Vauxhall’s New Astra
YOU might have heard already that Vauxhall’s new Astra is a bit of alright. It’s true, they’ve done a marvellous job with their newcomer.
And the launch of a new Astra is a big deal. It’s the same as it is with Ford’s Focus, Volkswagen’s Golf and so on, this is the firm’s core product, the biggest seller in the line-up and if such an important piece of the portfolio isn’t up to scratch, it could spell trouble.
So let’s start with the looks. At first, I must admit, the Astra’s new outward appearance seemed to be a fly in the ointment. But, while it’s not as pretty as its curvaceous predecessor, it’s growing on me.
The interior, on the other hand, is instantly likeable. There’s plenty of buttons, but they’re well laid out and easy to reach and the infotainment screen is bright, colourful and in just the right place.
It’s comfortable too. There’s plenty of light, more than enough space in the front and back and there’s some really classy touches. Dig around enough and you’ll find cheap plastics here and there but, in the main, it’s got a high-quality feel throughout.
For a while now, Vauxhall have been developing a range of engines which are starting to become some of the best in the industry.
You can also get an Astra with the fabulous new three-cylinder 1.0-litre engine with 104bhp, or two turbo versions of a new 1.4 with 124 or 149bhp. The entry level Astra features a 99bhp 1.4-litre engine with no turbo power.
At the moment the Astra can be had with anything from the tiny but potent three-cylinder, one-litre petrol engine, all the way up to a 197bhp turbocharged petrol engine and a smattering of competent, frugal diesels in between.
My test model, an SRI Nav, came with the middle-of-the-road 1.4 turbocharged petrol engine with 150PS – and it was an absolute peach. The 1.6 litre diesel is also worth a look, if you prefer your fuel to come from the dark side.
Press on into a bend and it responds beautifully. The chassis is tight and the handling is balanced out beautifully. With the right engine, and without going for enormous wheels, the car feels brilliantly set up.
This is a great harbinger for what will hopefully emerge as a VXR model, which will no doubt be knocking on the door of 300bhp and may well have some further clever tweaks to its chassis and suspension.
You’d think the sharp handling might lead to a firm ride and, it’s no magic carpet, but it’s certainly not uncomfortable. In fact, Vauxhall’s found a bit of a sweet spot in making their newcomer corner nearly as well as a Focus, and ride nearly as well as a Golf. It’s a great all-rounder.
My SRI NAV, with all its trimmings, cost £21,580 and, I know what you’re thinking, that’s an awful lot of money for an Astra but the spec it came loaded with could make your mouth water.
Here goes: A premium stereo system, sat nav and infotainment system with the brilliant Car Play setup which links to your smartphone, rain-sensitive wipers, computerised intelligent headlights, traffic sign recognition, emergency braking, a lane-keep assist function and parking sensors with cameras and a self-park mode.
Seriously, the list of equipment would make a Mercedes owner jealous, but this is a £20,000 Astra.
And we’ve not even mentioned OnStar yet. Vauxhall has developed an on-call system with which you can press a roof-mounted button and some nice people at a 24-hour call-centre in Luton will do things like programme your sat nav for you.
They’ll even ring you if you’ve had an accident to check you’re OK and will track your car if it’s ever stolen. That’s included in the package.
And it gets even better. The Astra is one of the first cars in its class with built-in WiFi. Buy a new Astra and you’ll get a year’s worth of free 4G to use as you drive along. Just press another button on the roof and your passengers can log into the car’s own hotspot. It’s brilliant. On a trip down the M1 to Hertfordshire my wife was able to watch a Six Nations rugby match on her phone, completely free of charge.
So I was ready to be impressed by the Astra. I knew it was a good car. I just didn’t think I’d be quite so amazed by it.
I remember thinking back fairly often, while I was driving the Astra, to the last time I drove a Focus or a Golf. They’re both class-leading cars and, in their own ways, at their own ends of the market segment, they’re probably still slightly better than the Astra.
But here’s the thing. As a genuinely brilliant all-rounder, the Astra is nearly as good as both the Ford and the Volkswagen in every respect. And I never thought I’d be saying that about a British built car that’s come straight out of Luton.