IAIN ROBERTSON 

A straightforward drive of the latest Astra derivative sent Iain Robertson into paroxysms of memory-jerking proclivity, as he revelled in its unwitting ‘Old Skool’ performance package, a halo-producing aspect that could halt faltering sales.

Perhaps it is age-related but dipping into memories can often become snooze-inducing. However, it can also be exceedingly enriching, as memories, so frequently clouded, even glorified, by the passing of time, are invariably experience-related. They can embody colourful fun, without compromise, while dispensing with the downsides of often grey reality.

While wishing to mix neither metaphors, nor motorcar marques, had I closed my eyes unadvisedly, when driving the latest version of the evergreen Vauxhall Astra, I would have been whisked in an automotive time-machine to the mid-1970s. It was a time of great change. Post-hippy, the punk period was epitomised by curious fashion sense and even curiouser consumer contemptibility. The cars of that period were on a cusp of questionable safety, edgier performance and a mainstream middle order predominated by players trying harder to impress.

The prospect of dropping-in a power-plant from higher up a model’s range, another time-honoured automotive practice, had resulted in compact class heroes, like the Vauxhall Viva GT, or the Ford Escort RS2000. Both competent in their individual ways, nobody could have imagined that their ultimate disposability would result in immense demand some forty years later, allied to a collector status that would sky-rocket residual values to several times their original invoice worth.

When dissecting the raison d’etre of the latest Vauxhall Astra Ultimate, it is abundantly clear that the top-trimmed model is atypical of today’s breed. Of specific piqued interest to me, Vauxhall’s rivals have, in the main, turned their backs on shoe-horning exercises. The rally, or race-related influences would seem to be a ‘no-go’ zone in a transport arena governed by the politically-correct scourge of the noughties. Personally, I believe that cold-shouldering this aspect has created an invaginated run of non-entities that lack visual character and on-road tactility.

I adored that past. I was younger, which helped immeasurably. Yet, there was a satisfying simplicity to the cars of that era, devoid of crash-beams, airbags and antilock brakes, where a five-speed ’box was a slice of Italian over-zealousness and rear-wheel-drive predominated. The cars were lighter and more agile, while being capable of producing a decent turn of speed and, when you popped the bonnet, you could see an engine and not a mass of plastic protective cladding.

Behind my ‘closed’ eyes is a rose-tinted vision of classical proportions. While the new Astra’s engine may lack cubic capacity, it is not short on postpubescent gruntiness. Thanks to Vauxhall’s weight-shedding exercise of a couple of years ago, the popular Astra model assumed a fresher, lighter and more agile character that transformed its former, stodgier and splinter-providing mundanity and allowed a downsizing engine trend to prosper. Etched in my memory is an unforgettable drive on the cracking roads of North Wales in the, then, sparky new Astra. Featuring compliant suspension, crisp steering, progressive brakes, a delicious manual gearbox and an all-pervading chassis integrity that tipped every one of its competitors into a proverbial cocked hat, I was not alone in granting it star status. It earned its Car of the Year award easily.

Just for a blissful moment, I want to contrast the performance of today’s Ultimate Astra with another classical favourite of mine, the Dino 246GT. While lacking the fineness of line designed into it by Leonardo Fioravanti, at Italian styling house, Pininfarina, the Vauxhall Astra matches its performance envelope, albeit without the slightly metallic but effervescent V6 symphony created by Ferrari’s Dino and Vittorio Jano, who designed and engineered the Italian masterpiece. A 0-60mph benchmark of 6.6s falls into the far-from-slow category. It is supported by a top speed of 146mph, at which point both Dino and Astra run out of steam, all from Vauxhall’s gem-like 1.6-litre, turbocharged petrol engine.

Developing 197bhp, with a nicely-rounded 221lbs ft of torque that weighs-in for a very ‘flat’ 3,000rpm, from a lowly 1,700rpm, this unassuming projectile performance is supported by a very modern and readily attainable Official Combined 45.6mpg, while emitting a less-than-whiffy 142g/km CO2. It translates into a first-year road tax of £205, with £140 annually thereafter. A case of modern affordability that none of its forebears could even dream about, allied to flexibility that few of its current rivals can deliver. Silky-smooth and effortless, indulging in Ultimate Astra performance is like dipping into a bubbling vat of glossy tempered chocolate, without the blisters.

When Vauxhall, in league with its German counterpart, Opel, now both wholly-owned by Gallic giant, PSA Group, designed the current Astra, it was to fulfil a long-held philosophy of satisfying the burgeoning company car market. The previous versions had served purpose but the latest Astra offered greater and easier accessibility and cabin space, allied to an humungous boot and heaps of standard equipment across the line-up. To create an Astra in Ultimate trim means standardising the options, although a smattering that includes power for the driver’s seat, keyless entry/start, electric tilt/slide sunroof, dual-coat paint and a Pack Two of Driver Assistance features, factors in an extra £2,750 to the £26,375 loaded price tag.

However, its wealth of equipment includes 18-inch alloys, the ever-so-smart Intellilux LED Matrix headlamps, sat-nav, perforated hide trim, with heated, leather-wrapped steering wheel, stereo upgrade, heaps of ‘automated’ items (wipers, lamps etc.) and the customary plethora of both active and passive safety addenda. As ever, you think that box-ticking is unnecessary with a top model but, somehow, carmakers prove that there is always the one additional frippery that might be worth incorporating.

Driving the Astra Ultimate is a total delight, its Jekyll and Hyde character being concealed most successfully beneath its mainstream cloak. Yet, its performance is both mile-consuming and smile-inducing. Sportily bolstered front seats hip-hug assuredly and the overall impression is of a car that complies and cossets with driver needs satisfied to a high level. The all-pervading ‘Old Skool’ nature is something missing from the vast majority of new cars that are produced seemingly to enable fuss-free daily motoring but little else. Within my fevered brain is an image of smiling, grey-coated, Liverpudlian final assemblers, at the Ellesmere Port plant, waving a combination of ‘Doddy’s tickling stick’ and innate engineering nous that blends seamlessly into gifting the Astra a vital injection of vitality.

Conclusion:   Competence in compact automotive packages is a genuine rarity but Vauxhall proves that it is possible with the Astra model. While the car remains an important backbone to the firm’s range, PSA Group informs us that its pan-European sales are tumbling to the might of ‘SUV culture’, which is a sad and sorry shame, as the Astra is the best it can be and in Ultimate trim, it does not get any better. For me to contemplate ‘ownership’ only reinforces the potency of a memory-jerking driving experience par excellence. Yes. It is significantly better than the anodyne new Ford Focus. Try it…you’ll buy it!