An all-new family of efficiency-enhanced engines, some mostly effective chassis mods and a few trim and equipment upgrades usefully sharpen the Astra’s appeal

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You might be surprised to learn that F1 racer Lance Stroll is mulling the purchase of a Vauxhall Astra. That’s a showroom stock Astra, not a BTCC racer, nor even an Astra VXR.

If he buys one, it will join the collection of cars he has raced in his career to date, which are housed in his Canada home country. Why the desire for an Astra? Because this is the car that race tutor Rob Wilson uses to tutor IndyCar, DTM, NASCAR, WRC and World Endurance Championship drivers at the Bruntingthorpe airfield in Leicestershire

Stroll is one of many top-flight drivers to have used Wilson’s services, and considers the Vauxhall a part of his driving history. Wilson says that he also likes ‘the Astra’s handling balance’. If Stroll does place an order, he’d do well to make it for this latest facelift version, whose chassis revisions work particularly well with the 143bhp version of its totally new 1.2 three cylinder turbo engine, of which more shortly.

New engines, petrol and diesel, are the big news for this Astra facelift, work on these new motors already well under way when Vauxhall and Opel were still part of the General Motors empire. Despite PSA having its own range of engines it has seen the programme through, the result being two new families of all-alloy petrol and diesel triples. The 1.2s are offered with 108bhp, 128bhp and 143bhp, their identical CO2 and fuel consumption figures confirming that these differences are achieved merely with software changes rather than modifications to the engines themselves. These twin cam petrol triples are all direct injection with variable valve timing, have particularly low internal friction and are claimed to provide good transient throttle response. There’s also a torquier 143bhp 1.4 petrol turbo triple, with balancer shafts, that comes only with a new 9-speed torque converter automatic gearbox, this transmission also being available with the 120bhp 1.5 diesel. Both this diesel and the 103bhp version are unusual for providing less power than their 108bhp and 134bhp forebears. But all these engines comply with Euro6d emission regulations, and score CO2 reduction of as much as 21 percent.

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That’s the big news for the fleets that buy around 80% of Astras, the 103bhp diesel dropping six BIK bands to 23 percent – usefully lower than for the equivalent Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf – as the result of a 107g/km to 95g/km CO2 drop. Because these new diesels are RDE2 compliant, the four percent BIK surcharge is avoided too. The engine itself is lighter than the outgoing version – the plastic inlet manifold helps – and has an electrically controlled variable-vane turbo to more swiftly build boost. According to Vauxhall the lower powered hatch is actually quicker to 60mph than its predecessor, at 10.0sec rather than 10.7sec, but the 122bhp version is unsurprisingly slower, needing 9.6sec rather than the previous 9.0sec for the sprint. That’s the price of improved fuel economy.

Upgrades in other areas are less substantial but include revised spring, damper and bush rates and recalibrated steering, the aim being to sharpen agility and smooth the ride, and a range of aerodynamic improvements aimed at improving economy; there’s more in the tech panel on those. There are also changes to the front bumper moulding noticeable only to the design department that sculpted it, the more useful option of LED matrix headlights and several interior fettlings. 

These include upgraded infotainment, each of the three systems offered being compatible with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, and the high-level Navi Pro providing an eight inch screen over the standard seven inches, plus voice command. Improved rear-view and forward vision cameras, the latter capable of detecting pedestrians, are available, as is an ergonomically designed driver’s seat with massage and ventilation options – good news for high milers. These pounders of motorways may also tick the new heated windscreen option box, something Ford buyers have been able to do for well over a decade. A new centre console, an optional wireless phone charger dock and slightly more soft-feel trim complete the package.

How does the refreshed Astra perform on the road?

So, although it looks virtually identical, there’s a lot more substance to this mid-life refresh than you often get these days, most of it under the bonnet. It’s best realised in the previously mentioned 143bhp 1.2 petrol triple that might interest Mr. Stroll. This engine is lively, feels light in the Astra’s nose, enables you to get along at a satisfyingly effective pace and with a fair slice of enjoyment, too. It’s an agile car, this particular Astra, the lighter petrol triple powertrain apparently enabling surprising front-end bite and back-road fluency of a kind that Vauxhall has long striven for and rarely achieved. 

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This pleasing mix of grip, poise and athleticism is spoiled only by steering that could use more weight with speed, and a little more feedback too. It’s certainly accurate, though. That shortfall may be enough to edge the Focus ahead, but this version of the Astra is undoubtedly an entertainer when required. It’s also pretty brisk, the triple’s smooth appetite for revs scoring 8.8sec to 60mph, and, more importantly, it has decent throttle response backed by 165lb ft of torque between 2000 and 3500rpm.

The good news continues with improvements to the Astra’s ride, the heightened compliance in its bushings enabling it to swallow short, sharp shocks with a calm absorbency that sometimes deserted the previous version. For the petrol versions at least, the result is a pleasingly civilized car, and one with a sophistication of rolling comfort not usually achieved with semi-independent twist beam rear axles.

Switching to the 120bhp, nine-speed automatic diesel sees the ride quality preserved, but the loss of some of that fleetness of foot. This version simply doesn’t feel as deft, and for that reason isn’t as satisfying. Nor is the new transmission a total success. Vauxhall’s aim of achieving smooth shifts has certainly been achieved, aided by the relatively small ratio steps in each of those many gears, and the diesel’s torque allows it to flow very unobtrusively in the ebb and flow of brisk-moving traffic.

But the story is different when you want to overtake, or merge onto a fast moving motorway, the transmission requiring a long pause before actually choosing a gear and channeling your demand for power. There’s no sport button to help, either, though that would only partially paper over this deficiency. The diesel engine itself is noticeably smooth and subdued at middling to high revs, but the combination of a slightly vibratory three cylinder idle, the usual diesel clatter and the Astra’s stop-start system will add to the disturbance of a traffic jam.

That may make the manual diesel a better choice for some, though again, this version has less of the petrol’s agility, which is why the diesels and the slow-witted nine-speed auto earn 3.5 stars rather than four.

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For most Astra buyers – or users – such dynamic arcana will be of less interest than the reduced tax exposure, the improved infotainment and even if they don’t notice it, the less tiring ride. And the Astra’s usual plusses – a comfortable, spacious interior, high levels of convenience, mostly decent refinement and the availability of a very practical Astra Sports Tourer estate - will matter more. But if an Astra is on your company car choice list and you enjoy driving, get yourself a country road test-drive in the petrol manual. You could find yourself joining Lance Stroll.

Vauxhall Astra 2019-2021 First drives