Lighter, smarter, cheaper, better: Astra tops class
The new Vauxhall Astra is a huge leap forward and should be on your shortlist of anyone looking for a new family hatchback, writes William Scholes
ALWAYS the bridesmaid and never the bride, the Vauxhall Astra was beginning to seem destined to perpetually trail in the wake of rivals like the Volkswagen Golf and Ford Focus.
But things are changing. A new Astra is with us - the seventh generation of a models which has been enormously popular since it debuted in 1979 - and Vauxhall is confident that it now has a package sufficiently rounded to take the fight to VW, Ford and the rest in a class distinguished by some excellent cars.
Vauxhall's confidence is well-founded, for the latest Astra is an excellent car and worthy of serious consideration if you are in the market for a Focus, Golf, Seat Leon and the like.
First, it looks great, with styling that neatly advances the design of the previous car, itself a handsome piece of work. Only the large black sharkfin aerial on the roof's trailing edge spoils the effect of a very classy looking family car.
The real magic is beneath the skin, however. A shiny new platform means the Astra is lower and shorter than the car it replaces, yet also manages to be roomier inside. And it really is spacious, with legroom for back seat passengers to rival even the mighty Skoda Octavia. The back seat is also a much better place in which to travel than that of the Focus, for example.
Up front, there is also plenty of space. I found the driver's seat exceptionally comfortable - a stark contrast with the broken deckchair effort found in the Fiat 500 I drove around the same time - and the dashboard and switches well laid-out.
That's an understatement, actually. The Astra now gets a big touchscreen in the centre of the dashboard, equipped with Vauxhall's whizz-bang IntelliLink infotainment system. It's one of the best of these sorts of systems I've tried, and offers a mirroring capability to work with your Apple or Android smartphone.
You can also have your Astra with a wifi hotspot and even a 24/7 concierge and emergency service, should you so desire.
Everything looks and works well, though in the final analysis the action of the stalks and switches lacks the ultimate quality of what you'll find in a Golf, Peugeot 308 or Mazda 3.
Other technology highlights include various crash mitigation and avoidance systems but for me a standout feature is the availability of active LED matrix headlights.
It's the first time this sort of tech, found for a while on larger, premium cars, has migrated to something like an Astra.
The lights' trick is to dim only the section of mainbeam that might dazzle other motorists. It's a brilliant safety boost, illuminating more of your surroundings at night than conventional systems can manage.
I drove the Astra soon after testing a BMW 6 Series with a similar system - the Vauxhall's was marginally slower and more obvious in how it reacted to its surroundings - and remain firmly convinced that strong headlamps are one of the easiest and best ways of improving road safety.
Another standout feature is the engine, which is not something that can be said about every Vauxhall.
The Astra comes with variations of Vauxhall's new so-called whisper diesel. While it's not library-quiet, it is smooth and revs hard, offering very impressive performance and acceleration. It's also economical in the real world (see At a Glance panel), which seems like a winning combination.
In fact, such was the vigour with which the Astra drove, that I had to double-check that the version I tested was in fact 'only' a 1.6-litre with 134bhp...
A more powerful 158bhp version is also available and the 109bhp diesel scores an amazing CO2 score of 82g/km and 91mpg on the EU combined cycle.
If your annual mileage doesn't justify diesel-power, then Vauxhall will sell you petrols in various flavours, including 1.0-litre three-cylinder turbo, 1.4-litre four-cylinder with or without a turbo, and 197bhp 1.6-litre turbo. Doubtless more engine options will appear in due course.
The 134bhp diesel seems to be an ideal combination for the cut-and-thrust of Northern Ireland's road network.
It's ably complemented by a chassis set-up that tends towards sportiness but is superbly judged for our roads.
The ride is on the firm side - which is consistent with the sporty demeanour - but strikes a good balance with comfort.
Grip is abundant and it manfully resists understeer; the Astra has a newfound enthusiasm for hard cornering, with strong brakes and easy, predictable handling.
Even so, the Vauxhall doesn't quite match the Mazda 3 for enthusiast driver appeal: an inconsistency to the clutch action and gear change means it simply isn't as slick.
Still, don't think that the Astra, at least in the guise tested, is anything less than great fun to drive. It's a near-perfect match for Northern Ireland roads.
The Astra's enduring popularity has been built in large part on value-for-money and Vauxhall's wide dealer network - that ratio has only improved as, model-for-model, the new Astra is cheaper than the car it replaces.
That means the Astra is cheap to buy and run, drives great, is well kitted out and sharply styled.
The Mazda 3 remains my family hatchback class champ, but it is a considerable achievement for Vauxhall that the Astra gets so close; it's bridesmaid days seem to be behind it.