The first Vauxhall Astra launched in 1980, replacing the Viva and Chevette. Although a favourite in the UK, it’s never quite managed to overcome the strength of its competitors, the Golf and Focus. With the seventh generation, Vauxhall has raised the bar to make the Astra a car it believes could be a leader in its class.
We attended the launch at Ellesmere Port and spent a day driving the car to see whether it can stand up to Vauxhall’s bold claims.
There’s no question that Vauxhall’s senior designer Mark Adams has had a dramatic influence on the company’s design language, and indeed the outgoing Astra still looks remarkably modern.
The new Astra gives the impression of having been on a strict diet, with razor-sharp styling, slimmer lights, reduced dimensions and a dynamic stance. The design language is inspired by the 2013 Monza Concept and will continue into new models across the range. The philosophy is based on ‘sculptural artistry meets technical precision’.
The front graphic has been lowered, with the grille now flowing into the headlights. This gives the appearance of a lower and wider car, in spite of its diminished length and width. The side profile features far more defined creases, giving the impression that the bodywork has been shrink-wrapped onto the chassis.
A chrome roof line, rather than wrapping round the rear side window to return to the front as did the previous version, continues almost to the back, forming a ‘breakthrough’ C-pillar and ‘floating’ roof. These give the illusion of increased length and hints of a coupé rather than hatchback.
The only slightly uncomfortable touch is an enormous shark-fin aerial, but we’re assured this is essential for the technology. I do wonder whether it’s more of a boast than an absolute necessity.
Climbing into the car it instantly feels familiar as a Vauxhall but less so as an Astra. Gone is the assault of buttons and ungainly proportions. In their place is stitched leather, piano black trim, chrome edging and smooth curves.
We recently tested an Insignia, which has a similar configuration but this is clearly the next step, being more logical, aesthetic and dare I say almost more premium. Media, climate and car controls are all partitioned into their own areas and fall easily to hand.
Dominating the dash is a seven or eight inch touchscreen with flush face and more chrome edging which looks and feels far superior to anything seen before in an Astra. Smartly integrated between the air vents it’s infinitely preferable to the growing trend of separate units that look like an aftermarket tablet bolted to the top of the dashboard.
The instrument panel is aesthetic, classical and carefully lit. Numerals on the speedo and rev counter are a little reminiscent of those on the original Mini which is no bad thing. This is a British car, designed, tested and built by Brits.
Seats are supportive and comfortable with a wide level of adjustment, and steering has height and reach. Most remarkably, despite the decreased proportions of the car, the interior gains space over the outgoing model with 35mm more legroom in the back.
I’m 6’3” and would be perfectly happy to take a long trip riding pillion. Although of course I’d rather be driving.
We tested two cars, both with all-new engines, the SRI NAV 1.4i 150PS Turbo petrol and the Elite Nav 1.6CDTi 136PS Stop/Start Whisper diesel.
Setting off from Liverpool in the diesel we headed out across North Wales, soaking up some legendary test routes. In fact these very roads were used when refining the Astra’s dynamics, so if it’s not at home here, something is seriously amiss.
Driving in town the engine is as quiet as its moniker suggests. The car feels genuinely refined and confident, everything falls to hand, steering weight is good and the gear change is precise. Speed bumps and potholes are soaked up by the suspension and the turbo spins up quickly when a boost of power is called for.
As we head into Wales and reach the Denbigh Moors the roads become far more demanding and the real tests begin.
Pushing the car further than it’s likely to be driven from day to day, it behaves impeccably. These roads give the car a real chance to shine – on hilly bends it’s effortless to set the car up for a tight bend with progressive braking into the corner, precise turn-in and punchy acceleration out the other side.
As diesels go this is an extremely likeable engine with good torque, impressively quiet operation and a lack of harshness until pushed to the absolute limits.
Road and wind noise are also minimal. Close attention has been paid to reducing these at source rather than adding unnecessary soundproofing to the cabin. Prevention is always better than cure and weighs less too.
Naturally the petrol engine is far livelier than the diesel as one would expect. Dynamically the chassis has been engineered to feel identical to the diesel. Its turbo compensates to some extent for the comparative lack of torque and the revvy engine instantly alludes far more to a driver’s car.
The performance belies the small engine size and the only drawback as one would expect is the economy figures in the high 30s rather than high 50s of the diesel. But then we were pushing the cars hard so in normal driving these would be somewhat higher.
The difference in spec between the SRi and Elite is noticeable, including the addition of leather sports seats with heating front and rear, a heated steering wheel, electric handbrake, dual zone climate control and keyless ignition. Price difference is however comparatively small for the gains, and I’d certainly opt for Elite spec given the choice.
We had the opportunity after our first drive to talk with Horst Bormann, Director of Vehicle Development. He explained that an almost entirely ground-up approach had led the chassis design to achieve the excellent dynamics and substantial losses in weight.
Each component was examined and often replaced with a lighter, more efficient one. Suspension parts formerly shared with larger models are now optimised for the Astra.
The chassis uses new materials to significantly reduce its weight, the engine has an aluminium block, the exhaust is lighter and the aerodynamic design of the underside has removed the need for underbody panelling.
Things begin to spiral – less weight allows for smaller brakes which means smaller wheels and tyres, leading to further weight reduction and reduced production costs. In all between 120 and 200kg has been pared from the weight of the previous model while the price has actually fallen by up to £2,200.
Improvements were made to the car until an unusually late stage in vehicle development. Special permission even had to be sought from management to implement significant last minute modifications to the chassis and handling set-up.
Normally at this stage the car would begin production, and would often not be an optimally developed product due to overriding business constraints. Bormann in part attributes the new Astra’s excellent handling characteristics to this. A huge amount of testing was conducted on UK roads, and the handling is optimised up to 70mph for the UK. Over that speed it finds itself more at home on autobahns.
Vauxhall is becoming noted for its high level of in-car technology, and the Astra takes this to a new level, being one of the highest-specified cars in its segment.
Equipment includes LED matrix headlights, OnStar, an infotainment system with DAB+ radio, Bluetooth, satellite navigation, Apple CarPlay and Android Auto (the latter available from 01/16), Lane Keep Assist, Following Distance Indication and Forward Collision Alert with Collision Imminent Braking.
The IntelliLux LED matrix headlights are a first in the Astra’s segment. Comprising a forward facing camera and a grid of LED lights, the system selectively illuminates areas of the road ahead on main beam while masking areas occupied by other drivers.
We had the opportunity to test them on a night route, and other than the slightly unsettling feeling of driving along with main beam permanently on, it was remarkable to experience and worked both quickly and accurately. Far from being a gimmick it means more of the road is illuminated at all times when main beam is not normally appropriate, offering increased visibility and potentially valuable reaction time in an emergency situation.
OnStar will be rolled out across the Vauxhall range, but is first seen on the new Astra. It enables the car as a 4G LTE Wi-Fi hotspot to which up to seven devices can be concurrently connected. The system contains its own SIM card so is independent from the owner’s phone.
OnStar also provides a call centre which can monitor the vehicle and communicate with passengers in the case of an accident. Passengers can also contact the call centre to ask for emergency assistance or directions which are sent straight to the navigation system.
Additionally the MyVauxhall Smartphone App allows subscribers to contact OnStar from their smartphone, monitor the car remotely or lock and unlock it.
Subscription and unlimited data are free for the first 12 months throughout the UK and Europe, thereafter £79 annually for the subscription, with data fees to be decided during the next year.
This all new Astra is available in seven trim levels ranging from ‘Design’ to ‘Elite Nav’. Four petrol engines and two diesel engines will be available, a 100PS, 125PS and 150PS 1.4-litre petrol engine and the 1.0-litre three cylinder engine currently available in the ADAM and Corsa.
Diesels on offer are all 1.6-litre and have power outputs of 110PS and 136PS. It will hit showrooms in October, priced from £15,295 on-the-road, with the Sports Tourer model going on sale in April/May 2016.
The Astra is an enormously likeable car that manages to excel at everything it sets out to achieve. Smaller, lighter, faster, more spacious, more economical and more premium, with handling far beyond its calling and great looks, yet cheaper than the outgoing model, this is a car that has the potential to redefine Vauxhall.
It’s smaller, lighter, faster, more economical and spacious with great handling, better looks and loads of tech. For less money than ever. What’s not to love.
2015 Vauxhall Astra – Upped build quality, great little chassis, honed design, more affordable than ever.