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After mixed fortunes with some smaller three-door cars (including a SHOCKINGLY unreliable Volkswagen Polo) we decided it was time for a more "grown up" car last September, as we were planning for a family - the first addition to which is now due in July..
Reliability and practicality were the prime considerations - obviously the newer the better - but we were also on a budget, with no more than £2-3k to spend. This naturally ruled out a lot of cars, but one that kept coming back up was the boring old Vauxhall Astra - specifically the Mk4 (or "G") version. This was the second best selling car in the UK back in its day (its day being between 1998 and 2004), but as it was up against the much more modern looking Ford Focus, and as there are millions of them on the road, it hasn't held its value on the second-hand market very well at all. Good news for us!
Once we had a used Astra in mind, we had plenty of cars to choose from. In the end we paid £2,695 for a six year old, 53 plate Astra Club, with the 1.6, 8 valve engine, and 56,000 miles on the clock. It was (and still is) in very nice condition, and had a full service history.
There are a few different engines and trims to choose from in the Astra range - we went for one with the 8v engine as they're cheap to insure, and less desirable - and therefore cheaper to buy - than the 16v version to be found in sportier cars like the 1.6 SXi. As long as you get a late model 8v, it's still a good strong engine which has no problems pulling the car, it just lacks a little of the punch of the 16v. Be wary if the car you're looking at is a few years older though - apparently the first generation of 1.6 8v engines in these cars was significantly weedier.
From the outside it's a pleasant enough looking car - there are so many of these on the road you barely notice it, but it's quite nicely styled and better looking than a lot of the cheaper alternatives. Driving one of these you'll never stand out from the crowd, but it doesn't say anything terrible about you either - you're just a sensible, economic motorist in a practical mainstream car. For me it's the best size for a car - bigger and much more practical than the average "small" car, but nothing like as big or unwieldy as the next size up - this car is very much the happy medium all over.
Inside, it's spacious and comfortable-but-bland - our "Club" model has grey velour upholstery, headrests on four seats, a six-speaker CD stereo, and very good air-con. It can seat five quite happily, and has a very ample boot, which has proven itself invaluable many times already. The fit and finish of everything is very good - it's well bolted together, and tough enough for some harsh treatment. With Club spec the front windows are electric, but with manual in the rear (where they're rarely used). As a passenger the ride is nice and smooth, but if there's a complaint to be made it's road noise - it's a bit more noticeable than it might have been.
The drivers seat is comfy and has all the adjustments you'd expect including height, steering wheel rake etc. The controls are all where they should be and generally have a solid, no-nonsense feel to them, and the dashboard is very clean and clear all round. There's a neat "heads-up" information display at the top of the centre console, linked into the RDS radio, so you get station name, time, outside temperature etc all in one place. Visibility to the rear is a little restricted, as it is on all recent cars, but fine generally. The one dissapointment in the cabin for me is that the side mirrors are manual - no electric remote control or heating in winter - but they're easy enough to adjust nonetheless. The "Club" has remote central locking and an immobiliser but no alarm - fine by me as I doubt they do much good! The Astra's not exactly top of any car thieve's wish list anyway.
Driving the Astra is easy - very easy - just point it where you want to go and that's about it. Gear changes are smooth (although the box was a little notchy when we first got it, this improved a lot after a few drives), the weight of the power-assisted steering is just right, road holding is very good, and the 1.6 8v engine in our Club is just right to my mind - powerful enough to cruise on the motorway or overtake with reasonable ease, but quite refined and quiet with it - it's no racing car, but it never feels like it's straining either. On paper it'll do 112mph, but I haven't felt inclined to try it!
For me this car is all about practicality, and that extends to the little things - it's easy to maintain yourself, and unlike some cars you won't be expected to go to the dealer just to get a bulb changed. Build quality is really very good throughout, and it's nice to know these cars were all built here in the UK, at Ellesmere Port.
I'm a bit obsessive about measuring fuel consumption with any new car - it's a good indicator of how a car is behaving generally - and our Astra has been doing about 39mph consistently, month after month (including through the harsh winter months), which is what Vauxhall say it should do. Road tax (by emissions) is band H, so £180 per year, and it's a lowly insurance group 4. There are cheaper cars to run, but for its size and performance it's quite frugal overall.
In five months we've done 6,000 miles so far - the clock's now over 62,000 miles - and aside from a scheduled cam-belt change and a service, the Astra's needed nothing else - touch wood, it just keeps going, which in itself is a marked improvement on some of our previous cars! The best thing is I know even when the inevitable does happen, Vauxhall parts are a lot cheaper and easier to get hold of then many other makes, and pretty much any old garage can do the work.