Vauxhall now has a competitive hatchback
Strange how perceptions change. The current Vauxhall Astra seemed a daring and futuristic-looking car on its 2004 launch. But I have now seen it parked next to the new one, to be built in the UK and on sale from about £20,000 in the autumn, and suddenly the old one looks very dated.
Vauxhall, or really Opel given that the cars are designed in Germany and mostly engineered there, is caught between feelings of euphoria over its new Insignia (Car of the Year and imbued with a credible feeling of "premiumness") and of apprehension (cast adrift from its bankrupt US parent and seeking a stable partner). But the new Astra embodies all the good vibes that GM Europe, as it is still called, can muster. Its lead factory is the UK one at Ellesmere Port, and it brings some of the Insignia's aura of quality and sophistication to the mainstream hatchback class in a way an Astra has not quite managed before.
This is a good-looking car, its shape and detailing masterminded by British design director Mark Adams. Maybe the nose is a little meek, its grille deliberately downplayed compared with the Insignia's splash of nasal bling, but the overall shape is a tidy piece of curvy muscularity which gives the Astra an air of solidity and motion. That's not a quote from the designer, by the way.
The upper curve of the side window line leads into the shape of the rear window, giving the impression of a racy coupé even before the racier three-door version is revealed. Yet the new Astra has excellent rear headroom and legroom, both equal to or better than those found in the larger Insignia. Which makes you wonder at the need for the grander Vauxhall when the Astra does as good a job of moving people. Part of the reason is that the new Astra is longer and wider than the old one, even though we really don't want cars to get any wider. But the space goes well with the cool curves of the interior and the promising feeling of quality in the fabrics and plastics.
Much of the switchgear and instrumentation is shared with the Insignia, including dials whose markings change from white to red when the FlexDrive adaptive suspension damping's Sport mode is selected, creating your very own red mist. There's also some neat background lighting around the gear lever's console, adjacent to the new electric parking brake which was far from dependable on the very early test car I drove. It will be fixed.
This new Astra has little quarterlight windows ahead of the front doors, a visual device used when the base of the windscreen is pulled forward to disguise a nose itself extended for pedestrian safety legislation, and their pillars incorporate side window demisting vents. This makes them thick and quite obstructive.
But that's a detail. Far more significant is what has gone on under the skin, within the new Delta platform to be used in varying degrees of sophistication across GM's worldwide compact car ranges. The Astra gets the sophisticated version, in which the versatile, cheap-to-make but compromised rear suspension known as a torsion beam (as fitted to all Astras since 1979) gains a Watt's linkage to anchor the aft ends of the suspension arms.
It stops the arms from bending laterally, this improved location allowing softer mountings for the whole assembly, to the benefit of comfort and quietness, while locating the wheels nearly as precisely as the expensive multi-link arrangement of a Ford Focus or a VW Golf. It's more compact, too, so the boot is bigger.
And it works very well. After experiencing the refined ride, crisp steering and generally fluent demeanour of the new Astra, I tried a previous one and remembered its choppiness, its clunks over bumps, the lack of grip at the front and the anaesthetised steering. The new car's steering, an electrically assisted system, isn't the last word in transparency either, but it's much more consistent in its response.
The car I tried had the 1.6-litre, 180bhp turbo engine, smooth and punchy and lacking the former gruffness. The Astra, so fitted, will be an expensive and sportingly presented one, initially topping the range in an admirable bout of engine downsizing. We'll sample the cheaper Astras with gentler petrol and diesel engines when the range is launched, but this first encounter hints at a car able to compete with a Focus or a Golf more convincingly than ever before.
Ford Focus 2.0 Zetec S: £18,795
Less power and arguably less handsome than the Astra but a sharper machine. Historically best-in-class but Astra may end the dominance.
Mazda 3 2.0 Sport: £18,025
New nose job, quieter suspension, nicer cabin and improved engines. Shares genes with the Focus, offers similar driving at a lower price.
VW Golf 1.4 TSI 160 GT: £19,185
Downsized engine with both supercharger and turbocharger, which feels feisty and is very efficient. Well made, looks good, oozes quality.