► A refresher drive in the new Vauxhall Astra
► 1.6 ‘Whisper Diesel’ flexible and efficient
► Affordable, practical and surprisingly good fun
Perhaps Peugeot boss Carlos Tavares was so smitten after a drive, he decided to buy the company. Certainly the Vauxhall Astra proved good enough to win 2016 European Car Of The Year, and was the UK’s fourth best-seller last year, behind Fiesta, Golf and Focus.
To get a refresher, we’re testing the Astra in Tech Line 1.6 CDTI 110PS ecoFlex S/S trim. It costs £19,275, with the cheapest 110PS (108bhp) diesel basing at £18,075. That’s over £4k cheaper than the most affordable 110PS diesel Golf.
Give me a quick recap of the new Astra…
It’s built on an all-new platform, and Vauxhall claims the new Astra weighs up to 200kg less than its predecessor, with the bodyshell alone reduced from 357kg to 280kg and a further 50kg saved by lighter chassis components.
Buyers can choose from four petrol engine specs: the 1.0-litre turbo triple makes 104bhp, the 1.4-litre turbo comes with either 99bhp, 123bhp or 148bhp. The 1.6-litre CDTi diesel gets either 108bhp or 134bhp outputs. Our 108bhp car’s Ecoflex designation means it claims an incredible 85.6mpg and 88g/km CO2 to the regular 108bhp model’s 78.5mpg/95g/km CO2.
Either five- or six-speed manual or five-speed auto gearboxes are available, and all models are front-wheel drive.
Equipment, tech specs
There are a mind-boggling nine trim levels, from entry-level Design to top-spec Elite Nav. Our Tech Line is the second-from-bottom – it adds an eight-inch touchscreen with sat-nav, leather steering and adjustable armrest to the Design model’s 16-inch alloys, air-con, Bluetooth and DAB radio.
Suspension is by MacPherson struts up front, but the more unusual torsion beam with Watt’s link at the rear. The rear axle is said to sit higher than in the previous generation, as part of an overall effort to improve airflow under the car; it contributes to a 0.285Cd coefficient of drag, down from 0.325Cd for the last model.
Apple CarPlay and Android Auto are offered (allowing drivers to control and view smartphone functions such as navigation and music players via the Astra’s central touchscreen, known as IntelliLink), and OnStar technology brings 4G connectivity and wi-fi hotspot, automatically contacts the emergency services if you have a prang that triggers the airbags and sends an alert if the vehicle is stolen. Bluetooth, USB and DAB are all standard.
Driver-assist systems such as Lane-Departure Warning, Lane-Keep Assist, Forward Collision Alert and Autonomous Emergency Braking, Park Assist and Rear View Camera are also available, depending on specification.
Despite GM ownership and Opel development, the Astra can still claim to be quite British: it was designed by Mark Adams and Malcolm Ward, and is built at Ellesmere Port, in the north west of England.
What’s the Astra like inside?
Vauxhall has paid close attention to packaging, so while the external dimensions are 5cm more compact than the previous Astra at 4.37m with a 2cm shorter wheelbase and 2.5cm lower roofline, there’s a claimed increase in interior space – the new front and rear seats are said to be further apart, freeing up an additional 35cm of legroom. There’s a bit of drop down from the lip of the boot into the luggage compartment, but there’s 370 litres of space – 10 litres less than a Golf.
The front fabric seats are positioned nice and low, and offer good comfort with adequate support. There’s also plenty of room in the back, even with a car full of six-feet tall adults, and the Isofix child-seat anchors are easily accessed.
The dashboard is arranged in clean, stylish sweeps, the buttons logically presented and drastically reduced in number compared with the last-generation. The plastics do feel a little cheap, and some of the silver trim that lifts the interior from a potentially quite drab and black overall look appears scratch-prone, but generally it feels robust and the design is appealing.
Hooking up your smartphone to the car is about as easy as it gets, and CarPlay loads up instantly. Parking sensors are a good idea, as the D-pillar is quite chunky, hindering some rearward visibility.
How does the Astra drive?
Really nicely. Vauxhall makes much of the Astra’s testing on UK roads, and it does feel set-up to work on a tricky B-road. On entry-level 16-inch rims, it rides with a lovely long-legged suppleness and surprising amount of agility – you can really make it dance about if you try. In fact, for an economy car that could be seen to be quite sensible, there’s surprising mischief and enjoyment to be had.
The electrically assisted steering, too, adds to the sense of driver engagement, feeling playfully light and eager with linear weighting and a tickle of communication through the thin, nicely proportioned rim. It complements the chassis beautifully.
Vauxhall calls its new 1.6-litre CDTi engine a Whisper Diesel. We wouldn’t quite go that far, but it’s far from clattery or coarse, and even in entry-level 108bhp trim offers plenty of flexibility around town, and enough performance to get a shift on cross-country. It feels thin enough during overtaking to have you bouncing up and down in the your seat, and would be safer with more power in such circumstances, but mostly it does the job.
The gearshift is quite slick, but the gearing further blunts performance – 70mph is marginal for sixth gear, as the engine starts chuntering like a union rep catching wind of a PSA takeover. But they had to get that claimed 85.6mpg/88g/km CO2 somehow.
We had two complaints: the brake pedal travel is excessively long, making heel-and-toe almost impossible and – more relevant for most – giving you a brief panic attack each time you press through an inch of travel and absolutely nothing happens. Secondly, the small 16-inch tyres fitted to this ecoFlex model do run out of grip rather early in the wet, creating some understeer with occasional bouts of yelping.
The Astra might not have the desirability of the Golf – and really that’s its downfall – but it’s affordable, economical spacious and balances long-distance comfort with a surprising amount of back-road fun. Spend a little more, give yourself time to navigate the over-complicated trim walk, and it can also come generously equipped with some appealing technology.
As a family car, the Astra makes a great call. We kind of expected that. That it’s such insurance-friendly good fun over a favourite road only adds to the appeal.