure showing all round.
The Astra’s firm, flat ride translates into a pleasingly immediate, roll-free turn-in, even when you hustle and harry the car into a tight bend. Mid-corner balance is very respectable but tuned more for stability than playfulness, so it’s hard to engage the rear wheels in the car’s cornering attitude. But as a result, the Vauxhall looks after its driver very well, even when the entry speed for a corner is over-estimated. The car’s ESP feels reasonably mature and unintrusive, too.