Vauxhall's much improved seventh generation Astra family hatch takes some beating. June Neary checks it out..
Will It Suit Me?
Golf, Focus, Astra: these are three of the car names that UK motorists know best, primarily because they are attached to three of the cars that UK motorists buy most. They're family hatchbacks and along with the likes of SEAT's Leon, Peugeot's 308, Renault's Megane, Toyota's Auris and quite a few others, they fight it out for sales in one of the most competitive car market sectors there is. The problem for us car buyers is which one to choose and Vauxhall is confident it has the answer in the shape of its latest seventh generation Astra. I've got to admit that the Astra has sometimes left me cold over the years. Yes it was always good value but sometimes you want more. In its recent incarnations, that's what Vauxhall's star performer has started to deliver, this MK7 model being smarter, lighter, cleverer and more efficient than before. It may look similar to the previous version, but don't be deceived: much has changed here. Once merely an ordinary family hatch, this model line is now making some extraordinary claims for your attention if you're in the market for a car of this kind.
At the wheel, the previous forgettable rental car-style cabin is here replaced by a cleaner, simpler, smarter and more interesting design that some premium brands could even learn from. It certainly seems to have been well screwed together by the Ellesmere Port factory near Liverpool. The characteristic fascia element is what Vauxhall refers to as a 'blade'-style panel that stretches right across the cabin trimmed in piano black with a neat chromed edging. From a practicality perspective, this Astra is usefully bigger than most family hatchbacks, 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. That means getting kids and childseats in and out is that much easier. In the boot, a bigger 370-litre capacity reveals itself. If you need more room, then pushing forward the 60:40 split-folding rear bench frees up 1,210-litres, around 200-litres more than Vauxhall's supposedly larger Insignia model. Vauxhall wanted the Astra to feel special from the driver's seat and by family hatchback standards, it does. Dominating the dash is a beautifully integrated Intellilink infotainment touchscreen that comes in 7 or 8-inch sizes, features smartphone-style 'pinch-and-swipe' functionality and better presents a whole range of functions that on the previous model had to be dealt with by rows of complicated little buttons. The screen is compatible with the latest Apple CarPlay and Android Auto systems, via which you can duplicate the functionality of your smartphone handset onto the Intellilink display. My favourite feature on this Astra though, is the one your dealer will be keenest to tell you about - the 'OnStar' personal connectivity and service assistant. This set-up's standard on top SRi and Elite variants, or you can get it as a £400 option lower down the range: either way, I was impressed with the way it makes your motoring life easier and safer. A blue button in the roof behind the rear view mirror connects you to a personal assistant who'll be there 24/7 for just about any journeying query you might have. You simply ask a question - 'where is the McDonalds in the next town?' for example - and you'll get verbal directions or better, if you have sat nav fitted, there'll be an instant destination download straight to your car. OnStar also turns your Astra into a 4G LTE wi-fi hotspot. And, more importantly, it'll automatically call the emergency services with your GPS location if the airbags deploy. The system also includes a vehicle tracking system that can automatically disable the car if someone steals it, then pinpoint its location. Should such a theft take place, you simply contact OnStar using a downloadable 'MyVauxhall' smartphone app that if necessary, you can also use to access important vehicle data and remotely lock or unlock your car. For me, this whole set-up's a major Astra selling point.
Behind the Wheel
Put the Astra through its paces on the road and it's hard not to come away impressed. Reducing this seventh generation model's weight by up to 200kgs has had a significant effect on the way this car drives. It's still no Ford Focus but it now soaks up bumps better and turns into the bends more easily, aided by a stiffer chassis and torque vectoring that helps with cornering traction. As before, this Vauxhall does without the kind of independent rear suspension system you'd find on a rival Ford Focus, instead favouring a neat Watts linkage system that claims to reduce sideways motion between the axle and the body of the car as you go through the corners. Under the bonnet, those in search of petrol power have an up-to the-minute range of options. We'd suggest you bypass the most affordable 100PS 1.4-litre engine in favour of the lighter, more responsive and much more efficient 105PS 1.0-litre ECOTEC turbo three cylinder unit. If you need more power, there are a couple of 1.4-litre Turbo powerplants offering 125 or 150PS, plus a top 200PS 1.6 Turbo option. Diesel drivers get Vauxhall's refined 1.6-litre CDTi 'whisper diesel' unit with a choice of three power outputs - 110, 136 or 160PS. The 110PS ecoFLEX variant delivers class-leading efficiency figures - 91.2mpg on the combined cycle and 82g/km of CO2.
Value For Money
List prices have been adjusted for a little extra affordability this time round and that means you'll be paying from just over £15,000 to around £24,000 for mainstream versions of this Astra. The range is based around this five-door hatchback bodystyle, but if you want a bit more versatility, then there's the option of finding a price premium of around £1,000 for the Sports Tourer estate version. From launch, hatch and estate derivatives are being sold alongside the pretty Astra GTC coupe, but that car remains based on the previous sixth generation Astra model. At the affordable end of the petrol line-up, it's well worth trying to find the £700 premium Vauxhall asks to graduate from the entry-level 1.4-litre 100PS unit to the far more responsive and efficient three cylinder 1.0-litre powerplant. Want a diesel? Well there are no duffers in the Astra black pump line-up any more - even the base 110PS 1.6-litre CDTi unit (priced from around £17,000) is impressive. Most buyers though, pay the necessary premium (around £700) to get themselves this engine in pokier 136PS guise - the variant I tried. Conventional automatic transmission is only available on the 150PS 1.4-litre petrol Turbo model or the 136PS version of the 1.6-litre CDTi diesel - for a premium of around £1,300 over the manual variant. However, at the bottom of the range, you can get a simpler 'Easytronic' set-up - essentially a manual gearbox without a clutch - on the 1.0-litre petrol engine for a premium of just £400.
Could I Live With One?
If you were slightly put off the Vauxhall Astra by the dull but worth versions of a few years back, it's definitely time to reacquaint yourself with this famous family hatch. The sixth generation Astra impressed and this smarter seventh generation car is a big stride forwards again. It's not as sharp as a Focus to drive, but to be frank, I don't really care about that and I don't think many other family hatch buyers will either. More relevant is the fact that in terms of comfort and refinement, this Vauxhall is now just about at the head of this highly competitive class. Plus the OnStar connectivity system simplifies your motoring life. In short, there's not much not to like.