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After I had a run-in with a motocyclist, which wrote off my 2001 Astra, I faced a dilemma. You see, it was a leased vehicle, which means that in the event of a write-off I get to take a new contract.
In brief, the price of the Astra has come down a bit since I first bought, ahem... leased, my 2001 model, and I found that if I knocked off the air-conditioning and colour screen GPS, I could probably have afforded a Vectra or Zafira.
After spending a few hours in the showroom, I eventually ordered the exact same model that I had had previously. Here's why:
I'll admit to being a bit of a gadget kid. The Astra that I now have is a 1.7 DTI Elegance. Which means that the metallic (jade) paintwork and automatic air-conditioning (new for 2003) come as standard, along with a leather steering wheel, and all-around electric windows, automatic rear-view mirror dimming, electric wing mirrors...
To which I added GPS with optional colour screen, and 4CD changer. The CD changer simply means that I don't have to keep on taking the GPS CD out to play some tunes. However, they stuck it in the glove compartment, which leaves just enough space for the 4 CD cases and a can of fizzy drink.
I'll live with it.
The GPS colour screen is one of the best features. It goes in the central console, which is extended into a kind of dome to compensate for the fact that the screen is about ten times higher than the silly info display that comes as standard.
The map display may take a little time to draw, but in colour, with various features marked such as stations, railway lines, rivers and lakes, it is a sight to behold. Oh, and it helps you to find your way too.
One problem with the GPS, though, is that there seems to be no 'shortest' route calculator. You can have 'Quickest' or 'Prefer Motorway', but no 'Shortest'. Seems like a silly thing to miss, but there you go.
Another really well thought out feature are the automation features. Automatically dimming rear view mirror, windscreen wipers that detect how much rain there is on the windscreen, and swish faster or slower accordingly. Very clever, and useful.
The Astra is comfortable as ever on those long (8 hours, in my case) journeys, but cramp does set in on the right foot eventually, because the 1.7 DTI has no cruise control.
Nor does it have an on-board trip computer. Two things that they only fit on the 2.2 DTI and above, it seems. So that's three features that seem as if they should be there, but aren't.
As for driving around: Acceleration is about what I expect from this model of car, slower than it's 2.2 big brother, but with a top speed of 170-175 km/h it doesn't hang around either. Getting there is a painfully slow business, but whether this is due to a speed limiting chip or not isn't clear.
(By the way, it is quite economical. I have been known to get 800 km out of the tank, and in mixed motorway-urban driving, I can usually manage 700.)
The turning circle is reasonably tight, with very nice power-assisted steering. I really don't like the approach of car manufacturers who make power steering that you sneeze on and it spins you around like a top. No, the Astra is just heavy enough.
It is also a pretty noisy beast. Not quite the tractor of the old 1.7 D (which I own), but not the quiet HDI hum of the Peugeot either. For a TDI, it is noisier than most.
Still, it's a lot better than the Mégane that the lease company palmed me off with whilst I was waiting for delivery. Not quite as much visibility as the Peugeot 307 1.9 HDI that they gave me after I crashed the Mégane (that's another story) on a supermarket car park, but nippier, and a more satisfactory drive.
So, all in all, if you can't afford all the optional extras, with the top of the range model, then go for something else, because the engine alone isn't enough of a reason.
The extras seem to be well priced, and I heard a rumour that they're putting GPS in them for free these days.
There are more airbags than you can shake a stick at. After my aforementioned accident, I can vouch for these inventions - saved me a nasty crack on the face - and there are four in the cockpit alone. Driver, passenger, and on each side of the windscreen.
On the subject of security - I still do not see why Vauxhall have not followed Peugeot and taken the knobs off the doors, and made locking part of the central console.
I'll explain. To lock the Peugeot 307, you press a button on the central console. If a carjacker comes along, he cannot unlock the car without breaking the window and leaning in to hit the button. By which time you're off. Also, kids cannot unlock their doors and fall out. Just seems to make sense to me.
Internal space is good in the front, with limited legroom in the back. The boot is a nice size, takes all the baby stuff, but not much else. Still, if you want a truly cavernous boot, buy the Estate version.
Meanwhile, a member of my family has just bought a Seat Ibiza, roughly the same specifications. When I've taken it for a rip around the Yorkshire countryside, I'll let you know how it shapes up.
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