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It is difficult to believe, but the "new" Astra has been on the market now for over a year. It has undoubtedly made quite an impression. Looking quite revolutionary after the last Eurobland Astra model, I am actually having a job bringing its appearance to mind now, so forgettable was the styling. Having driven one or two of them over the last three or four years I am unfortunately also at a loss to recall to myself, let alone to you here just how it drove. Therefore the verdict on the last Astra has to be average but forgettable.
It was not always thus. Vauxhall swing from modern avant guarde to bland with each successive mark of this particular car. The Mk 1 was a decent enough car but looked boxy and uninspiring, it was a cracking good drive in its day, especially the 1.8 GTE model. The Mk 2 was revolutionary. The smooth flowing aerodynamic styling gave it a very distinctive look, the chassis was now however getting dated, GM spent all their dollars on the styling and what had previously been a taught, entertaining car to drive was now getting decidedly flabby. One of the worst cars I ever recall driving was a Vauxhall Belmont CD. An Astra with a boot and a wonderfully torquey 2.0 litre 8 valve petrol engine. Trouble is it drove like a partially set blancmange.
I owned three Astra's of this era, all with that same 2.0 fuel injected engine, all three also had a convertible roof, the first one, a GTE was a great car, the second two (the first of which only lasted six weeks - another story for another day!) were truly terrible cars. The Astra has suffered some appallingly bad build quality problems in its time!
This new one however looks better and better. No, apart from launching the very sporty looking Sports Hatch, on a billboard near you, Vauxhall have done nothing to improve its already good looks, the competition have though.
Richada's drivelling again I hear you say, please let me explain…..
Vauxhall's Astra was the first of the medium segment hatches to be replaced early last year. It is a fantastically successful market sector; the biggest sellers on the road fall into the five door hatchback category, all the major players have to market such a car in order to keep the pennies flowing in. Ford, VW, Mazda and Citroen all launched direct competitors to the Astra last year. With the possible exception of the Mazda 3 and Citroen C4, not the strongest threats in sales terms anyway, the others came up with new designs that, well just looked warmed over. Ford had a cracking good shape in the Focus, OK, it did not catch on immediately, I for one hated the look of it, but after about 18 months, particularly in black and silver actually found myself admiring the thing. Can't say the same for the new one though, it's a blob. VW's Golf, yes I respect anyone for purchasing it but the looks? I don't think so.
Therefore with the opposition putting styling on the back burner the new Astra certainly starts to look a favourite in the show room grand prix!
Open the safe like drivers door and you are touching and feeling Audi like quality here, there is nothing apparently 'built down to a price' about this interior. Usually Vauxhall, when they go all out on the exterior styling, blow it when you actually sit IN the car. Remember the Calibra? Oh yes, I had one of those too! Now THERE IS a story for another day. (I'll give you a taster, the paint all flaked off of it.)
Whilst not having any intention whatsoever of buying a new Astra, due to its newness and sure to become ubiquity, this new model was at the top of last years "cars to drive list". Having experienced each model of Astra since the late 80's, and owning three convertibles in the early 90's, I approached this latest model with mixed feelings. My wife and I like the look of it, inside and out, it is vastly preferable in appearance to the latest, or any other, Vectra. The press reports so far have all been complementary; dynamically they say that it is class competitive with the new Golf, if not as sharp as the recently obsolete Focus.
The model I chose to drive was a double test as it had one of GM's all new 1.7 CTDi engines under the bonnet. A brand new Astra, with a brand new engine, this does not very often happen, usually when launched a car range will be offered with carry over engines - it saves the manufacturers on time and development costs.
100bhp from 1.7 litres is not very much in this day and age. There are more powerful 1.9 litre models available with a choice of 120bhp or 150bhp tune, but in the interests of the majority of "fleet" drivers this 100bhp car is most representative of the cars that will sell in the greatest numbers. It is however the statistic that most buyers will not even notice which should be the most telling here though - 177lbs ft of torque at a very useable 2300rpm. On the road this should translate to a rapid and flexible performance with very quiet motorway cruising and excellent fuel economy. Stick around for the ride then.
This one looked particularly attractive finished in glossy black paint. Apart from the body embellishments, in Sxi trim it has a firmer suspension set up than the regular Astra. At around 1350kg unladen, this is a heavy, modern car so 100bhp, it is not going to give it brilliant performance away from the traffic lights, although as already mentioned that 177lbs ft torque should prove very useful.
Let us take to the driver's seat and find out.
Firstly before you can give of your best as a driver, or come to that obtain the best from a car you need to find a comfortable driving position. For me this has always been a Ford v Vauxhall thing, in a Ford, any Ford, I sit down set the seat to the right leg length and am immediately comfortable. In Vauxhall, any Vauxhall this has never been the case. I know this because I have in the past owned 6 Fords and 8 Vauxhalls. Each Vauxhall I have had I have fiddled and fiddled with the seating position and never ended up 100% comfortable. Incidentally, in my current car, a Honda Accord, I got into it the day it came, adjusted the seat and drove away, perfectly comfortable, never touched the seat controls in 32,000 miles!
It still took me by surprise to discover that for me at least, finding the perfect driving position in the Astra just was not possible. The seat adjusts in all the usual directions, the steering wheel too. For whatever reason, for my taste GM are incapable of designing the correct driving position. One plus point here though, unlike in the current Vectra, you do not suffer the sensation of peering over the edge of a cliff top (the dash board) when you drive it.
Remembering here, that the last car I had driven was the £8000 (top of the range) Fiat Panda, we were not making unfair comparisons when starting out on drive in the Astra. Accompanying me was my Polish wife, who had only one complaint about the Panda, that due purely and only to its size she did not feel safe in it. She is a new model Astra "fan" and had been looking forward to an exhilarating ride in the car on the test tracks at Millbrook.
Obviously inside this is a spacious car, made to look less so in the Sxi with its "sporty" dark trim treatment. However she immediately shared my reservation over the seat comfort and seating position. She preferred the visibility from the panda too, a bad omen.
In fact the engine and styling of this car turned out to be the two high points. In comparison to the Fiat Panda, on the move, the Astra definitely felt less comfortable as far as the driving position was concerned; on the slow run out to the hill course amazingly the ride was less compliant too.
Start throwing the Astra into the corners and although the ride is firm to the point of jarring, thanks to the sudden steering the car feels twitchy and ill at ease. I have found this before with other Vauxhall's fitted with electric power steering systems, the Corsa is particularly afflicted with it, especially the more powerful ones further up the range.
The new engine is excellent, most un-diesel like, flexible quiet and once rolling fast too. However, it took less than the first couple of corners to decide that I did not like the new Astra, a great pity as it looks so good.
There was worse to come.
After driving the "Alpine" course with its severe gradients and hairpin bends, a telling test for any car, you then get the chance to drive in complete safety at 100mph on the banked oval track. Out on this high speed bowl we did not get up to 100mph, this car felt quite unstable above 80mph, yes the rain was falling and yes there was a high cross wind, but in the Panda I had felt quite confident with my foot buried in the carpet for two laps. In the Astra, a car capable of probably around 120mph flat out, the second lap was abandoned.
In those same dreadful weather conditions we drove a total of 14 different and very diverse cars last year. Of all the cars driven, the Astra was the one in which both of us felt the least safe. If you do not feel safe driving a car then you are not going to enjoy driving it.
Our question at the end of each drive, no matter how big or small the car is always the same: "Would we drive the 2500 mile round trip to Poland in one of these?"
Regrettably my answer was that I would not want to drive home to the south coast from Bedfordshire in this particular car.
It is always a great pity and dissapointment when a car (or anything else in life come to that!) looks so good and then fails to uphold the promises made by its appearance.
Summing up, a great looking car, suffering from poor dynamics. A model that is overwhelmed by far superior opposition. Save a fortune and buy a nearly new second hand (last model) Ford Focus TDCi, it is a vastly superior all-rounder.