REVIEW DATE: 17 May 2007
Vauxhall's Astra 1.6 Twinport Range Brings Big Car Quality To The Mainstream Hatch Sector. Andy Enright Reports.
We are a spoiled bunch. Vauxhall Astras weren't ever supposed to feel like premium products. The designers of the first Astras never envisaged their antecedents to offer syrupy ride quality, sharp handling, more computing power than a space shuttle and the sort of quality that was the preserve of luxury cars. Yet that is how things have turned out. Roll up to your local Vauxhall dealer, park yourself in even the humblest Astra 1.6-litre model and cast your mind back to the bad old days.
Those were the days of plastics that were budgeted to be so thin they were only just opaque, safety provision that consisted of inertia reel seat belts and a horn and a range of engines that had corporate bean counters rubbing their hands in glee but company car drivers considering the merits of a bicycle. The latest Astra 1.6 range still makes the sort of numbers to have fleet managers sleeping easy at night but backs it up with a breadth of talents that will appeal not only to Simpkins in Field Sales but also to the sort of private buyers who normally opt for something with a Volkswagen badge on the bonnet.
With prices ranging from £13,565 for the entry level Life variant up to £16,465 to land the range-topping Elite version, the Astra 1.6-litre is priced to sell. Between these bookends sit the Club, Design and vaguely sporting SXi variants, although those looking for a little more fun behind the wheel should really shell out for the 1.6-litre turbocharged engine with its 178bhp output - if, that is, they can't extend themselves to the mighty 240bhp VXR. Only the SXi, Design, SRi and VXR trim levels are offered with the sleek Sport Hatch three-door bodystyle. Equipment levels are strong, the Life being fitted with twin front and side airbags, ABS, remote central locking, a CD stereo and air-conditioning. Opt for the Club and you'll also get 15-inch alloy wheels, curtain airbags, body coloured addenda and audio controls on the steering wheel amongst other niceties.
"This Astra will need to appeal to the sort of private buyers who normally opt for something with a Volkswagen badge on the bonnet"
The Design variant gets treated to alloy wheels an inch bigger, sports front seats with leather bolsters and hide trim on the steering wheel, an MP3 compatible stereo and sophisticated electronic functions such as rain sensitive wipers and a Driver Info Centre with trip computer. Quite a step up in trim for the ardent button presser! The Elite model is fully leathered, gets electric folding door mirrors, cruise control, a rather interesting 40/20/40 split folding rear seat and electronic climate control. As befits its sporting nature, the SXi features lowered suspension, sports seats, sports instruments, front fog lights and a matt chromed centre console.
With 115bhp on tap, you're not going to detach your retinas through sheer acceleration in an Astra 1.6-litre hatch, but there's enough pep there to entertain. The sprint to 60mph is dispatched in 10.9 seconds and a top speed of 119mph is attainable if you have an airfield or can plead diplomatic immunity from prosecution. More apposite figures are the 43.5mpg overall fuel consumption figure and the meagre 158g/km of CO2 that's emitted from the tailpipe every kilometre.
One thing that Vauxhall trust will be immediately apparent is the Astra's ride quality courtesy of an advanced suspension system. It was the first car in its class to feature Continuous Damping Control (CDC), electronically controlled shock absorbers that continuously adapt to the road surface and the driver's style. It's all part of what Vauxhall dub the Astra's 'Interactive Driving System' (IDS) that can integrate all of the electronic functions in a way that's a good deal cleverer that you might think. For example, the ESP stability control system beefs up the damper forces first before applying the brakes to the front wheels during extreme cornering manoeuvres making for a more sensitive and less intrusive intervention.
Upspec models also feature a 'Sport' button so that the suspension settings, accelerator and steering response can easily be adapted to the mood of a driver. It's something we've become used to on premium sports cars but not on a family hatchback. Despite all of these high tech touches, the Astra still uses a relatively simple beam axle at the back instead of the sophisticated multi-link layouts used by Volkswagen and Ford. Whilst GM executives contend that this system provides good handling while transmitting less noise into the cabin, the more powerful Astra variants do show up flaws in this logic.
Clever packaging and a long wheelbase have helped to maximise the Astra's interior space, helped in no small part by the fact that the exterior tale of the tape shows the Astra is one of the biggest cars in its class. That sloping roofline looks as if it'll pinch rear headroom but look a little closer and you'll notice the sloping line that catches the eye is but a chamfer and the actual roofline arcs higher. Rear headroom is in fact better than the outgoing car and legroom and shoulder room is in another league. A Vauxhall spokesman claimed that the interior of the new Astra fitted like a glove, but as few people we know are shaped like hands, this would seem to present certain problems. Not so. Big doors and surprisingly upright side windows give an airy feel to the interior, although anybody familiar with the look and feel of the Vectra's cabin won't find much to excite them with the Astra's fascia.
The Astra 1.6-litre range has a lot going for it. Superior build quality, neat design, a no-nonsense powerplant, keen pricing and excellent vehicle dynamics all come to the fore. What's most surprising about the Astra is the fact that it's now a car so good that private buyers can genuinely take it seriously. With VW Golf style quality at prices around £1,000 cheaper model for model, the Astra deserves to be taken very seriously. It's good to know that being spoiled needn't break the bank.
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