Great expectations are heaped on the new Vauxhall Astra. There is an awful lot riding on this car, launched as the company’s future ownership awaits confirmation, and with it the long-term fate of the Merseyside factory where this mid-size hatchback is built
The outgoing Astra has been showing its age against newer, fresher rivals, notably the latest Ford Focus and Volkswagen Golf. The big question posed with the new Astra’s arrival: is it good enough to catch up with the competition and woo enough buyers away from the other two?
The simple answer is yes, it is. Vauxhall’s engineers and designers have done an impressive job in transforming the car. The re-born Astra is less evolution, more revolution. In terms of driving calibre, it’s definitely up there with the Focus and Golf. The company cannily invited us to drive a current Astra to the factory at Ellesmere Port, and swap it for a new-generation model fresh off the production line. This direct comparison revealed a car transformed, not just in looks but especially behaviour. A lengthy drive in terrible weather took us south-west from the factory on a route through north Wales to Portmeirion and back to Cheshire. It could have been a dire experience in a dull car, but the Astra is an engaging package that made the trip thoroughly agreeable, despite roads awash with torrential rain.
It handles with competent, grippy assurance and the ride quality is excellent, smooth and pliant as it competently irons out road undulations. Driving enthusiasts won’t feel shortchanged either, as the steering is comfortably weighted and precise, while the gear-change is equally good. Seat comfort is excellent, and the driving position has plenty of adjustment to tailor it well to most drivers, although shorter types may find the gear lever positioned a little too close. Best to sit behind a shorter driver though, as rear seat legroom is meagre behind a tall one. The good ride and handling combination is partly due to a new rear suspension set-up that includes an ingenious Watt’s linkage. It is located in the centre of the rear axle, and patented by Vauxhall in this application. It gives the axle vertical pliance while maintaining secure rigidity in the horizontal plane. This is a budget solution compared with a more sophisticated multi-link rear suspension set-up, but it appears to achieve similarly good behaviour. The car’s ride and handling was tuned during extensive development testing in the Alps, Dolomites, at the Nurburgring, Millbrook motor industry test centre and around Newport Pagnell – the latter because “some of the most testingly bad roads in the UK” are to be found there, according to Vauxhall’s right-hand-drive engineering manager. It has certainly paid off, as road behaviour is well suited to British tastes for taut handling.
The new Astra’s body styling screams scaled-down Insignia, with the same family look to the front end and rear lines that clearly echo the bigger car. The distinctive rear lights resemble mini boomerangs, arranged like pairs of quotation marks. There is a downside to the aesthetically pleasing body design, though. Chunky front pillars either side of the windscreen, and massive rear items encasing the tailgate are undoubtedly good for the Astra’s structural rigidity, but they have a limiting effect on all-round vision out of the car. It’s a bit cramped at the corners.
The cabin is a significant improvement over the old car, which was dominated by its rather ugly, tombstone-like central dash panel design. Replacing it is a more stylish, gently sloping structure set into a fascia topped by a swooping line that curves around into the door tops. The new panel is pleasing to look at, but still rather cluttered with a rash of similarly sized switchgear. Vauxhall’s designers have put a lot of thought into storage – and there’s plenty of it, including room in the door pockets for cans and bottles. The choice of diesel engines for the new Astra includes two 1.7-litre units with power outputs of 108 or 123bhp, and a 158bhp 2.0-litre. Both 1.7 CDTi units produce 60.1mpg on the combined cycle, and generate CO2 emissions of 124g/km, while the 2.0-litre achieves 57.6mpg (auto 48.7mpg) and 129g/km (154g/km). The new Astra is available to order now, and the first cars should arrive in showrooms by December. There are five trim levels to choose from: entry-level S, Exclusiv, SRi, SE and top-level Elite. Vauxhall predicts that the Exclusiv and SRi models will take up 50 per cent of sales. The new Astra has a chassis based on what General Motors, Vauxhall’s current owner, calls its ‘global Delta architecture’, and will be built in five centres around the world: Poland, China, Korea and the US, as well as the UK. Most Astras sold in Europe will come from Ellesmere Port, where right-hand-drive Vauxhalls and left-handdrive Opels are both being built on the same production line.
RIVALS: FORD FOCUS, HONDA CIVIC, PEUGEOT 308, VOLKSWAGEN GOLF
- Engine: 1686cc, 4-cylinder, turbodiesel
- Gearbox: 6-speed manual
- Max power: 123bhp at 4,000rpm
- Max torque: 207lb ft at 2,300rpm
- Max towing weight: tba
- Max speed: 122mph
- 0-62mph: 10.7secs
- Combined consumption: 60.1mpg
- CO2 emissions (taxband): 124g/km (D)
- Boot space: 370/1,235 litres
- Insurance group: 6