Cars

Vauxhall Astra GSe: PHEV power-up still lacks hot hatch cred

The new Vauxhall Astra GSe
The new Vauxhall Astra GSe The new Vauxhall Astra GSe

I DESPERATELY want to love the new Vauxhall Astra: not only is the Vizor-faced mk8 the best-looking version of Vauxhall’s veteran hatchback since the mk2 of the 1980s, it’s also available as an attractively styled Sports Tourer: any manufacturer still offering a nice, large family-friendly estate is always cause for celebration in an era when unwieldy SUVs rule the roost.

Having tested a hatchback Astra in top-of-the line Ultimate trim last year, I was further impressed by the high-standard of finish in the cabin and how comfortable and composed it was to drive.

Unfortunately, once on the open road, that’s where my praise began to falter. I’m no speed demon, but this handsome hatchback’s 1.2l turbo-charged petrol engine was totally stifled by a needlessly ponderous eight-speed (at least three-speeds too many, imo) automatic gearbox that made attempting any kind of rapid progress a bit of a chore.

The Astra GSe is available now as a hatchback, with a Sports Tourer still to come
The Astra GSe is available now as a hatchback, with a Sports Tourer still to come The Astra GSe is available now as a hatchback, with a Sports Tourer still to come

At the time, I felt that an Astra with added electric motor-derived power might add some much-needed zap to its driving characteristics – god only knows what a fully-laden Sports Tourer version must be like to drive with that underwhelming engine/box set-up - helping it to live up to the promise of that sharp, sporty exterior styling.

Thus, when the chance arose to try the new Astra GSe ­– Vauxhall’s new ‘sporty’ version of its plug-in hybrid Astra - I was definitely eager to compare and contrast.

Read more:

  • Sharply styled Vauxhall Astra goes on sale
  • Star pupil: the all new Vauxhall Astra is a contender for top of its class
  • New Astra Sports Tourer is Vauxhall's first electrified estate  

ELECTRIC DREAMS

‘GSe’ stands for ‘Grand Sport electric’ and is “the new performance sub-brand from Vauxhall, integrating electric performance credentials with sharp handling and styling”.

At the moment, only the hatchback Astra and Grandland have been GSe-d (though an Astra GSe Sports Tourer is coming next year), which means they benefit from “unique styling upgrades inside and out”, plus “uprated electrified drivetrains and improved handling thanks to suspension and steering upgrades”.

Astra GSe Sports Tourer - due next year
Astra GSe Sports Tourer - due next year Astra GSe Sports Tourer - due next year

For the Astra, this means a 178 hp 1.6l petrol engine combined with a 108 hp electric motor for a total power output of 222 hp, 266 lb ft of torque and 40 miles of electric-only range (WLTP) from a 12.4kWh battery.

The Astra GSe also sits 10mm lower than standard cars, with stiffer springs enhanced by Frequency Selective Damping technology from KONI. The steering has also been recalibrated for a sportier feel, and even the electronic stability control has even been tweaked to engage slightly later.

Enticingly, prices for the Astra GSe start at £40,550 – just £150 more than the Astra Ultimate plug-in hybrid it’s based on.

The Astra GSe interior is excellent
The Astra GSe interior is excellent The Astra GSe interior is excellent

TEST DRIVE

SO, HAVE Vauxhall solved the aforementioned performance-related niggles of the automatic ICE-powered Astra with the GSe?

Sadly, the answer is ‘not entirely’.

While it’s a slightly livelier drive, acceleration remains frustratingly hesitant even in Sport mode. Selecting Electric-only power immediately improves throttle response, but drive with a heavy right foot and you’ll soon need to recharge.

While the claimed electric range might be 40 miles, in reality the car I was testing on a rather cold afternoon predicted 26 miles of range from a 94 per cent charge.

The new Vauxhall Astra GSe
The new Vauxhall Astra GSe The new Vauxhall Astra GSe

The KONI-fettled suspension is good at absorbing bumps on straights and gives you extra confidence of grip in the corners, but for some reason the tuned GSe steering actually felt worse than that of the standard car, making the leather-trimmed wheel seem oddly heavy and vague in the hand.

Still, at least the Alcantara-trimmed, AGR-approved GSe seats were lovely to sit in.


THE VERDICT

Ultimately, then, the Astra GSe still doesn’t quite have the performance to match its looks, which means it’s all down to the pure-electric Astra (priced from £37,445 OTR) to finally capture my heart.

Will I be smitten by first ever non-ICE version of Vauxhall’s long-serving hatchback?

Watch this space…