Astral peaks - why the latest Vauxhall Astra is the best yet
ONE of the pleasant surprises on last year's road test rota was the latest Vauxhall Astra, writes William Scholes.
I'm a fair-minded sort of chap, and always approach the cars you read about on these pages with an open mind and healthy reserves of good will.
That wasn't just sorely tested by one of Vauxhall's offerings, the Mokka, when I drove it a while back.
The Mokka, lest you be in any doubt, is a vile contraption with basalt suspension and an engine from a 1973 Massey Ferguson. It should be approached with caution.
Vauxhall, thankfully, has made considerable strides to up its game since then, though the Mokka - inexplicably, if you ask me - continues to sell strongly.
Previous versions of the Astra have rather underwhelmed, being neither as nice to drive nor as well built as key rivals like the Volkswagen Golf or Ford Focus.
Buyers of family hatchbacks are spoiled for choice these days, with the Seat Leon, Mazda 3 and Peugeot 308 standing out in an ultra-competitive class.
A new Renault Megane arrives soon, promising to put right the wrongs of the dreary current car.
In this context, many motoring writers - self included - expected the latest Astra to be another ho-hum effort, but we couldn't have been more wrong.
Stylish, sturdily screwed together, spacious, sweet-driving and laden with tech were not descriptions that easily associated themselves with earlier Astras, but the new car has all this in abundance.
In particular, the SRi version I tried, with the gutsy 134bhp 1.6-litre diesel engine, was particularly in tune with Irish roads, with a well-judged mix of sportiness and comfort.
I really liked it, and others agreed, with the Astra being named as the European Car of the Year.
The car we are concerned with today is the inevitable follow-up, the estate version.
Almost nobody calls their estate car an 'estate' these days, and so it is with the Astra, which rejoices in the suffix 'Sports Tourer'.
The hatchback is a decent looking car but as is often the way, to my eyes the estate is a more handsome device, the longer roofline lending a degree of elegance and balance to the profile.
In the metallic silver paintwork of the test car it looked classy and had real upmarket presence.
A bit of effort has been made to add interest to the side window line towards the tailgate and taken together, the Astra is a match in the flair stakes with stylish rivals such as the Seat Leon, Peugeot 308 and Kia Ceed.
The cabin is, as you might expect, the same as five-door hatch. That means a sound driving position, very comfortable seats and a dashboard and switch layout which, if not quite a model of clarity in the vein of a Volkswagen Group product, is a quantum leap ahead of previous Vauxhall efforts.
Pedants may also argue that the quality of the interior fixtures is not quite in the VW Golf category but in truth it's at least as good as it needs to be.
Where the Astra wins over rivals - by some margin, too, once price is figured in - is with its in-car technology.
You can load your family estate with on-board 4G wifi, a concierge service that connects you to a call centre at the press of a button, an automatic crash response system which contacts the emergency services if you have a smash and all sorts of smartphone connectivity and mirroring; all this has been available on big, expensive cars for a while now, but Vauxhall is democratising it.
Another superb piece of technology with which your Astra can be furnished is LED headlamps of the so-called 'matrix' variety.
Other cars in this class, notably the Seat Leon, can also be equipped with LED headlamps but only the Astra offers the option of the matrix-style, which essentially allow you to drive at night with high beam on all the time without disturbing oncoming motorists or those in front of you.
The headlamps do this by using a camera to work out what other cars are around the Astra and then switching off and on the relevant parts of the LED 'matrix' in the headlamp units.
It's a wonderful safety feature and while it is a near £1,000 option, it is one I would strongly recommend.
The back bench, which splits in a 60/40 configuration, is spacious for a car in this class - there's certainly more room than you'll find in a Ford Focus estate, if not quite as much as in a Skoda Octavia - and the low transmission tunnel means the middle passenger doesn't have compromised foot space.
The doors open wide and your younger passengers should have no problem getting in or out.
You'll be able to get three child seats across the bench, too, and there's more room than you might think for adults.
Of course, the reason people buy estate cars - or Sports Tourers - is for a bigger boot.
The Sports Tourer offers a useful upgrade in volume over the hatch, with 540 litres playing 370 litres with the back seats in place.
Drop the seats, and the hatchback's maximum of 1,210 litres is dwarfed by the estate's 1,630 litres.
There are bigger load bays in the class - smaller, too, of course - but the Vauxhall seems to me to have struck a good balance between internal space and a handily-sized exterior.
Incidentally, seats-down it offers more space than its larger Insignia Sports Tourer sibling and just as much with the seats in place...
The boot is a good shape, too, with flat sides and a smooth loading lip.
You don't, however, get clever folding seats like the 'magic seats' found in the Honda Civic and unless you opt to ditch the spare wheel there's no wealth of under-floor storage that some other cars offer.
Vauxhall's typically enormous mix of engines, gearboxes and trim levels mean there is likely to be an Astra to suit your requirements, whatever they are.
Petrol engines stretch from a 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol to a 197bhp 1.6-litre, and diesels from a 1.6-litre with 109bhp to a 158bhp BiTurbo with a mountain of torque.
Naturally, the more powerful engines will make the Astra feel quicker, but previous experience suggests that somewhere in the mid-range is just fine.
That means the 134bhp diesel is a good choice but if your petrol is your preferred hydrocarbon, the 1.4-litre petrol turbo, as fitted to the test car, is a strong contender.
The vitality and extreme competitiveness in the family estate sector shows that the crossover hasn't completely taken over yet.
As long as cars like the Astra Sports Tourer are around the Nissan Qashqais, Kia Sportages and Renault Kadjars of this world will have a fight on their hands.
The Astra is a lot of very good car for the money: it looks great, offers lots of space for people and luggage, carries a value-for-money price tag, is loaded with lots of kit and has a fine ride and handling balance.
I haven't always been won over by Vauxhall's cars - I remain scarred by the Mokka... - but I am glad to report that the Astra Sports Tourer is a great all-rounder and offers extreme competence in a class of car presently distinguished by a lot of very highly accomplished rivals.
:: AT A GLANCE
Vauxhall Astra Sports Tourer SRI Nav 1.4i 150PS Turbo
Price: £20,885. As tested £23,470. Options included metallic paint £545, 18-inch alloy wheels £395, tinted rear windows £275, front and rear parking sensors £450, electronic climate control £395, winter pack with heated front seats £345, PowerFlex bar £45, fragrance diffuser £40, FlexOrganiser pack £95
Engine and transmission: 1.4-litre four-cylinder petrol turbo, six-speed manual gearbox, front-wheel-drive; 148bhp, 181lb/ft
Performance: Top speed 134mph, 0-60mph in 8.0 seconds
Fuel consumption: 50.4mpg (EU combined); 40.8mpg (real world)
CO2, road tax, benefit in kind: 130g/km - not liable in first year, then £130 annually - 23 per cent
Euro Ncap safety rating: Five stars (86/84/83/75)