Bland wallpaper or a real headturner? Sue Baker takes a first look at the latest Vauxhall Astra…
You wouldn’t look twice at a current Vauxhall Astra. It is endlessly there in the traffic like a repetitive wallpaper design, familiar and unremarkable. Its image has suffered from being neither as boldly designed and energising to drive as the bestselling Ford Focus, nor as solidly built as the iconic Volkswagen Golf.
All that changes when the new, fifth generation Astra starts appearing on the roads from May Day. It is well worth a second look, and not just because it now has a more sharply sculpted body than its predecessor, with bigger headlights, assertive grille, tauter silhouette and far more distinctive tail-end styling. It is a much bolder, more interesting and capable car all round.
Well, not so much a car, as a car park filler. The new Astra range extends through all the many combinations of seven trim levels, four transmissions and seven engines – three of them diesels. Initially there is only one body style, the five-door hatchback Astra that goes on sale from its launch on May 1. But eventually there will be four. A longerwheelbase estate is coming this autumn, a three-door hatchback arrives in spring 2005, and a retractable hardtop coupécabriolet is scheduled for 2006. Of the three diesel engines, two are in the range from the start: both 1.7-litre CDTi units, with power outputs of 80 and 100bhp. Anyone interested in the most powerful of the trio, a 1.9-litre, 150bhp CDTi, will have to be patient until the summer, but we think that it will be worth the wait.
Both the 1.7 diesels come with a fivespeed manual gearbox. The 1.9 will be teamed with a six-speed manual box. With the petrol engines you also get the options of a five-speed Easytronic semiautomatic and four-speed automatic, but there’s no suggestion yet of them being offered with the diesels. Stung by accusations that the old Astra, although successful (98,000 were sold in Britain last year) was a bit dull, Vauxhall has flooded the new one with technology. There is an optional adaptive suspension system with electronic stability control. It includes a ‘sport’ setting that lets you stiffen the suspension while also sharpening the responses of the steering and accelerator. You can opt for AFL headlights (Adaptive Forward Lighting), first seen on the Vectra Estate and engineered to give a better night-time view into corners. Another useful accessory is hill-start assist, which automatically maintains brake pressure to stop you rolling back when pulling away on a slope.
There are interesting options for sound too. If you’re turned into digital radio and have an MP3 player at home, you can now have them in the car as well. But lots of gadgets are only a sideshow to the main issue: how the car behaves on the road, and this is where the new Astra acquits itself particularly well. On a variety of snaking and frequently potholed roads in Provence used as the launch venue, the car impressed us with its confident handling, absorbent ride, precise steering and general quietness. The 1.7-litre, 100bhp diesel performs well with plenty of punch and good fuel economy. It feels torquey through the gears and its refinement isn’t bad once you get it wound up across country. In urban driving there’s a guttural rumbling, which is at times intrusive but it isn’t an unpleasant or harsh level of noise.
Almost three seconds faster than the 1.7 lump, the 1.9 diesel is a strong performer, with 0-60 acceleration of under nine seconds, and a top speed of 130 mph. But it is still economical, giving better than 50 miles to the gallon. It is more refined than the smaller diesel, partly thanks to that extra gear that moderates the engine note for high-speed cruising. Because it is bigger all round than the current Astra (5.5in longer, 1.5 inches taller and an inch wider), the new one feels noticeably roomier inside. It is also better kitted out, with a much fresher and more contemporary interior clad in softer, classier plastics.
It isn’t an entirely rosy picture. In the left-hand-drive models used for the launch, the pedals were sharply offset in relation to the steering wheel, and invited fatigue on a long drive by causing you to twist in the driving seat. Stowage places around the interior are a bit meagre, and the V-shape of the tailgate creates a boot aperture that is a bit on the narrow side.
So the new Astra isn’t perfect, but it is very good – as it needs to be, coming just after the new Golf and not far ahead of Ford’s new Focus, due this autumn.
On sale: May 1st // Prices from: £13,545 (80PS) to £16,095 (100PS). 150PS price tba //
Main rivals: Focus, Golf, Mazda3