IAIN ROBERTSON 

Vauxhall Astra

Vauxhall Astra

Definitely not a landmark in Vauxhall’s book, reports Iain Robertson, following his first drive of the new Astra, it is still a safe haven for buyers seeking great chassis dynamics, low operating costs, excellent packaging and genuine value for money in its class.

For around forty years, Vauxhall has been at loggerheads with Ford. Naturally, since the early-1960s, when the illustrious Cortina turned the latter brand into a mass market success story, Ford has not wanted to relinquish its grasp of ‘top dog’ in the UK market. However, it was a different class of company in those days. Value for money was at the top of its requisites and buyers were drawn to the ‘Blue Oval’, like moths to a flame. Ford topped the tables in every respect, from the High Street to motor racing and rallying. It was truly the automotive backbone of the nation.

However, it designed, engineered and produced both cars and vans in the UK. British people could acquire British products, albeit from an American-owned company. Vauxhall had been acquired by the US giant, General Motors, quite early in its history but it too was a British car and van maker to all intents and purposes. However, everything was about to change and it started, when Vauxhall launched the Astra model. For the first time, it had a direct rival to the Ford Escort of the day.

Vauxhall Astra

Vauxhall Astra

The respective companies had a battle royal between their marketing departments. One would try to outdo the other at every available opportunity but the consumer was unusually the benefactor. Retail price wars made the relevant Ford the fleet/company car victor, while Vauxhall’s alternative offering was the retail king…until the arrival of the Astra Mark 7, just five years ago. It was THE gamechanger. Lighter. More fuel efficient. Better handling. More spacious. For the first time, Vauxhall overtook Ford in volume terms.

Of course, Ford no longer makes cars, or vans, in the UK. Vauxhall makes cars (Astra) at Ellesmere Port, Merseyside, and vans at Luton. Despite the politics that resulted in French PSA Group swallowing up Vauxhall from GM, major changes have already taken place. Yet, it is going to be very difficult to discern the differences between the outgoing ‘Vauxhall’ and the incoming ‘PSA’ versions of the latest Astra model, because, to all intents and purposes they are identical, until you peek beneath the bonnet. Of course, as it is nudging four years since the last version of the Astra shocked us all with its excellence, it is inevitable that some minor detail nips-and-tucks have been carried out. It is what happens in the time-line conventions of carmakers.

Vauxhall Astra

Vauxhall Astra

However, it is all-change for the drivetrain, which is now entirely French. In other words, the PSA Group (which also owns Peugeot, Citroen and DS brands) has installed its three-cylinder petrol and diesel power units, with associated transmissions. The petrols are available in both 1.2 (107, 127 and 142bhp) and 1.4-litre (142bhp) forms, while the diesel is 1.5-litre (102 and 119bhp) displacement. The standard gearbox is a 6-speed manual, with a trying-to-be-clever 7-speed (but stepless) CVT transmission available on the 142bhp 1.4-litre hatch and estate, and a new but sluggish 9-speed automatic optional on the 119bhp 1.5-litre diesel hatch. All engines across the entire Astra range are turbocharged and feature CO2 emissions rated from 94 to 120g/km, with excellent Official Combined WLTP fuel returns of up to 64.2mpg.

Efficiency was PSA’s target and Vauxhall can now claim that it has the best in class virtually across its entire line-up of new models, a factor helped by its exceptional drag factor of 0.26Cd, a virtual carryover from the previous car. Yet, the new Astra also features a twin-shutter radiator grille, with a pair of electronically controlled elements that can open and close independently of each other, thereby aiding thermodynamic efficiency (warming-up quicker), while improving fuel economy. The weight reductions carried out for the outgoing model fit well with the new PSA hardware. In fact, in many ways, the latest Astra benefits heartily from its PSA running gear and is sure to make PSA look more closely at how it constructs its equivalent Citroen and Peugeot models.

Vauxhall Astra

Vauxhall Astra

Bearing in mind the current antipathy towards diesel, I determined that the punchiest 1.2-litre petrol was the best model to sample. Its 0-60mph acceleration time of just 8.5s and 134mph top speed are hugely impressive but I do feel that the four-cylinder units used by VW Group (especially its 1.5-litre EVO unit), Kia/Hyundai and other rivals are significantly more refined. Yet, the three-pot engine does provide a characterful bark at the top end of its register.

The six-speed manual stick moves around the gate fluently, with near Japanese precision. I was a strong fan of the previous Astra for the dramatic changes it advanced in terms of road-holding and handling balance. If anything, the PSA hardware, which is lighter than the GM alternatives, has made the new Astra’s handling even crisper, more fluent and much more fun to indulge in. It makes the latest Focus feel poorly resolved.

Vauxhall Astra

Vauxhall Astra

Astra’s finely-honed turn-in to corners, with superb bump absorption and suspension geometry that provides excellent driver feedback but without side characteristics such as bottoming-out, roll, or bump steer, make it the class of the field. The driver can press on with confidence, regardless of weather conditions. Presenting minimal understeer but with the rear wheels following the fronts religiously, grip levels are high and the handling balance is hugely engaging.

If you want a Mark designation, I would call this the Astra Mark 7b, rather than a Gallic alternative. It is a truly fantastic car in hatchback form and I also appreciate the enormous space within the estate car, although I would steer clear of the CVT, if I were you, and I am informed that the 9-speed auto is not the best of its type.

Conclusion:     After 40 years, the Astra is very much at the head of its game and I would venture to suggest that it possesses enough brio to topple all of its rivals, including those within the line-ups of PSA, helped by very keen pricing and a good reputation for durability.