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First drive: 2020MY Vauxhall Astra. Image by Vauxhall.

First drive: 2020MY Vauxhall Astra
Unseen changes for the midlife update of the Vauxhall Astra, but they’re all very, very good ones.

   



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Vauxhall Astra 1.2 Elite Nav

4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5 4.5

Vauxhall puts the seventh-generation Astra 'K' through its midlife update. Are you squinting at the pictures and wondering what has changed? Well, visually, nothing; the interior is slightly tousled, but otherwise it's as-you-were from the 2015 launch material. But a quite serious programme of technical improvements has been made and the result is that one of the best C-segment hatchbacks has gone pretty much to the top of the class.

Test Car Specifications

Model tested: Vauxhall Astra 1.2 Turbo 145 Elite Nav manual
Pricing: Astra range from £18,885; 1.2 Turbo Elite Nav from £23,955, car as tested £26,210
Engine: 1.2-litre turbocharged three-cylinder petrol
Transmission: front-wheel drive, six-speed manual
Body style: five-door hatchback
CO2 emissions: 99g/km (NEDC-correlated)
Combined economy: 51.4-54.3mpg (VED Band 91-100: £130 first 12 months, then £145 annually thereafter)
Top speed: 137mph
0-62mph: 8.8 seconds
Power: 145hp at 5,500rpm
Torque: 225Nm at 2,000-3,500rpm
Boot space: 370-1,210 litres

What's this?

One of the most important nameplates in UK motoring history. And a car celebrating its 40th birthday to rather muted celebrations, considering in how grandiose a fashion some other cars tick off their 30th, 40th, 50th and even 60th anniversaries. Yes, through four decades and seven generations, the Vauxhall Astra has been a mainstay of the British motoring landscape from start to, well, now. And with 2019 drawing to a conclusion, it's time for a refreshed Astra 'K' to make an appearance.

Although its appearance hasn't been changed. Last year, Vauxhall sold more than 30,000 Astras in the UK, making it the company's second best-selling model behind the Corsa but ahead of supposedly in-demand crossovers like the Crossland X and Grandland X. Apparently, one of the key drivers of Astra sales is its appearance, as customers like the way the Mk7 looks, and so Vauxhall felt it didn't need changing as part of the midlife refreshments. We'd agree with this decision because we've always liked this car's clean, fuss-free yet appealing styling.

Inside, there's lots of newness, although the architecture remains the same. Vauxhall cites new infotainment, a new console, new decors, new trims, new features and new displays, but in reality it's the same attractive if sombre 'wing design' dash, a decent central touchscreen, quite a lot of buttons (but in an increasingly digital-fatigued age, maybe that's not such a bad thing) and instrument clusters which vary between acceptably tidy analogue dials and that weird red-orange LCD information panel that Vauxhalls seem to have had since 1997, or the slightly clunky 'centre TFT flanked by analogue half-gauges'. We reckon if the Astra just went full TFT in the cluster, it'd convey a slightly grander air to its driver all the time.

So nothing much appears to have changed. But the updates are all technical. First, the latest Astra Mk7 has overhauled suspension - the springs, dampers and bushes have all been replaced with new kit designed to improve the ride and handling. Second, there's now an active air flap behind the grille and a smoothed-off undertray running the length of the car, with these enacting quite dramatic drops in aerodynamic drag: the hatch slithers from 0.29 to 0.26Cd, while the Sports Tourer estate now slips through the air with a 0.255Cd factor, compared to 0.285Cd previously. And third, Vauxhall has junked ALL of the old engines and replaced them with three new turbocharged motors. Which are all, to a, er, unit, three-cylinder powerplants.

There's a 1.2-litre petrol, a 1.4-litre petrol (which is actually a 1.3, as its swept capacity is 1,342cc) and a 1.5-litre diesel. All except the 1.4-that's-really-a-1.3 are mated to six-speed manual gearboxes, with the diesel getting a new transmission in the form of a nine-speed automatic. The 1.3-masquerading-as-a-1.4, meanwhile, gets what's known as the Stepless Auto... and that means it's a CVT. However, it mimics seven gears and, in practice, it's another CVT that we've sampled in recent months which we actually quite like. Mated to the torquey 1.4, this is an excellent new Astra if you need a two-pedal derivative and yet you're worried about buying a diesel (quick review: the 1.5 diesel is fabulous with either the 6MT or 9AT).

However, if you might permit us to don our deerstalker, pop a tobacco pipe in our mouth and crack open the violin case, we'd like to examine the credentials of the 1.2. Now, Vauxhall is absolutely adamant that all three of these engines were green-lit in the twilight of the GM era and developed by Opel in Russelsheim, and are not - in any way - PSA units. We're prepared to let the 1.35 off, as that doesn't correlate to anything French, and even the 1.5 turbodiesel is off the hook because it has three cylinders, whereas PSA's 1.5 derv-drinker is a four-pot motor. Although, even here, the tinfoil-hatted conspiracy theorist in us remembers PSA and BMW worked together on engines before, and BMW has a 1.5-litre three-cylinder diesel called the B37 which has exactly the same capacity, roughly the same outputs (95- or 116hp, compared to the Astra's 105- and 122hp figures) and, and... but we digress.

However, where the teacher in us (we've moved away from the Sherlock Holmes analogy, apparently) would be hauling PSA and Opel/Vauxhall into the office for a talk about the moralities of 'plagiarism' is with this 1.2, which has 1,199cc. This trim, with 145hp and 225Nm, is not one we've seen before. But this petrol is also offered with 110hp and 195Nm, those figures being delivered at either exactly the same or very similar rev points as the 1,199cc, 110hp/205Nm unit in a Citroen C3 Aircross, for example. And it also makes 130hp at 5,500rpm and 225Nm from 2,000-3,500rpm in another application for the Astra, which is eerily reminiscent of the PSA motor with 130hp at 5,500rpm and 230Nm from 1,750rpm; find this one in something like a Peugeot 3008. Of course, this could just be an astonishing coincidence, that GM was already working on near-identical-to-a-tee engines as PSA swooped in to buy the company, but... well. We'll leave it to you to decide.

How does it drive?

All this blustering above about the provenance of the 1.2 is only because it's about the one thing that irks us regarding the 2020MY Astra K. Look, you only have to read our reviews of the pre-facelift models to know that we have always rated this car highly in the class, but automotive critical ratings are rather like radioactive material; they have a kind of half-life, which slowly erodes the numbers as rival manufacturers come up with new competitor products with more advanced tech.

So if the Mk7 Astra was among the leading pack when it launched in 2015, maybe by 2018 it had slipped off the pace a bit, thanks to its mediocre infotainment, engines which were behind the curve for economy, CO2 emissions and general refinement, and a pervading sense of the Astra's chassis being outmanoeuvred by rivals. Well, Vauxhall has addressed all of these factors. These new engines are cleaner and more frugal across the board, by up to 21 per cent in the case of the diesel; so much so that Vauxhall reckons the Astra will save more than £1,000 in benefit-in-kind tax for company car users across its whole life, while similarly reducing overall costs by £2,000 for private buyers in the same period.

They're also, no matter who built or developed them, all little gems - and this 145hp 1.2 might well be the pick of the lot. It's velvet-smooth, ultra-quiet, and low-down flexible, mid-range grunty and top-end lively in equal measure. There doesn't seem to be anywhere on the rev counter where you find it wanting for response nor refinement, while it feels a lot stronger for straight-line go than its sub-150hp headline figure would suggest. Coupled to a lovely, light-of-throw six-speed manual, this is a perfect exponent of how downsizing can be fantastic when it works well: this tiny three-cylinder 1.2 is as brawny, as capable and as desirable as a 2.0-litre motor in a family car used to be ten years ago.

Nevertheless, the true delight of this update is the ride and handling. The Astra Mk7 was always good at these disciplines, mainly because it's 200kg trimmer than an Astra Mk6, but there's no doubting things have stepped up several notches now. This high-spec Elite Nav model on 17-inch wheels has a graceful fluidity to the way it smothers lumps and bumps in tarmac; and yet, even when you're focusing on the supreme ride quality and exceptional comfort on straight bits of road, you're aware the body control feels tautly reined-in. So you chuck the Astra 1.2 into corners and it's a bloody delight. We found this in all models we drove during the test day (four, in total), so it's not a feature which is dependent on you picking the 'right' version in the range; therefore, if you opt for an Astra then you'll revel in a rear axle which is communicative and lively, a surprising level of feel coming back through what is, if we're honest, very light steering, and a brilliant suppression of excessive vertical movements of the shell during big mid-bend compressions. Put it this way, Vauxhall laid on some superb driving routes in mid-Leicestershire (try the B664 for size) and not once did we lament the fact we were in a 'cooking' Astra instead of something else comparable.

It's excellent everywhere else, of course. Potters through towns in a most docile and civil fashion. Lopes effortlessly along open roads as if it were a car with a wheelbase a good 300mm longer than its actual 2,662mm measurement. Provides its driver with a beautifully judged set of major controls to make it easy and accurate to manoeuvre through congested urban areas, as sweetly as it will ping at the apex of a given corner. And improved aerodynamics don't just help fuel economy, they reduce wind noise and generally boost the refinement levels of the car. Seriously, this Astra K might look the same as before, but it feels almost all-new in terms of the way it drives.

Verdict

A blinding set of carefully chosen updates for the Vauxhall Astra propel it, in our mind, to the top or very near the top of its class right now. With some key rivals awaiting all-new models, and other, newer alternatives not driving as sweetly as this, about the only things the Astra falls down on are its restrained interior, its lack of more engine choice in the line-up and some digital displays which don't quite resemble cutting edge. But what you have here is a car which excels at the mundane day-to-day stuff, while similarly boasting one of the best 'normal' chassis we've encountered in this class for years. It can handle more power. It needs more power. Come on, Vauxhall, let's have an Astra GSi. Better still, resurrect the VXR. Because there are few hatchbacks more deserving of a halo model than this excellent, updated Astra K.



Matt Robinson - 30 Aug 2019



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2019 Vauxhall Astra 1.2 Elite Nav. Image by Vauxhall.2019 Vauxhall Astra 1.2 Elite Nav. Image by Vauxhall.2019 Vauxhall Astra 1.2 Elite Nav. Image by Vauxhall.2019 Vauxhall Astra 1.2 Elite Nav. Image by Vauxhall.2019 Vauxhall Astra 1.2 Elite Nav. Image by Vauxhall.

2019 Vauxhall Astra 1.2 Elite Nav. Image by Vauxhall.2019 Vauxhall Astra 1.2 Elite Nav. Image by Vauxhall.2019 Vauxhall Astra 1.2 Elite Nav. Image by Vauxhall.2019 Vauxhall Astra 1.2 Elite Nav. Image by Vauxhall.2019 Vauxhall Astra 1.2 Elite Nav. Image by Vauxhall.








 

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