Vauxhall Astra: Family favourite an Astra-nomically good buy
PEOPLE like to say that there is no such thing as a bad car these days.
This is especially true of folk who can remember the time when cars used to rust within months of leaving the showroom and when weekends had to be spent greasing nipples and oiling various parts of the undercarriage of their Morris Minor or Ford Anglia.
In these olden times, when television was black and white and the DUP hadn't been invented, it was not unusual for cars to break down. An intimate knowledge of what went on under a distributor cap was often necessary to get from A to B.
But we live in different times. Television now comes in something called ultra high definition, which is very colour and definitely not black and white, and the DUP is now shoring up a Conservative government at Westminster.
The motor car, meanwhile, has evolved to the extent that they almost never rust, break down or require under-bonnet fettling.
Which is just as well, because in the event that you are able to work out how to open your car's bonnet, you will find that the engine now lives under a plastic shroud and that someone has stolen the distributor.
For the consumer, this is a brilliant state of affairs. Because we no longer have to spend our weekends greasing, oiling and push-starting our cars, we have more time to watch television and try to work out what car we should be driving.
This isn't as straightforward as you might think, especially as there is no such thing as a bad car... which brings us back to where we started.
Nowhere is the competition between the no-such-thing-as-a-bad-cars as fierce as it is among the ranks of the family hatchback.
The motor car has evolved to the extent that they almost never rust, break down or require under-bonnet fettling
Here we find a bunch of really talented motors. There's the Volkswagen Golf, of course, and the Ford Focus is popular, but there's also the - deep breath - Renault Megane, Peugeot 308, Mazda 3 (my favourite), Fiat Tipo, Kia Ceed, Hyundai i30, Audi A3, Seat Leon, Skoda Octavia, Volvo V40... the list goes on.
One of the stalwarts of this group is the Vauxhall Astra, which has been with us almost as long as the VW Golf. So established is the Astra in the car-buying psyche, that Vauxhall reckons around a quarter of the public have owned one or had one in the family.
The Astra first breezed into our showrooms in 1980 as the riposte from Vauxhall and Opel, its continental European branch, to the wildly successful Golf.
It was Vauxhall's first front-wheel-drive car, and followed the template established by the Golf of space for five passengers and their luggage, modest running costs and a practical hatchback body.
As with the Golf, we are now on to the seventh generation of the Astra. Though it has always sold well, the Vauxhall has not always had class-leading credentials to go with its ubiquity.
Until now, that is. The latest Astra is not simply a no-such-thing-as-a-bad-car car, but actually a very good car, the sort of car you should seriously consider directing your own money towards if you are in the market for a family hatchback or estate.
The current car pitched up at the end of 2015 but it wears its near-two years of service lightly. With sharp, modern styling, the Astra is one of the more handsome cars in its sector.
But there is substance beneath the skin. It won the European Car of the Year title in 2016, with the jury citing its strong value for money.
"We say it's the best car we've ever built because it's lighter," said Opel boss Dr Karl-Thomas Neumann at the time.
"It's very light, it's very efficient, it drives very dynamic, but it's still comfortable for everyday use, and it's superbly connected.
"It has our new infotainment generation and it has features like massage seats and like the matrix light, which you don't find in this class, so we have tried our best to build an outstanding car, and the jury has seen that."
Today's Astra is lighter and shorter than the car it replaced, yet it is more spacious and safer.
It is also better equipped. It was the first car in the sector to gain the fabulous 'matrix' LED headlamps, for example. These can adjust their main beam so as not to blind oncoming traffic while still illuminating more of the road than a conventional bulb.
Buyers of an early Astra might have been pleased if they found a medium wave radio, never mind a tape deck, in their car's dashboard, but today's customer is a lot more demanding.
'Infotainment' and 'connectivity' are the buzz words, and people want to be able to make phone calls via Bluetooth, listen to DAB radio, have a satellite navigation system at their fingertips and, increasingly, be able to 'mirror' their smartphone of choice on their car's dashboard.
The 2017 Astra does all this, and more. Earlier Vauxhalls were not distinguished by good infotainment integration, but the latest car more than puts that right.
A touchscreen sits in the middle of the dashboard - 7-inch in size, or 8-inch on higher specification models - and every model gets DAB, Bluetooth, a USB socket and Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. It's also easy to use, which isn't something that could have been said about older Vauxhalls.
The Vauxhall also raised the bar in the class by offering a 4G wifi hotspot and its OnStar concierge service - tap a button to be connected to an assistant who can, for example, send a satnav route straight to your car. Clever stuff.
The Astra is also available with a full suite of the latest safety gadgets, such as lane departure warning, lane keep assist and road sign reading.
You can have your Astra with some super-comfy seats and the interior is a light-year ahead of earlier cars in terms of quality. It might not quite trouble the Golf, but there is much to make the driver and passengers feel good in the smart plastics, glossy piano black trim and metal details.
The driving position is very good - you sit lower than in most rivals - though the gearshift is not as bolt-action accurate as that found in a Mazda 3 or Honda Civic.
With sharp, modern styling, the Astra is one of the more handsome cars in its sector. But there is substance beneath the skin
The steering lacks feel compared to the very best driver's cars in the sector, but the Astra still has plenty of grip, handles fluently and rides with comfort on all variations of Northern Ireland tarmac.
This is praiseworthy, and you can tell that the engineers who set up the car spent a lot of time fine-tuning the chassis on UK roads.
Back seat passengers enjoy rather more leg- and headroom than the low roof might suggest. The doors open wide - all the better to facilitate getting children in and out of their car seats.
The boot, with a volume of 370 litres, is not as large as that found in rivals such as the van-like Skoda Octavia but its floor has a ribbed surface to help keep luggage in place. The seats don't fold fully flat.
If outright practicality and load carrying is a priority, the fine-looking Sports Tourer estate is available, with a maximum boot volume of 1,630 litres. It attracts a premium of around £1,200.
An almost impossibly wide range of engines, gearboxes and trims mean there should be an Astra to suit everyone; a high performance VXR version is yet to join the range, though.
An SRi Nav with the 136PS flavour of the 1.6-litre diesel engine is probably the sweet spot of the range, with a price tag of £22,700.
The Mazda 3 is a better drive and for some people nothing but a Golf will do, but if you are in the market for a family car the Astra really should not be overlooked.
It is a strong and highly credible all rounder. Laden with the latest technology, built to a high standard, available with a large range of models and frugal engines, and with lots of space for your family - as well as all their clutter - there is a great deal to recommend the Astra.
Far more than a 'not bad' car, the Vauxhall Astra is now a very good car.