REVIEW DATE: 19 Oct 2009
Can Vauxhall's latest Astra steal a march on its rivals in CDTi diesel guise? Steve Walker reports
The Vauxhall Astra is a fine example of the modern family hatch and its running costs are at their most affordable in the CDTi diesel models. The car rides and handles with genuine composure and the engines churn out a smooth flow of power once they're on song. A vibrant and solidly built cabin adds to the Astra experience and there's enough space to tick most of the practicality boxes.
Some cars have more to live up to than others and the Vauxhall Astra is one that's saddled with particularly high expectations. The sixth generation model in Vauxhall's Astra line has been designed to push on from where the fifth left off. That means competing at the very top of the family hatchback class, preferably administering a sound thrashing to the mighty Ford Focus in the process. If the full scale of this ambition is to be realised and the Astra is to sweep all before it in the hatchback arena, it will need to be very good indeed and so will its diesel engines.
Diesel is very much where it's at for cars like the Astra at the moment. The low cost, long distance potential of oil-burning cars makes them a perfect fit with the mile-munching fleet and business users that account for the lion's chunk of sales in this market. It's not a bad shout for private buyers either. The Astra has nothing particularly groundbreaking in its engine-bay to excite diesel aficionados because its oil-burning engines have been seen before in the previous generation Astra. All are solid units, however, and the Astra's designers are banking on other aspects of the car's make-up to move the game forward.
Diesel Astras come with advanced common-rail fuel injection engines featuring variable geometry turbocharging, exhaust gas recirculation and all that jazz. The 1.7-litre engine comes in 109 and 123bhp forms, while the big hitting 2.0-litre unit has 158bhp to play with. There's plenty of torque on tap in all cases, the 109bhp unit producing 260Nm at 1,800rpm and the 2.0-litre chipping in with an excellent 350Nm from 1,750rpm.
None of the engines are particularly smooth-sounding but the volume is well muted in the Astra. The 1.7-litre units do take a second to respond if you catch them at low revs before the turbo has stirred itself. Once up and running they produce a smooth flow of power. Straight line performance is strong: the 2.0-litre engine can reach 60mph in 8.5s while the 1.7 109bhp takes a reasonable 11.8s to do the same.
"Vauxhall wanted the Astra to feel special from the driver's seat"
Vauxhall is putting its faith in a bit of engineering ingenuity to gain an advantage on the road. In the past, the Astra has used a basic but space efficient torsen beam rear suspension while family hatch rivals have used a smarter multi-link system and walked off with the ride and handling gongs. With this Astra, Vauxhall has developed the patented Compound-Crank rear axle with a Watt's linkage that, it claims, can match the dynamic attributes of multi-link while retaining the compactness of the crude torsen beam. Does it work?
Put the Astra through its paces on the road and it's hard not to come away impressed. The ride and body control are assured and tight respectively as the car flows over the surface feeling well planted through bends. The steering is something of a let down by comparison and could be more precise but a slick gearshift and well-judged pedal weights go in the plus column. Generally, the Astra is a highly polished drive.
With five doors, the Astra isn't what you would call dramatic to look at but it's easy to appreciate its sharp, sculptural lines and they tend to grown on you as you take in the bodywork's nuances. Crisp, gently curving lines run across the flat surfaces and those familiar with the MkV Astra will notice the roofline dropping away at the rear along with the more muscular shoulders. The rear light clusters are a particularly neat touch with their chevron motifs.
Vauxhall wanted the Astra to feel special from the driver's seat and by family hatchback standards, it does. Switchgear lifted from the larger Insignia is very much in evidence from the steering column to the over-buttoned main console. There are some nice design touches such as the way the dash swoops around to integrate with the doors and door pulls themselves. The use of light is clever with soft red illumination seeping out of the gap around the base of the gear lever and the red laser pointers that shine from the tip of the needles in the stylish instrument cluster.
There are numerous storage options around the cabin and large vents built into the A-pillars that do a great job of demisting the side windows. The control interface is greatly improved over the last Astra and those awful one-touch indicators are gone. Hooray.
It's no surprise that at 4420mm, the Astra is 170mm longer than its predecessor because most hatchbacks have been expanding with each new generation for some time now. 71mm of that extra length has gone into the wheelbase in a bid to improve rear passenger accommodation and the results are good with plenty of space for a couple of six-footers in the back so long as the front seats aren't right back on their runners. There's even an abundance of headroom back there, despite the car's plunging roofline. In the boot, a 370-litre capacity reveals itself which isn't enormous for the class but higher spec models get a neat FlexFloor underfloor compartment that improves matters.
The trim levels range for the Astra opens with the S models and that's followed by the Exclusiv. Even the basic models get a CD stereo with MP3 compatibility and an AUX socket, electric heated mirrors, remote central locking, a rake and reach adjustable steering wheel and a 60:40 split rear bench. For the fetching ambient lighting, you'll need to stretch to the Exclusiv. Above this level, there's the choice of going sporty with an SRi or taking a more luxurious route with the SE or, ultimately, the Elite. Only the 109bhp 1.7-litre diesel is offered with the S and Exclusiv trim levels and that engine can't be specified with an Elite but otherwise, there's a lot of mix and match potential. The 2.0-litre oil-burner is available with a smooth six-speed automatic and the FlexRide adaptive suspension is an option on the higher spec cars.
Fuel economy for the 1.7-litre diesel models is the same no matter which power output you choose and at 60mpg on the combined cycle, these units are certain to be popular with company car drivers. Interestingly, the 2.0-litre diesel is only fractionally thirstier with 57.6mpg but the automatic gearbox option sees that figure tumble to under 48mpg. CO2 emissions are 124g/km for the 1.7-litre cars and 129g/km for the 2.0.
The Astra is a massive car for Vauxhall, one of the key products that underpins the brand in the UK, and within the Astra range, the diesel models hold similar importance. It would be an unmitigated disaster if the Astra CDTi diesel range didn't come up to snuff but that was never going to be allowed to happen. The diesel engines themselves are steady rather than spectacular but incorporated into the slick operator that is the sixth generation Astra, they take on an extra air of competence.
The latest Astra is larger and of tangibly higher quality than the car that went before it. The elegant, intelligently designed cabin feels special and the driving experience is just as well judged. Those after the last word in family hatch sportiness might prefer a Focus and the Golf retains the edge on quality but its blend of abilities puts Vauxhall's effort is right up where it needs to be.
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