Vauxhall has simple, unfussy lines
Handling leans towards mild understeer
Car is notably bigger
Ride is controlled at high speeds
Structure is 43 per cent stiffer torsionally
1.6-lite engine is part of Vauxhall's downsizing
Interior borrows some elements from Insignia
Cabin has decent room front and rear
Double-decker boot floor is a practical addition
Interior is significantly more upmarket
First DriveFrugal 1.6-litre diesel Astra estate has the zest to match its decent chassis and good looks
First DriveDespite a raft of tweaks aimed at achieving impressive frugality, this Vauxhall Astra 1.7 CDTi Ecoflex Exclusiv still offers an engaging driver experience
What is it?
This is the sixth generation Vauxhall Astra in 30 years, easily the most sophisticated yet and developed with a fervour that Vauxhall, Opel - and whoever gets to own GM’s European arm - hope will be up to giving the VW Golf and Ford Focus bloody front bumpers.
Apart from styling that’s the sportiest and most satisfying yet, even if it does owe rather a lot to the Mazda3, weapons in its favour include an interior substantially upgraded in terms of room, architecture and quality, an ingenious evolution of the Astra’s twist beam rear axle that’s claimed to propel it to the top of the class for ride and handling, various newly downsized engines, some neat packaging details and fresh new options.
In this form, as the most powerful sporting SRi model, it comes with a 178bhp 1.6-litre turbo engine and in the test car’s case, optional FlexRide adaptive dynamics and 19in rims rather than standard 17in items, promising quite a test of the car’s ride quality. This Astra sits on an all-new GM Delta platform, its wheelbase lengthened by 71mm and its front and rear track significantly widened too.
The structure is 43 per cent stiffer torsionally and this, together with substantially improved suspension isolation, promises considerably improved refinement. Still more important, especially for the fleet operators and company car drivers who will acquire this car in droves, is that its average CO2 emissions are down by an average of 13 per cent across the eight engine range, with some models recording drops of as much as 33g/km.
This is despite the car carrying additional kit - the base ‘S’ model now provides six airbags, ESP, active head restraints and air conditioning - and a slightly disappointing weight increase, although the car is notably bigger.
What’s it like?
This is a better car in almost every way, but what strikes you first, apart from the appeal of its strongly contemporary styling, is the draw of the cabin - compared to the previous model, this is like being upgraded from cattle to business class.
The dashboard is appealingly sculpted and houses an impressive centre console (not all of it an ergonomic success), attractive instruments and some well-thought through stowage, including a false floor in a lidded cubby that will hide an iPod. Plentiful faux satin aluminium trim provides a high precision visual uplift to the cockpit, as does the red glow of ambient light emanating from various nooks and crannies.
Better still is that the aura of sophistication is not shattered when you let out the clutch. Despite riding on 40-section rubber, this Astra navigates short, sharp shocks with a cushioned pliancy never before felt aboard a front-drive Vauxhall, and with impressive quiet, too.
The ride remains well controlled at higher speeds too, although in sport mode it can get your head bobbing slightly on dips and crests. For most circumstances, the normal mode is all you need, though ‘Tour’ further softens the dampers and lightens the steering.
In any mode there’s composure here that’s easy to exploit, especially as the SRi turns in with reasonable vigour once its slightly reluctant turn-in has been overcome. It maintains a line well, and a vicious mid-corner lift-off will have it scribing a tighter radius once the engine’s revs, which tend to hang, finally decay.
All this is with the ESP button on. Turn it off, and some mild flaws are revealed. An undulating road turns up mild torque-steer, and tipping the car too keenly into a sharp corner provokes scrubbing understeer that a Golf and Focus might resist more willingly. And if you’re brutal with wheel and throttle out of a tight turn, the inside front wheel will lift and spin.
So the relatively unobtrusive interventions of the ESP are just as well. Leave it on, and you’ll enjoy a fluent and engaging drive, even if the steering falls slightly short of delivering the realism of feel that the VW and Ford in particular manage. Then again, there’s more kickback aboard the Ford.
For most Astra buyers, the minutiae of its dynamic performance will be far less important than practical issues. The cabin scores with decent room front and rear, but the back-bench cushion is markedly less supportive than the Focus’s, and while the double-decker boot floor will be useful for some, others may find it a space-reducing nuisance.
Although the 1.6 turbo motor sometimes pauses slightly during delivery, and makes the odd sucking resonance that some may find intriguing, it’s generally a civilised and strong performer, combining well with the classy movements of the six-speeder’s gearlever and decently progressive brakes. All of which makes the SRi fairly easy to drive smoothly, and a relaxing high-speed cruiser.
Should I buy one?
This car should go straight onto the short list of anyone shopping in this class. It’s not a breakthrough drive like the Focus was in 1998, but this new Astra advances sufficiently on several fronts to have the potential to topple the Focus and Golf.
It’s arguably better looking, has the most attractive (if slightly contrived) cabin, an excellent ride, matching refinement and chassis dynamics to please the keen. It will take some headlight to headlight slugging to establish which of these three is king, but this new Astra makes a usefully better case for itself than the previous model did at launch.