What do the words Astra and estate mean to you? Images of damp dogs and absent-minded drivers, perhaps, or a herd of photocopier salesmen charging up the M1?
No longer. This is the new, sharper Astra estate, on sale in November and containing in its lexicon for the first time a 170bhp turbocharged petrol and 150bhp turbodiesel engines and optional adaptive suspension. And not a damp mutt in sight.
The pick of the range is the powerhouse diesel from the Vectra, with its sweet shifting six-speed gearbox and Euro4 compliant combustion. A version of Fiat’s torquey JTD, it delivers the acceleration and economy we’ve come to expect from modern diesels. An 8.6sec 0-62mph dash is warm-hatch territory while 47.9mpg will keep the household budget in check. In the same package they’re a persuasive combination.
Like most diesels, this CDTi unit is at its best when running in a cross-country rhythm, whether on the motorway or a more challenging A-road. Tall gearing (35mph per 1000rpm in sixth) takes the sting out of any diesel rattle at speed and there’s just enough torque to hot up the pace without dropping a gear. Third and fourth are the gears of choice on back roads, with lots of punch for overtaking or pulling out of tight bends.
The electro-hydraulic power steering follows driver inputs faithfully, but feel is average, although pressing the sport button livens up the helm with extra weighting and sharpens throttle response. Our mid-range Design spec CDTi came with optional 17in alloys, which look great, and standard suspension that was reasonably composed, riding better than the firm SRi set-up. But the ride and refinement of the strut/torsion beam suspension still lacks the sophistication of the multi-link equipped VW Golf, and therefore probably the new Ford Focus.
But there won’t be a new Golf estate until late 2006. The new Focus wagon, on sale in March, is a more pressing threat, but the Astra has plenty to offer. The wheelbase is stretched 89mm and the rear overhang a further 177mm – extending rear legroom and luggage capacity. A handy by-product of the longer wheelbase is wider door opening, which eases access to the rear.