Vauxhall's Astra good, whopping blindspot bad

Published: 20 November 2009

Just driven the new Vauxhall Astra for the first time – really liked it. Ours was the 1.4 turbo, which I found to be very well built, stylish and a satisfying drive: nice steering, a well damped ride and a well conceived package.

The downsized 1.4 feels a little breathless, if I'm being honest, but on balance the new Astra impressed. It's right up there as a serious class contender alongside the VW Golf and Ford Focus. There's a big but coming, though...

Pilloried by pillars

As usual at this time of year, I drove the new Astra for the first time on my way home one night this week. In the dark. The ideal environment to notice Vauxhall's latest surprise-and-delight feature – those clever, arcing laser red instrument needles, which cast a sniper's red dot across the dials as the tacho and speedo needles spin around. One of those small, gadgety details that nerds like me love.

But then in the morning I climbed into the Astra and reversed it out of my drive. And I needed a white stick to alert neighbours that I couldn't see anything over my shoulder!

The Astra has unfeasibly thick C-pillars, a corollary of the slick coupé-type exterior design and kicked-up rump. The direct rear view through the window itself is fine, the three-quarter view over your shoulder is not.

Taking affront

And then as I pulled away, I realised there's a hint of tunnel vision around the Vauxhall Astra's A-pillars. Blame the tiny front quarterlights which create a classic blindspot more usually seen on MPVs, but increasingly common on monobox-styled hatchbacks.

Vauxhall/Opel has form on this, of course. The current Meriva is one of the worst blindspot offenders on sale today, hiding a multitude of sins, road users and potential danger behind its chunky A-pillars. It's like wearing a balaclava.

Spen King: a blindspot visionary

In a former life, I tested car blindspots with the help of original Range Rover engineer Spen King. He had a real bee in his bonnet about thick A-pillars and fought a long crusade with politicians and law makers to reverse the growing trend. We hired a MIRA test facility in the UK and spent a week in a visibility lab, casting eery shadows with spotlights around 50 cars' front A-pillars to scientifically plot drivers' visibility.

We proved empirically that modern A-pillars were getting thicker and that EU rules were ineffective. In some cases, tiny quarterlights were introduced to allow just a sliver of light through in the test – cheating the system for a pass, despite being as effective as a fairground periscope in terms of helping drivers see.

It's still a growing problem. Look at these photos from my cameraphone and you'll see what I mean.

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By Tim Pollard

Editorial director of CAR's digital publishing arm. Motoring news magnet