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Driven: Vauxhall Astra 1.6 CDTi. Image by Vauxhall.

Driven: Vauxhall Astra 1.6 CDTi
Vauxhall gets its act together with the excellent Mk7 Astra.

   



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Vauxhall Astra 1.6 CDTi

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5

Good points: sharp handling, decent ride, high refinement levels, superb 1.6 diesel engine, lovely interior.

Not so good: no parking sensors or climate control as standard on high-ranking SRi Nav.

Key Facts

Model tested: Vauxhall Astra SRi Nav 1.6 CDTi 136hp Start/Stop
Price: Astra range from £15,295; SRi Nav 1.6 CDTi £21,480; car as tested £22,870
Engine: 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder diesel
Transmission: front-wheel drive, six-speed manual
Body style: five-door hatchback
CO2 emissions: 103g/km (Band B, £0 VED first 12 months, £20 annually thereafter)
Combined economy: 72.4mpg
Top speed: 127mph
0-62mph: 9.0 seconds
Power: 136hp at 3,500- to 4,000rpm
Torque: 320Nm at 2,000- to 2,250rpm

Our view:

For too long now, it almost seems to have become a national pastime to kick Vauxhall when it's down. OK, so in fairly recent years the company has served up quite a few cars that have been at best underwhelming and at worst some way off prevailing class standards, but actually a lot of its newer products are capable of mixing it with their main rivals. The Corsa and Viva, for example, are fine small cars, while the Mokka is a crossover that is only beaten in the UK sales charts by the Nissan Qashqai.

Further strengthening Vauxhall's case is a recent investment by parent company GM in a new generation of turbocharged engines, resulting in a 1.4-litre petrol introduced with this Mk7 Astra joining the excellent - if clumsily named - 'Whisper Diesel' as tested here. And while we're not about to suggest the company can quite go toe-to-toe with Ford on the well-sorted dynamics front, Vauxhall has at least cut out its cars' tendency to under- and torque-steer seemingly at will.

We suppose what we're saying is that, despite the brand suffering with an image reputation, Vauxhall is capable of making some seriously competitive and likeable machines. And this new Astra looks to be the best of the lot. What a shame, then, that the marketing 'geniuses' given the advertising campaign for this essential hatch have come up with the tame and apologetic 'Yes, it's an Astra' slogan - as if to say, 'yep, we know Vauxhalls have been crap but this one's not too bad'.

That's criminally underselling the new Astra by quite some margin. Externally, it shares a lot with the old Mk6 - in much the same way the new Corsa launched last year was actually a very heavily facelifted version of its predecessor - but for the past five years, Vauxhall hasn't made any ugly cars. And the Astra is a highly attractive machine in a market segment known for conservatism. Its strong face, bold crease lines on its flanks, angular rear light clusters and that neat C-pillar treatment give even mid-spec cars plenty of presence. It might not be quite as striking as the SEAT Leon, Peugeot 308 or Renault Mégane, but we'd certainly say it's more visually appealing than anything Japanese, Korean or German. Or anything from Ford. So, in terms of taking on the big-hitting Focus and Golf, the Astra's already ahead.

While the seventh-gen Astra is hardly radically restyled on the outside, the inside is a different story. Gone, at last, is the atypical Vauxhall interior made up of cheap materials, oversized and cluttered switchgear, and acres and acres of black (or very, very, very dark grey) plastic clothing every surface. Finally, here we have a Griffin cabin to really exult in. Vauxhall has decided not to go with the odd mix of a TFT central display with analogue gauges to either side of it, as found in higher-spec Insignias, instead sticking to a clear, attractive digital information screen and four 'old-school' dials. The typeface used on these is fine, though, so the arrangement works well and doesn't look dated.

Then we have the dashboard itself, which is now enlivened by patches of piano black trim and silver highlights. These make the most of that wing-shaped panel running the width of the Astra's console, while also making the SRi Nav feel like a premium product. The soft-touch plastics on top of the dash and door cards help enormously here and it's a clear sign that Vauxhall has thoroughly benchmarked its competitors in developing the vehicle. The new infotainment system also works well and has some slick graphics, especially when changing through the three view modes for the satnav, and as the touchscreen controls pretty much all on-board functions, the previously button-busy fascia of the Astra is now restrained. Add in a great driving position, comfy sports-style seats and loads of space for both passengers and luggage, and there are no problems with any aesthetic or practical aspect of the Vauxhall.

As an SRi Nav, it sits near the top of the Astra hierarchy and comes with a decent roster of standard kit, including (but not limited to) alloys, front fog lights, a leather-covered steering wheel with audio and cruise control buttons mounted on it, Navi 900 IntelliLink software, rain-sensing wipers and automatic lights, a Sport switch (it sharpens the throttle and weights up the steering; we used it once), LED daytime running lights and Vauxhall's OnStar 'personal connectivity and service assistant'. But we have a few gripes here. Pretty much any C-segment hatchback worth its salt these days comes with rear parking sensors as standard, whereas the SRi Nav doesn't; in fact, they're a cost option on even the top Elite models. And the neat electronic climate control system on our test car is a £395 upgrade, with just regular air conditioning fitted otherwise.

Also, the otherwise absolutely superb sound system - with six speakers - weirdly kept skipping on every track it was playing from our iPod, connected as it was by a cable to the centre armrest USB port. It was only a momentary slip of a few seconds each time, but no other car has ever done this when linked up to the same iPod, so we're not sure whether this is a troubling indicator of electric gremlins or just a one-off.

And that's where our criticism of the Astra ends. Seriously, get over your preconceptions about Vauxhall, because this thing is easily up there with the best-in-class - and, if you want to be patriotic, the best news is that it's the last hatchback from a 'British' brand that's still built on our shores, at Ellesmere Port. So why is it so good? Awful marketing name foisted upon it aside, the 1.6-litre CDTi is a wonderful diesel engine. It doesn't whisper when it's cold, but once the oils are warmed through, you'll be hard pressed to hear it in action, save for if you decide to counter-productively thrash the Astra out to the redline. It also produces some healthy numbers, particularly that 320Nm of torque, and thanks to Vauxhall's dedication to stripping weight out of the Mk7, it bestows the car with a more-than-decent turn of pace. The 0-62mph time tells part of the story, yet the real eye-opener comes when you give it a blast in sixth gear; wait for a 56mph HGV to move out of your way on a dual carriageway and then pin the throttle - you'll be surprised how quickly the Astra darts away from the traffic behind in such situations.

What Vauxhall has done brilliantly by keeping bulk out of the Astra is improve the car in its traditionally weak area, namely road-holding. OK, in wet conditions you can beat the electronic traction control and spin the wheels in first and second if you're brutal with the throttle, while there's a small amount of understeer dialled into the chassis for safety purposes. But for the rest of the time, the Astra is poised, balanced and a doddle to drive quickly. The steering might not be class-leading in terms of feedback, but it's damned good nonetheless, the brakes are fine and the six-speed manual gearbox is a beauty to operate, even if Vauxhall has kept one minor annoyance here: the Astra still has a strange, oblong-shaped shifter.

The net result is that the Astra proves to be a pleasure to thread along back roads, with its superb body control and competent chassis making it easy to hustle, yet it still excels at the Vauxhall pre-requisite of having a brilliant ride. There's also another option we adore, the £995 Intellilux LED Matrix headlights - the sort that can dip parts of their main beam to prevent dazzling oncoming traffic, yet still retain maximum illumination of the environment ahead. These work as well as, or even better than, anything we've tried on big Audi, BMW and Mercedes saloons, let alone run-of-the-mill hatchbacks of this size. Getting an Astra? Buy them.

Do we have any qualms about the Astra at all? Well, tyre noise can get a bit intrusive on occasion, but it is only on occasion, while if you're of a certain age and you're expecting an SRi Astra to be a sports car, you might still be a bit disappointed by this model, as tidy as it is to drive quickly.

Otherwise, this Mk7 is a big improvement on its predecessor, which wasn't a bad car itself. Vauxhall has fully addressed the key areas of vulnerability - the Astra's formerly rubbery handling responses and dull-as-dishwater interior - and yet maintained its former strengths, with the whole package wrapped up in a very handsome body. It's even efficient, with the 103g/km CO2 emissions and 72.4mpg figures easily up with class standards; and, in reality, we actually got pretty close to that economy figure, the powerful CDTi engine returning 61.8mpg on a 168-mile return motorway run and an exceptional 58.5mpg over our 500-mile week behind its wheel. We didn't exactly drive it cautiously, either.

Yep, the days of people lazily lashing out at Vauxhall look like they're drawing to a close. The Astra is one of the very first C-segment cars we'd recommend to private or business users, and if Vauxhall can execute this SRi Nav diesel model so fantastically well, then we're really looking forward to the GTC and VXR derivatives. It's a brilliant five-door hatchback deserving of the highest praise.

Alternatives:

Honda Civic: it's refined and appealing to look at, yet the Honda Civic is anything but cheap. It's also not very exciting to drive in diesel format.

Renault Mégane: striking looks and a decent cabin hide a drive that's unremarkable, plus a dCi 130 Energy costs around £24,000.

Volkswagen Golf: you know it's not cheap. You also know that, as a diesel, it's not exciting to drive in the slightest. And yet you're still thinking it's better than the Astra, aren't you? Well, WHY?!


Matt Robinson - 8 Feb 2016



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2016 Vauxhall Astra. Image by Vauxhall.2016 Vauxhall Astra. Image by Vauxhall.2016 Vauxhall Astra. Image by Vauxhall.2016 Vauxhall Astra. Image by Vauxhall.2016 Vauxhall Astra. Image by Vauxhall.








 

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