Lighter, faster, more efficient and better value than before – on paper, it looks like Vauxhall has a class-leader on its hands. There’s a lot riding on the new British-built midliner – can it see off the opposition and live up to its promise?
Words: Mike Humble
Our old friend, the Astra, has been with us for 36 years – the first generation was born in 1979, a year before the MkIII Escort. Despite models such as the GTE and GSi being regarded as legends, the ‘cooking’ Astras have been also-rans in the volume hatchback sector – but Vauxhall is looking to change all that.
The new Astra is due to hit the showrooms in October, and it offers an impressive mix of style, substance, safety and technology. What the on-paper specs don’t tell you is there’s a genuinely premium feel that oozes from every nook and cranny of this all-new car. And it’s more than skin deep – Vauxhall’s latest offering has a deep-rooted and satisfyingly upmarket approach.
On the outside, it has a generic GM look – it’s instantly recognisable as an Astra. But, look closer, and you’ll notice some very clever detailing: the swooping rear 3/4 effect towards the back doors, the new nose and a very clean and uncluttered tailgate and rear lights. It’s the same inside – all the switchgear, controls and any other area the driver comes into contact has a lovely tactile quality, and it all feels very thoroughly engineered.
Petrol and diesels – Vauxhall to the top of the class
We drove the 1.4 Turbo petrol and 1.6 CDTi diesel – both hugely important in terms of sales. In 1.4 petrol form, the new Astra is astonishingly refined, and in heavy traffic, it feels nicely isolated. It’s quick, too – squirting from the line with vigour, but even to the redline, it’s smooth and boom-free. It’s torque-laden, feeling more like a 1.8 in terms of flexibility. On to the open eager roads, and the wide power band, combined with its slick-shifting six-speed manual, deliver more than enough performance. Other notables are the effortless clutch action and nigh on perfectly-chosen ratios.
The 134bhp 1.6-litre ‘Whisper’ diesel is impressive, too. It delivers eager and gutsy performance, and only if you really push hard is there any notable noise or vibration – even then it’s up there with the best of the competition. In daily running, or when idling, it’s as quiet and refined as the Honda i-DTEC, the current class-leader.
On the road – refined, grown-up and a winner
On the move, and refinement is first class – there’s no wind noise, and there are no rattles or shakes from the. Show it a bend or two and it never fails to impress. The EPAS has been tuned to give the right amount of feel at the rim, the turn-in is almost dodgem-car quick, with only the merest hint of understeer – and the damping is fantastic.
And when travelling quickly on back roads, it feels utterly settled. It might be resolved, but driven enthusiastically, it’s also laugh out loud entertaining. In short, it’s a most adaptable, talented, well-mannered, entertaining family hatchback, with superbly refined suspension and steering.
In terms of tech, the stand outs are the OnStar package and iLux Matrix headlamps. With OnStar, at the push of a button, you can talk directly with an adviser in the event of an accident, a breakdown or any other emergency. No matter where you, the system will put you in touch to an English-speaking adviser, too. In an airbag-deploying accident, OnStar automatically informs the emergency services, where you are and how much damage there is. It works with a minimal 2G signal, so the system works even without mobile data backup. The potential to save lives is very impressive.
Cars with iLux headlights offer adaptive control by having strategically placed high intensity LED beams. This sends pools of light at different angles independently of side. The windscreen sensor detects oncoming traffic and the high beams change their position and angles to avoid dazzle. The power and beam trajectory of the light are quite simply brilliant – it’s far more than a gimmick, it just works.
Conclusion – Vauxhall’s on to a winner
So here we have a British-made car that has the minerals and goes to the top of the class for refinement, quality, technology and driver appeal. Despite the fact this new car is up to 200Kg lighter than the outgoing model, it feels light yet planted on the road with a body shell that feels taught.
Is it perfect? Not quite. Niggles include reflections from the instrument backlighting on dark roads and at night, and if you dim the instrument panel to compensate, that makes the heater/climate panel graphics difficult to see (strangely, this was also a fault with the last model, and its over-bright satnav screen). There’s also no glovebox lamp fitted, and the single-tone horn sounds feeble. But we’re nitpicking here.
However, the cars tested were pre-production models and, taking this into account, these is room to tweak and refine equipment levels. Both petrol and diesel models are good to drive, offer new standards of technology and safety, and promise to be cheaper to run than the outgoing model. Vauxhall has a genuine winner on its hands, so let’s hope the dealer network can capitalise on its talents, and get the message out to those all-important retail buyers.
Prices start at £15,295 for the 1.0 Design, rising to £22,815 for the 1.6 Bi-Turbo Elite, and goes on sale in October.
- [Read more in Mike Humble’s review on Autobritannia]