First Drive : The Quite Brilliant New Vauxhall Astra – 9/10

Mike Humble:

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Our old friend the Astra has seemingly been with us for a lifetime, in fact, it pretty much has, with the first generation being born in 1979 – a year before the Mk3 Escort. Despite some models of Astra such as the GTE or GSi being regarded as legend in the court that is the local bar or barbers shop, Astra has become the also-ran in the volume hatchback sector… until now!

I’ve just had the opportunity to sample the new Astra which is due to hit the showrooms in October and have to admit that its pretty good in almost every way. This latest contender offers an impressive mix of style, substance, safety and technology – the latter two having all the potential of saving lives. What makes it really special is the genuine premium luxury feel that seems to ooze from every nook and cranny you peer or poke into. Many cars seem to have that quality feel on the surface only to penny pinch once a layer or two is peeled back, this latest offering from Vauxhall has a deep rooted and satisfying up market approach to volume manufacturing that I have not experienced for a few years.

On the outside it obviously has that “generic” GM look – its instantly recognisable as an Astra, but peer a little closer and you’ll soon notice that swooping rear 3/4 effect towards the back doors, a restyled nose and a very clean and uncluttered tailgate with nicely styled rear lights. In fact, the full frontal or rear aspects of the design are quite soothing on the eye and provide a great visual advert for other motorists looking through the windscreen or rear view mirror. While on the inside the same applies – lovely tactile feelings to the buttons, controls, door pulls and so on, the subconscious sensations or feelings from the all important “first contact” items leave no doubt that this is a very thoroughly engineered car with excellent build quality. But its only once you get on the move that you notice the style, substance and indeed beauty is much more than skin deep.

The 1.6 whisper quiet 136Ps diesel offers superb refinement and a great spread of torque over a large rev band.
The 1.6 whisper quiet 136Ps diesel offers superb refinement and a great spread of torque over a large rev band.

I had the chance to sample both of the key power units – the 1.4 Turbo petrol and 1.6 CDTi diesel. In 1.4 turbo format the new Astra is astonishingly refined. Pootling around Liverpool’s heavy traffic brought a totally isolated experience from the lunacy and mayhem outside. Those traffic light Grand Prix moments we all love and adore see the petrol turbo squirt off the line with vigour and even if you spin the tacho needle round the dial there is no NVH or booming to be noticed inside. Its torquey too and in fact almost feels like a hefty 1.8 as far as its flexibility is concerned. Get out into suburbia and beyond and you’ll soon smile at the eager power spread working hand in glove with a very slick shifting 6 speed manual with effortless clutch and nigh on perfectly chosen ratios.

Fans of heavy fuel will not be short changed either. The 1.6 we tested offers 136Ps and promises eager and gutsy performance. Only if you really push hard is there any form of excess noise or vibration, even then its no worse than the competition and during normal motoring or when idling its as quiet as the Honda I-CDT unit which is renown for its sweetness. The diesel brings no penalty to the very tidy handling – be it petrol or diesel you wont be disappointed in terms of sheer driver enjoyment.

This is the SRi trim level. Its a truly well made car that blends usable technology with real driver appeal be it petrol or diesel. There is a deep rooted feeling of quality too - the whole package feels premium... move over Focus and Golf!
This is the SRi trim level. Its a truly well made car that blends usable technology with real driver appeal be it petrol or diesel. Its laugh out loud fun to drive too – a first class chassis. There is a deep rooted feeling of quality too – the whole package feels premium… move over Focus and Golf!

Refinement for me anyway seems first class. No wind noise, no rattles or shakes and a beautifully packaged drivetrain all add up to what for me anyway felt like a five door family limousine. Show it a bend or two and once again it never fails to impress. The EPAS steering has been tuned to give the right amount of feel at the rime, the turn in is almost Dodgem car quick with only the merest hint of understeer and the damping is just fantastic. Despite some very eager driving on the North Wales back roads, it seemed impossible to upset the chassis or my travelling passenger. To go further, we both reckoned the driving experience to be laugh out loud entertaining – GM have really come up with a package that knocks the Focus into the “also ran” pool. I am quite happy to claim this is the most adaptable, talented, well mannered, entertaining and refined suspension / steering set up I have experienced in a five door family hatchback – its bloody fantastic!

But by far, the most impressive features have to be the OnStar package and iLux Matrix headlamps. OnStar is an impressive feature whereby with the push of a button you can talk in real time to an advisor who can assist with situations arising out of an accident, a breakdown or any other motoring query or dilemma. No matter where you are in the world, the system is clever enough to put you in touch to an English speaking advisor. In the worst case of scenario should your airbag deploy for example, the OnStar system automatically connects with an advisor, a vehicle report informs the emergency services if need be giving details of direction, location, vehicle colour and extent of damage. Because it works even with a minimum 2G signal, the GPS will work for most of the time when there is not even a mobile phone signal – its clever clever stuff.

OnStar will assist with a breakdown too and send assistance to your location – how many times have we all not had a clue where we are? Of course there is a privacy setting for those who prefer it, but in the case of an accident for example OnStar will automatically switch off the privacy setting – there is the potential to save lives here and I find this very impressive. The headlamps offer the next generation of adaptive beam control by having strategically placed high intensity L.E.D beams. This sends pools of light to different angles working independent of each side. The windscreen sensor detects oncoming traffic and the high beams change their position and angles to avoid dazzle. It was also noted that the power and beam trajectory of the light is quite simply brilliant – its far more than a gimmick…. it just works.

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Vauxhall will have some serious graft to undertake if they are to pull Ford and VW customers into their dealers. Astra has always been a winner in fleet sales but retail customers need to be told about this cracking car. I really hope it does well!

So here we have a British made car that has the minerals and for my reckoning 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 anything perfect these days? Well I noticed considerable reflection of the instrument backlighting on dark roads that bring on another gripe. To combat this I found myself dimming the instrument panel that in turn makes the heater / climate panel graphics difficult to see. I also noted there is no glovebox lamp fitted, so in the dark you are fishing into a huge rectangular dark hole and the single tone horn is a bit feeble – two tones please!

But the cars tested were pre production models and taking this into account, there is room to tweak and refine equipment levels. Both petrol and diesel models are incredibly good on the road, offer new standards of technology and safety while promising to be cheaper than the outgoing model. Vauxhall have a genuine winner on their hands, lets hope the dealer network can capitalise on what seems to be a world beating car because the raised GM standard in terms of driver appeal, quality and value for money cannot be ignored with the new Astra.

Powertrains include a brand new 1.0 & 1.4 petrol with the latter now featuring an all alloy construction and two 1.6 turbodiesels.

Pricing varies from £15,295 for the 1.0 Design rising to £22,815 for the 1.6 Bi-Turbo Elite

Astra hits the showroom in October.

LIKES: Solid engineering – Brilliant chassis dynamics – Looks and feels premium – Efficiency – Smooth and refined – Easy to operate – Genuinely fun to drive – Technology that simply works – No gimmicks – Feels as solid as Golf and more fun than a Focus – Its a front runner – Amazing high tech matrix headlamps.

RESERVATIONS: Brand image not as strong as the cars talent  – Will the dealerships be advanced as the car when it comes to pitching it hard to retail buyers? – One or two minor ergonomic gremlins such as instrument reflections and hard to decipher climate control symbols when driving at night.

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