Having been a most fascinating year on the automotive scene, Iain Robertson determines that two genuine winners have percolated to the top, which has allowed him to review the pair simultaneously.


Presenting two cars from the same class is a fairly easy task. However, as similar as this pair might be in dimensions and intentions, they are also like chalk and cheese in engineering terms. For a start, the Vauxhall Astra, in its seasonally red finish, is a far from sporting 1.0-litre turbo-petrol, while the snowy white, turbocharged-petrol 1.6-litre Nissan Pulsar is definitely at the other end of the performance scale.


On sheer price alone, they are also miles apart, the good value Astra weighing in, in Techline trim, at £16,695 (add £395 for the 17-inch optional alloy wheels), while the Pulsar in Tekna form is £22,645 (riding on standard 18-inch alloys). Yet, both are shining examples of cars that warrant closer attention and it is my job to underscore a few salient points about packaging, value for money and selecting the right engine.


Personally, I believe that the Nissan has come in for a lot of woefully incorrect and negative criticism. It is perhaps not as radically different to a lot of cars in this class, as it ought to be, considering that the last model that Nissan sold in the UK in the compact hatch category was the ‘blue-rinse special’ Almera. To remind you, both it and the Primera were replaced by the Qashqai crossover. Yet, the Pulsar benefits from a similar dynamic balance as its forebear. It handles beautifully.


Intriguingly, the Astra is just the latest in a long line of Astras. Yet, it is so markedly different to its forebear that it warrants every single one of the plaudits that it receives and a whole lot more, not the least of which was the recent Scottish Car Of The Year trophy. I reckon that it will be the UK CoTY in 2016 as well as the European CoTY, so good is the car. It also handles magnificently well.


The similarities between these two cars are myriad, apart from their obvious places in the new car market. While the Astra is a genuine lightweight at 1,188kgs, the Pulsar is a tad chunkier (1,350kgs) but embodies a comparable lissom feel and sound responsiveness on road. While their often difficult to discern ride qualities are broadly similar, both models deliver fingertip lightness at the helm, allied to unerring accuracy and fluent responses to steering input. A keen driver will extract the greatest benefit from their respective chassis biases, just as the less enthusiastic will be eminently happy and seldom raise an eyebrow. Road noise suppression is also impressive, despite the large alloy wheels and skinny profile tyres.


Popping open their respective hatchbacks reveals around the same boot space (385-litres Pulsar; 370-litres Astra, measured up to the load cover) in equally impressive, deep and accommodating holds. Naturally, the rear seats split-fold 60:40 to increase the practical carrying capacity on both cars. However remaining in the rear, the Nissan grabs some advantage over the Vauxhall by offering greater legroom, even when the front seats are pushed to their rearmost and lowest settings by taller occupants.


However, there is a trade-off, as front seat occupants endure less space in the Nissan than the Vauxhall. Yet, obtaining a good driving position that is not just commanding and capable of providing first-class vision all-around but also being safe enough to reach all of the controls, is feasible in both models, although the over-shoulder sightlines are corrupted slightly in both by the width of the C-pillars, the Pulsar fairing slightly better because of its extra angular glazing. However, the Astra’s larger door mirrors make up the deficit and provide a superb rearwards view.


Both cars feature interesting dashboards. The Astra’s is the more conventional in layout, while the Pulsar’s presents a more organic, 3-D effect, with its bold centre console. There are no flat surfaces upon which to park a disposable cup of coffee, although both have double cup-holder cavities between the front seats. Conventional and clear instrument dials front the driver of either car, with slightly more colourful and detailed computer read-outs in between them in the Astra. Interestingly, you would not suspect that you are not far north of poverty-spec in either car, as they are both comprehensively equipped and the stalks work satisfyingly well, even though the Astra’s feel to be made of better quality raw materials.


In fact, it is quality of presentation that is the potential deal-breaker in favour of the Vauxhall. While both use ‘soft-touch’ plastics, as well as regular mouldings, to impart a quality image, those of the Vauxhall are better resolved and the fit and finish is significantly better in the British-built product. A ‘touch screen’ provides the customary sound, climate, sat-nav and on-board computer facilities and both systems work exceedingly well. The sat-nav of the Nissan is perfect for door-to-door deliveries, while the slightly more colourful Vauxhall unit is every bit as flexible, both being easy to input co-ordinates (primarily post code destinations) and to adjust the parameters.


The Vauxhall benefits from GM’s ‘On-Star’ facility to connect to a live operator, which has a pushbutton (above the interior rear-view mirror) activation, more of which I shall be writing about in the very near future.


Of course, the exterior designs are from different schools of thought. The Nissan could not be more Oriental if it tried, while the Vauxhall is clearly a pan-European design, for which you can read ‘Germanic’. Both are immensely appealing, as they manage to impart a well-planted impression of good body width, wheels at the extremities and lean detailing. The Pulsar is clearly the more sporting, although the differences are subtle.


Again, both models share similar ideologies on suspension systems and drive trains but this is where both are aimed at somewhat different market sectors, even though they are a lot closer than you might perceive initially. Vauxhall’s motive force is one of the sweetest and most delightful 1.0-litre engine installations that I have driven for a while and, yes, it is even better than the Kia Cee’d, which I reported on and raved about recently. It produces a far from exciting 102bhp, accompanied by a healthy 125lbs ft of torque. Those figures are trounced by the Nissan, which boasts 187bhp and 177lbs ft.


Yet, factor in the performance figures and Vauxhall’s power to weight advantage becomes more abundant. Astra: 0-60mph in 10.5 seconds; top speed 124mph. Pulsar: 0-60mph in 7.4 seconds; top speed 135mph. While both are lively, the Astra feels far speedier than its figures suggest and the Pulsar’s delivery is not quite as fluid as the smaller GM unit, which further underscores the nature of that little gem. Pitted side-by-side in modern day traffic conditions, there is little to tear them apart.


The Astra drives through a five-speed manual transmission, while the Nissan uses six ratios. However, leggy gearing ensures that neither feels over-stretched, when reaching into their upper registers, although I feel that the Astra could readily carry a taller top gear and it might be simply market positioning and cost implications that ensure it does not. Where the Astra lays down the understandable gauntlet is in running costs, as it returns an Official Combined guide fuel economy of 64.2mpg (I managed 62.5mpg on my eco-route) and, after a week’s motoring, an excellent 54.3mpg overall, while emitting just 102g/km CO2 (£20 annual VED).


The Pulsar’s Official guide figure is 47.9mpg (I obtained 43.2mpg) and a mildly disappointing 35.7mpg overall, with posted CO2 exhaust emissions of 138g/km (£130 VED rate). Yet, these cars are horses for courses. The Pulsar is a lukewarm hatch, while the Astra is intentionally eco-biased. Both cars provide a three years/60,000 miles warranty, with annual service at an 18,000 miles ceiling on the Pulsar, while the service intervals for the Astra are also pegged annually but at a maximum of 20,000 miles.


Accepting that these cars have so much in common, yet are polar opposites in customer type, creates a fascinating comparison. For my money, I would opt for the Vauxhall, purely and simply because it delivers so much more than its rudimentary nature suggests. Were I to increase its specification, it would be only to include the simply wonderful LED headlamp array not fitted to this test example. However, the Nissan is no slouch and provides a near perfect balance between punchy power delivery and on-road dynamics. The Nissan should be on many more shoppers’ lists than it is.


Conclusion:   While the Vauxhall Astra is a winner on all counts, the Nissan Pulsar runs it surprisingly close in many respects. Both cars are prime examples of becoming the best in class. Of course, you can opt for a 1.6-litre 197bhp Astra, which will give the Pulsar a good drubbing in the performance stakes but driving quickly is not the be all and end all. The fact that Vauxhall’s 1.0-litre engine delivers such a broad range of capabilities is much to its credit and underlines the value of superior chassis dynamics, because there is actually little to really choose, apart from personal preferences, between either car.