IAIN ROBERTSON

Having made no pretence about admiring the current Vauxhall Astra, Iain Robertson is unequivocal about his most recent discovery that in ‘real time’ driving, the EcoFlex 1.6-litre diesel model is the most economical car he has tested in years!

We are being bombarded currently by fluctuating fuel prices, anti-diesel announcements and anti-driving publicity at every twist and turn of life’s road. To be frank, I am heartily sick of it. Many of the reactions to yet-another-announcement are media knee-jerks that do not help the situation one little bit.

The most recent is a government intention to ban all fossil-fuelled vehicles from our roads by 2040. Consider that just last year 2.7m new cars alone were registered for use on our roads, while just 10,000 EVs (Electric Vehicles) in that mix suggests that the demand for tax-free, eco-friendly transport remains at a low ebb.

We all know that technological change must take place, if we are to address the problems related to consuming inordinate quantities of unsustainable fossil fuels. After all, we cannot grow enough fields of rapeseed from which to produce fuel inexpensively, as well as feed people, and what remains of fast-depleting crude oil and gas beneath the earth’s surface is a resource that is under increasing stress.

Electricity, whether generated by nuclear, water, or wind flow, is the only viable option for future transportation, at the moment, despite the halfway-house developments of hybrid motor vehicles. Of course, there have been developments in both water and wind powered vehicles but, apart from a few prototypes, they are still pie-in-the-sky for a volume market.

The biggest issue, certainly as far as a government under-fire for not resolving its failure to meet city pollution targets is concerned, lies with the amount of time that is being allowed to a burgeoning motor industry to develop new forms of mobility. The Japanese have been hyperactive in that respect, with a raft of EVs that will serve purpose.

Yet, living with an EV has been a leap of faith for those that have already made the transition. Range anxiety has a major impact, especially as some commutes can be considerably greater than the 85-100 miles available nominally. An insufficient network of chargers is another. Fortunately, a battery development programme has been kick-started by our government, which will help the situation. However, enhancements to battery life, which is affected negatively by constant recharging and is why most EVs will only top-up to around 80% of their potential, are in-hand. Twenty-three years may prove to be an adequate time-slot for the motor industry to get its house in order but, in the meantime, we still have petrol and diesel to deal with.

The test example of the Astra is powered by a 107bhp version of the well-tried and trusted 1.6-litre turbo-diesel unit that underpins the bulk of Vauxhall’s extensive model line-up. It may seem like a paltry amount of power but it is accompanied by a sizeable 221lbs ft of torque and, be aware, the latest Astra is markedly lighter than any previous generations of the car (apart from the originals). In consequence, this Astra’s performance is surprisingly good, being capable of despatching the 0-60mph sprint in 10.2 seconds, before reaching a maximum speed of 124mph, thanks to satisfyingly leggy overall gearing, more on which in a moment.

‘My’ car is in TechLine trim, which is directed at the company car sector that Vauxhall courts almost as actively as it does its retail market. The engine’s frugality is aided by ‘stop:start’ technology that automatically switches off the motor at standstill, an enlarged battery ensuring that all other electrical systems can operate for several minutes, before it restarts again. Again, it is reliable and works imperceptibly, without intervention from the driver, although, should the constant on/off status becoming annoying in the very city centre snarl-ups at which it is aimed, it can be switched off. The default at start-up will always make it work again, if the driver forgets to do so manually.

Just briefly, allow me to highlight that the Astra handles sublimely well, rides comfortably and features excellent brakes and smooth, efficient controls. If you wish to know more about the model, trawl back through our archive to find my earlier tests of other Astras.

My test drive is typical for the usual company car driver. I set off from my home address at around 7.00am, for an early-morning appointment in Manchester (actually, Cheadle Hume). My route, partly determined by traffic densities, partly by a desire to avoid motorways, would take me from the Lincolnshire countryside, past the northern end of Sheffield, across the Pennines on a picturesque Woodhead Pass (A57), through an inevitable traffic problem at Tintwhistle, before circumnavigating the south side of Manchester and reaching my destination. My fuel economy average was already into the high-50s, reflecting the issues encountered en-route but still immensely satisfying, when you consider that my average speed had been a high 46mph for the trip so far.

While my car would be parked overnight at a hotel, I would be departing early the following morning (again at 7.00am) to drive south to Bicester for another engagement. Avoiding the motorway network was not an option, therefore I tolerated the almost forty miles of narrow carriageways on the M6 southbound, as well as a camera-checked 50mph for the duration of them. Understandably, this constant speed had a most beneficial effect on the car’s fuel consumption and the on-board computer reported a smile-inducing 74.8mpg, a figure that I have not witnessed on a car since driving a Honda Insight hybrid in 2001.

By the time I had reached Bicester (at 10.15am), the computer was still reading 73.0mpg, despite encountering a lot of A and B-road traffic, after departing the M40. Following a day’s activities at Bicester but under zero pressure to return home at breakneck speed, I decided to continue my cross-country driving by heading past Silverstone Circuit, taking to the A5 towards Daventry and then driving to Melton Mowbray and north to Lincolnshire. While the final figure was 73.2mpg and there was still just under a half tank of fuel remaining, the economy figure had pogoed a little with the occasional tailbacks at junctions and in towns and villages.

For me, this end result is little short of outstanding, even though the Astra’s posted Official Combined fuel return is given as 85.6mpg. However, I should highlight that I was not holding back at any time and neither was I employing economy driving tactics with any consciousness. My intention was to stick with the traffic flow, avoid becoming a ‘mobile-chicane’ and to cruise, where I could on motorways, at an indicated 80-85mph…in other words, the same speed as the rest of the traffic.

It is worth noting that at an indicated 80mph, the engine is turning over at slightly less than 2,000rpm, in sixth gear, which highlights the very tall gearing that is ideal for sustained cruising and for maintaining a decently sound average speed. Floor the throttle at that rate and the car dips into its torque and still accelerates strongly. Of course, it will complain, should the car be lugged along at low speeds in higher gears but, as the gearshift is short and fluent, swapping cogs poses no problems. However, it still pulls with some vigour from only slightly more than 1,000rpm in any ratio.

Unless company car drivers are trained in the techniques of economy driving, the majority of them will elect to ignore frugality, usually because they have a company-supplied fuel card and they will have far more ‘important’ things to think about, while driving to and from appointments…even though they should be concentrating on driving properly on public roads. It was that style of motoring that I wanted to replicate and I believe that I did so.

The EcoFlex engine emits just 88g/km of CO2, which means that its road tax liability is £100 in year one and £140 annually thereafter, not that it would worry the business driver. However, no company can afford to ignore these results. Not so long ago, around 40mpg would have been an unrealistic target but this Astra can double that return with surprising ease.

Conclusion:   The Vauxhall Astra does have a good entry-level price tag but the well-equipped test example weighs in at £20,140, which includes £405 for OnStar, Vauxhall’s dedicated pushbutton concierge service and £460 for front and rear parking sensors, both of which are practical options worth adding. In ideal ‘business-spec’, it represents great value for money and makes its main rival’s product (the Ford Focus) look like an expensive option in more ways than one.

 

About Iain P W Robertson

Frequently being told to 'go forth and multiply', Iain P W Robertson's automotive wisdom is based on almost forty years in the business, across all aspects from sport to production, at the highest levels. He likes dogs and drives a Suzuki (not related).